What a Real Review of U.S. Military Assistance to Saudi Arabia Would Say


Americans have not paid much attention to the war In Yemen. With all eyes on Syria and the neo-Cold War rivalry there with Russia, Yemen did not come up at all in the presidential debates. Yet according to UN figures, the war has left 10,000 dead and 900,000 civilians displaced — and it arguably implicates the United States even more than the Syrian conflict.

The Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen, which began in March 2015, has been aided and abetted from the beginning by the United States. U.S.-supplied military aircraft, refueled by U.S. tanker planes and directed by U.S. intelligence assets, are bombing Yemen almost daily with U.S.-made weapons.

America’s responsibility was brought into stark relief earlier this month, when Saudi planes mistakenly bombed a packed funeral in the Yemeni capital, killing 140 and wounding over 500 people. It was only the latest in a series of Saudi attacks that have killed civilians, leading U.N. experts to condemn Saudi actions in Yemen as war crimes. In the aftermath, the White House announced that U.S military assistance to Saudi Arabia does not amount to a blank check and that it would begin an immediate “policy review” of this aid to Saudi Arabia.

The “policy review” is an old and established Washington technique for avoiding tough decisions. Faced with a choice between unpalatable alternatives, the government initiates a review to study the question in depth. The hope is that by the time the review is finished, the political pressure to take action will have passed. The purpose of a review is often to buy time and create space for an administration to keep doing what it has been doing, not to create clarity or to change policy.

This review of U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia will likely not be an exception to this rule. U.S. officials are visibly uncomfortable with supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, but the U.S.-Saudi relationship is still considered a pillar of broader U.S. policy in the Middle East. Plus, the big-dollar value of arms deals between U.S. firms and the Saudi government means changing U.S. policy would be politically difficult. Buying time with a review seems the only option.

Saving Time

But time is not cheap, particularly for civilians in Yemen. The problems created by U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia generally and this conflict in particular are not new. We don’t really need a lengthy review to understand the tough choices involved in U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia. We can say already what a serious and sober review would look like. So here is our effort to save the U.S. government some time, even if that is the last thing it wants.

A proper review would begin by acknowledging that the sale of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia is big business. During the span of the Bush and Obama administrations, total U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased by nearly 97 percent. The U.S. has offered $115 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. Over the last three years alone — since the start of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program — America has sold nearly $36 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. These sales are certainly in the commercial interests of the United States and the American firms that manufacture the weapons. They create jobs, generate corporate profits, and improve the U.S. balance of trade.

But whether the massive sale of American arms to the Saudis serves U.S. geopolitical interests is a much more debatable proposition. U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia is a mere tool of American policy toward the Kingdom, not an end in itself. As such, it should serve broader objectives in the relationship. It should influence the Saudi government to make decisions that support American interests and priorities in the relationship and in the region more broadly.

The key question is this: What does the United States want from the Saudis, and how does U.S. military assistance to the Kingdom help or hurt its ability to achieve these goals?

For years, the U.S.-Saudi relationship was underpinned by the deal of U.S. security in exchange for Saudi oil. But the United States currently buys very little oil from Saudi Arabia and is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil. The increase in U.S. oil and gas production means that Saudi Arabia is no longer even the key swing producer able to stabilize prices. Flexible U.S. producers now fulfill that function, without any government action. While Saudi Arabia is still one of the most important oil producers and continues exert its influence on the price of oil, changes in the energy market combined with Saudi Arabia’s own financial situation mean the Saudi government is no longer able to use the oil price as a strategic weapon to either support or oppose U.S. policy.

What remains is the idea that U.S. military assistance buys access to Saudi decision-making, but access is not the same as influence. The Saudis, in a form of reverse leverage, have often been able to use the American preoccupation with access to pursue more weapons deals. On the evidence, there is no basis for the belief that U.S. military assistance has led the Saudis to take actions that they would otherwise not have taken. And in the case of Yemen, there is clear evidence that this assistance has empowered the Saudis to take actions that are not in American interests.

The Saudis see U.S. arms sales to them as a kind of entitlement, in part because they pay cash for these systems, rather than getting financial support from the United States. The U.S. government has more or less bought into this Saudi view. As a consequence, the U.S. government has never given the Saudis any reason to believe that they have to work to earn U.S. military assistance. On the contrary, the Saudis seem to have leveraged America’s desire to sell arms to secure American assistance in Yemen.

A proper review would note that American military assistance to the Kingdom, just like U.S. military sales more broadly, should be linked to the real military threats confronting the Saudis. The Kingdom faces the threats of cyber warfare, terrorist attacks, and Iranian missile attacks on critical infrastructure. The United States is appropriately helping the Saudis to defend against these threats. But the Saudis do not confront a credible threat of a large-scale conventional military attack from Iran or any other country.

With rare exceptions, the United States gives the Saudis what they want rather than what they need, militarily speaking. Massive American military sales over the years of state-of-the-art armored vehicles, combat aircraft, and sophisticated munitions are of questionable value in deterring Iran from cyber or missile attacks or in keeping the Persian Gulf open to commerce, especially since the U.S. maintains a sizeable military footprint in Bahrain and the Arabia Sea to prevent interruptions in the flow of oil. Instead of pouring these weapons into the Kingdom, which diverts billions of dollars from addressing many of the country’s internal woes, the United States should provide less advanced and less costly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, naval mine countermeasures capabilities, and law enforcement assistance. Washington should also look to use military assistance to break down Saudi resistance to working with partners in the region and developing joint capabilities.

Given that Saudi and U.S. views on how to deal with Iran diverge so profoundly, United States should probably reconsider continuing to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of a power projection capability. We have seen the destruction the Saudis have visited upon Yemen with critical U.S. military enablers such as aerial refueling and intelligence. Is it really in U.S. interests to provide the Saudis with more military wherewithal to threaten Iran or to attack Iran’s military or its proxy forces? It is unnerving to think how the Saudis might use this capability, judging by the havoc they have wreaked in Yemen.

The United States wants Saudi Arabia — and its Arab friends more broadly — to take greater responsibility for their own security and for regional security. Military assistance can contribute to this goal, but it should be tailored more precisely to supporting a Saudi regional role that is more closely aligned with U.S. strategic interests. A Saudi power projection capability carries the risk that the Kingdom will use this capacity in ways that undercut American interests and priorities. The United States possesses an interest in promoting a thaw in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, but the bitter enmity the Saudis exhibit toward Iran implies they do not share this priority. Accordingly, the United States should act with great restraint in improving the Kingdom’s ability to attack targets in Iran.

A New Approach to Supporting the Kingdom

Given the above, we see three main takeaways from a hard-headed review of U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

First, U.S. security assistance has bought far less influence over Saudi foreign policy than is commonly assumed. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere in the region, the Saudi role in advancing American interests and priorities has often not been helpful, even though the Saudi military establishment is almost totally dependent on American weapons, training, and logistics support. If Washington has tried to leverage this dependence to garner greater Saudi support for American interests, there’s precious little evidence that it has worked.

Second, over the years, the United States has sold Saudi Arabia too many sophisticated weapons that it does not need to defend itself against the external threats it faces. Riyadh has not used these high-end weapons effectively. And when the Saudis have used them at all, as they are in Yemen today, they have generally done so against low-end threats and in ways not congruent with U.S. interests.

Third, America should not walk away from its security cooperation with the Saudis. A Saudi Arabia untethered to the United States would be an even more problematic security partner than it is today. But going forward, the United States should look to achieve greater leverage from its assistance. It should not sell any more weapons systems to the Kingdom that would improve its ability to project force beyond its borders. Further, Washington should link the sale of new weapons and equipment to concrete Saudi commitments and plans to work more closely with its Gulf Cooperation Council partners to improve collective defense of common U.S. and Gulf state interests, most notably preserving the free flow of oil from the region.

It is, of course, possible that the Saudis would turn to Russia or China for arms if U.S. restrictions become too burdensome. But the Saudi military strongly prefers U.S. weapons for both political and military reasons. Integrating Russian and Chinese weapons into their force structure would create serious logistical and operational problems. Further, Saudi dependence on the U.S. military logistics system will ensure a continued long-term service and support contracts with the U.S. defense industry. It would also be imprudent for the United States to continue selling certain weapons systems to the Saudis solely out of fear of losing business.

The United States does not need to pander to Saudi views to have an effective security relationship with the Kingdom. American kowtowing only encourages the Saudis to be more confrontational in their relationship with the United States because they know it will spur more U.S. concessions. To the contrary, the United States should understand that it holds most of the cards and that it can use military assistance, among other tools, to push Saudi policy in a direction that favorable to U.S. interests. One could argue over what precisely that direction is, but it is certain that it would not involve killing civilians with U.S. weapons in Yemen.


Jeremy Shapiro is the Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he was a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Prior to Brookings, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.

Richard Sokolsky is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  From 2005 to 2015, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.

Image: Mr. Richard Bumgardner (USASAC)