Before President Donald Trump flouted longstanding tradition by choosing Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first foreign visit as president, where he was lavished with gifts and reportedly struck a record-setting arms deal with the kingdom (after his administration called the CEO of Lockheed Martin to get a cheaper deal for the Saudis); before he took part in the male-only sword dance in Riyadh; before he ramped up support for the widely criticized Saudi-led war in Yemen; before he undermined his own secretary of State’s position by siding with the Saudis in their alarming diplomatic row with the Qataris—before any of this, Trump actually castigated Saudi Arabia.
In fact, candidate Trump went as far as saying—twice in one day, in February of 2016—that Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 attacks. During the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump admonished the Clinton Foundation for receiving contributions from the Saudis, saying, “These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money.”
Since then, Trump has allowed more than a billion dollars worth of arms to be delivered to Saudi Arabia, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census Bureau export data conducted by The Daily Beast. In the first eight months of 2017, a total of $1.56 billion worth of arms have been delivered from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia; during this period, the U.S. has more than doubled its bombs, missiles, and ammunition deliveries to Saudi Arabia, and nearly doubled the deliveries of armored fighting vehicles like the M1 tank, when compared with the first eight months of 2016, under the Obama administration.
In addition, The Daily Beast found that the Trump administration has shipped Saudi Arabia $561 million in bombs and missiles, $503 million in armored fighting vehicles and parts, and $552 million in parts to maintain military aircraft like Apache gunships, Blackhawk helicopters, and F15 jets for use in their disastrous war in Yemen. The total value of arms delivered to Saudi in 2017 represents a $70 million increase compared with the same eight-month period in 2016.
Arms monitoring experts are critical of the arms increase for a variety of reasons, perhaps chief among them the humanitarian crisis ravaging Yemen. Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, told The Daily Beast, “The United States should not be sending more weapons into an unwinnable conflict and into the hands of a country that uses U.S. weapons against civilian targets. Instead, the Trump administration should use its influence to find a political solution to the disastrous war in Yemen, which has led to a massive humanitarian crisis.”
More than 10,000 civilians have been killed in the war and 40,000 more have been wounded. The majority of these casualties have come as a result of Saudi coalition air strikes. The Saudi-led war has pushed Yemen, already poor, into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 19 million people—80 percent of the population—require some form of humanitarian assistance.
Another arms analyst, Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, told The Daily Beast, “There have been a lot of concerns about the Trump administration’s big weapons push. The big concerns have been removing some of the Obama administration’s restrictions on arms sales, like precision guided munitions for Saudi Arabia.
“Overall we’re concerned that the Trump administration is lowering the bar and reducing the reviews and restrictions based on human rights. This is most clear in the sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.”
Trump’s decision to relax Obama’s restrictions on arms sales comes as Yemen suffers the largest and fastest growing cholera epidemic ever recorded, with a projected 600,000 children infected by the turn of the year. Unsurprisingly, human rights experts are concerned that an escalation in the war could exacerbate Yemen’s already dire situation.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, told The Daily Beast, “Continued U.S. arms transfers to Saudi, alongside the intelligence, targeting and refueling support the U.S. is providing to the Saudi coalition, isn’t just unethical, given Saudi’s reckless and indiscriminate bombardment that has caused such massive devastation in Yemen; it creates a serious risk to the U.S. of legal liability for complicity in war crimes. There isn’t one single Yemeni who doesn’t know that it is American bombs that are killing thousands of Yemenis. No one should be surprised when this reality inevitably comes back to bite Americans.”
Whitson’s concerns about war crimes are not unfounded. Last year, the Saudi coalition bombed a large funeral gathering in Sanaa, Yemen, killing and injuring over 600. The UN called the bombing a war crime because it was a so-called double-tap strike, wherein the second strike is intended to kill first responders attending to the injured.
Another human rights expert, Kate Kizer, director of the Washington-based Yemen Peace Project echoed Whitson’s concerns about the legality of some of the coalition’s military operations, saying, “Coalition airstrikes are the leading cause of civilian casualties in the conflict, and there is a clear dotted line from the coalition’s airstrikes on vital civilian infrastructure to the man-made famine and cholera crisis sweeping through the country.”