U.S.-Saudi Relations: Old Wine, New Bottles

The Saudi Arms Deal

After Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi and chopped up his body in 2018, Joe Biden said that the country’s government had to “pay the price” and be treated like the “pariah that they are.”

Back then Biden was merely a presidential candidate, but now that he’s in The White House things have predictably shifted. The administration is currently trying to sell the authoritarian regime $650 million worth of missiles and missile launchers.

There’s been a robust congressional effort to block this sale, with lawmakers citing Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record and brutal war against Yemen. In many ways these politicians are merely asking Biden to live up to his own rhetoric. Not only did he criticize the Saudi government on the campaign, he also promised to end the Yemen war upon being elected.

The congressional group aiming to halt the weapons sale wanted an amendment tacked onto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) explained that effort in a Guardian op-ed last week:

The US may not be able to stop all the violence it helped create, but it can stop enabling Saudi warplanes to bomb Yemeni civilians. Doing so will save lives – not only the Yemenis spared in Saudi bombing runs, but also by utilizing its leverage to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Yemen, which continues to block fuel and other essential imports into the country, pushing millions of Yemenis toward the brink of starvation. Lifting the blockade must happen immediately and be delinked from final peace negotiation talks.

We have proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to finally end all US support for the Saudi war effort. The House already passed this amendment for the third consecutive year. Given that this amendment simply codifies a prohibition on providing support for the Saudi war that already passed both houses of Congress in 2019 – legislation supported at the time by multiple officials now in the Biden-Harris administration – it is long overdue for this provision to be included in the final defense policy bill that is sent to the president’s desk.

The Biden administration put out a statement criticizing the amendment. They claimed that the weapons would only be used defensively and that blocking the transaction “would undermine the President’s commitment to aid in our partner’s defenses.”

On Tuesday night the House passed the NDAA and the Senate killed the amendment by a vote of 30-67. The majority of Republicans sided with Biden on the weapons sale, but so did a number of Democrats. This predictably included people like Sinema and Manchin, but some Senators who opposed the same kinds of sales under Trump are suddenly fine with Biden pushing them forward.

Take Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez. In 2019 he cleared the path for multiple resolutions opposing Trump’s weapons deals with Saudi Arabia. Those were all vetoed, but Menendez authored an op-ed in the Washington Post announcing that the fight to hold the Saudis accountable would continue in Washington. According to Menendez the Trump vetos indicated that the former president was bound by his “loyalty to the Saudi royal family”, but assured readers that congress would “remain undeterred.”

“The world will not forget Jamal Khashoggi,” wrote Menendez. “His views and aspirations will one day become reality. There will be freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia. And here in Congress, we will continue to demand accountability, press for justice and work to restore the integrity of our foundational institutions.”

Now, with a Democrat in power, Menendez is fine with Saudi Arabia getting a bunch of new missiles. What’s his justification for the change? Like the Biden administration, he claims that the weapons will only be used defensively.

“Make no mistake, the Saudi-led coalition bears the brunt of the responsibility for the devastation in Yemen. Yet I along with most members of this body have always supported the use of weapons systems in defense of civilian populations,” he said on the floor.

This position was echoed by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, another prominent critic of Trump’s foreign policy who voted for the arms sale. “My position generally has been to support truly defensive weapons sales to the Saudis, while opposing sales that could be used in offensive operations, particularly in Yemen,” he told The Intercept.

Last month Sarah Lazare made quick work of this narrative at In These Times.  “So-called defensive weapons are part of a military apparatus that is enforcing a brutal blockade, shutting out aid for Yemen and creating a climate of intimidation and fear,” she writes. “The weapons transfer sends a message to Saudi Arabia, at precisely the moment it is refusing to lift its blockade, that U.S. support is unconditional. It enables Saudi Arabia to prolong its deadly incursions.”

“The notion that one can only support ​’defensive’ operations in a brutal war is absurd. The Saudi military does not have one hangar for ​’defensive’ aircrafts and a separate one for ​’offensive’ ones,” she concludes. “The pilots deterred from transporting people or goods into or out of Sana’a airport aren’t comforted by the fact that the Biden administration has decided to replenish only the weapons in the Saudi arsenal that are deemed ​’defensive.’ Saudi Arabia has been waging a brutal war with U.S. backing that is so difficult to defend that the Democratic Party turned against it when a Republican was in the White House. Now that a Democrat is back, members of Congress have the opportunity, once again, to take a firm position — not just in strongly worded letters, but by a congressional vote.”

Back to Chris Murphy for a moment. This week the Senator appeared on Pod Save America and declared that the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics does not go far enough and that we need “much more heavy-handed sanctions” against China. I guess the $650 million in missiles approach won’t work in this situation.

Anyway, the Pentagon budget that the House passed is $778 billion. Despite the ongoing pandemic and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that’s $37 billion higher than last year’s. It’s also four times the price of Biden’s social policy bill.

The Taliban’s victory may have stifled some of the United States’ imperial designs, but it dealt no definitive blow to the military–industrial complex. Saudi Arabia is part of that equation and Biden’s election has done nothing to alter that fact.

BDS Laws and Fossil Fuels

The excellent environmental reporter Kate Aronoff has an illuminating piece in The New Republic about a new American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) strategy against climate policy. The group is introducing a model bill to state legislatures that would block any attempts to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

The right-wing organization has an Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force that just voted through two pieces of pro-pollution legislation at its States and Nation Policy Summit. Here’s Aronoff on the bills:

State comptrollers would be directed to create and maintain “a list of all financial companies that boycott energy companies,” further allowing them to “request written verification from a financial company that it does not boycott energy companies.” Any company that doesn’t reply to said request within 61 days, per the model bill, would be “presumed to be boycotting energy companies.” Listed companies that don’t stop “boycotting energy companies” within 90 days would then be subject to losing state contracts or investments. State agencies would then be required to “sell, redeem, divest, or withdraw all publicly traded securities” in qualifying companies unless that would “result in a loss in value or a benchmark deviation.” Attorneys general would be empowered to enforce rules mandating that state agencies report which companies they’ve divested from and the “prohibited investments” they still hold.

As Aronoff points out, these bills are actually modeled on state anti-BDS laws. No one has sounded the alarm on this louder than Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Lara Friedman. Here she is talking about the phenomenon in an interview with Jewish Currents from July:

The bottom line is that state legislators will pass what they want, wait for it to be deemed unconstitutional, and then tweak it to get away with it. I’ve been warning for years that these laws are a template for restricting free speech on any issue. I wrote about this in 2018, and was dismissed as alarmist. Now these anti-BDS laws are being cut and pasted into legislation to punish people who boycott the oil and gas industry, or who “discriminate” against the gun and ammunition industries. If you want to do business with the state of Texas, you better not be someone who publicly refuses to invest in the gun or fossil fuel industries. Eventually those will end up in court too, but they haven’t yet.

Odds & Ends

🇺🇸 Ryan Cooper has an interesting piece in The Week looking at how the Biden administration has quietly scaled back the drone war to almost nothing. As Cooper points out, such attacks began under Bush, were embraced by Obama, and continued by Trump. However, under Biden things have changed. At least so far.

“Where Trump oversaw more than 1,600 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria during his first 11 months in office, Airwars reports just four during Biden’s term so far,” writes Cooper. “Strikes in Somalia fell from roughly 75 last year to fewer than 10 this year, with no civilian casualties. And in Yemen, the annual total dropped from about 18 to maybe four, with fewer than 10 casualties of any kind. (Precise figures are unclear because some strikes are classified.)”

🇺🇸 Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division and co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, was interviewed on DEMOCRACY NOW! ahead of the United Nations Weapons Summit:

There are a handful of countries that are very vigorously pursuing research and development programs aimed at the acquisition of killer robots or fully autonomous weapons. The U.S. is perhaps at the top of the list. Others would be Russia, Israel, South Korea, India. Those are the problem countries but there are others. Most any advanced military is developing weapons that have ever greater amounts of autonomy in the systems. The question is how far do you take that. Do you take it all the way until you remove the human from the loop altogether or do you draw a line where there is still meaningful human control? For the U.S., their position is essentially one of wanting to safeguard their ability to produce these weapons, so they are rejecting any notion of a treaty that would have prohibitions or restrictions on the development and acquisition of fully autonomous weapons and instead are proposing measures that would allow the acquisition of the weapons but have some regulations about how they are used.

🇵🇸 The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) overwhelmingly voted to advance a BDS resolution. It will be voted on in 2022.

🇵🇸 brian bean on the Bowman/DSA saga: “Insisting on Bowman’s adherence to DSA’s principled support for BDS and justice in Palestine, including the call for his expulsion, actually makes our movement stronger. It is one step to exert that the platform around issues like this are not secondary issues. It clearly communicates support for BDS, and holds a line that is continually under bipartisan fire in U.S. politics. This is a practical expression that unity around this question is needed to resist and fight.”

🇵🇸 More Bowman. Alex Kane has a piece in Jewish Currents about the kerfuffle. “We’re in a lose-lose situation,”  Lower Hudson Valley DSA’s Andrew Basta told Kane. “Either we continue to work with Bowman and he continues to violate BDS and not care about our organization, or we disaffiliate from Bowman and lose the marginal amount of leverage (we have) with his office.”

🇺🇸  Congress wasn’t able to fold the extra Iron Dome funding into the National Defense Authorization Act, but they did include a cybersecurity grant program with Israel.

🇺🇸 In his newsletter Stephen Semler’s cites a depressing stat from a 2019 Costs of War report based off analysis from Neta Crawford:

There are other studies that examine the US military’s environmental impact, but one thing that makes the Crawford/Costs of War study particularly cool is that it provides an estimate for how much CO2e is produced by military industry, too, in addition to the US military itself. Smush those two figures together and what you’ve got is the best available estimate (albeit a very conservative one) on how much greenhouse gases is produced by the military-industrial complex.

Answer: approximately 336 million metric tons of CO2e, based on the latest available data; 56 million metric tons for the military itself (2018 figures) and about 280 million metric tons of CO2e for military industry (2017 figures). Situated amongst the 196 countries the World Bank ranked by greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, the US military-industrial complex came in at 25th-highest, polluting more than 171 countries.

🇵🇸 The “Elbit Three”, a group of activists who defaced the site of an Israeli arms company in England, have been acquitted. The activists are affiliated with the group Palestine Action.

“The judgement will obviously inspire activists going forward, however, even if it had gone the other way, the campaign of direct action would’ve continued,” the group told me. “The British state is complicit in Israel’s war crimes and has significant partnerships with Elbit Systems, and so resistance from the the state is to be expected. Even so, this victory is huge, not least for the activists involved – who bravely put their bodies and liberties on the line in an attempt to undermine British complicity in Israel’s war crimes and to disrupt the manufacturing of drones.”

🤠 We’ve mentioned Rasmy Hassouna, the Houston business owner who is suing Texas over the state’s anti-BDS law, in the newsletter before. The Guardian has a piece on the lawsuit. “I came here and thought I was a free man. It’s not anybody’s business what I do or what I say, as long as I’m not harming anybody,” Hassouna told the paper. “Were you lying all this time? If I don’t want to buy anything at WalMart, who are you to tell me not to shop at WalMart? Why do I have to pledge allegiance to a foreign country?”

🇮🇱 It looks like a Fourth Circuit appeals court will uphold Maryland’s anti-BDS law, which is facing a legal challenge from former state Delegate Saqib Ali.

🇮🇱 We ran an interesting piece by Yarden Katz on how Google advances the colonization of Palestine.

Stay safe out there,


Mondoweiss is a nonprofit news website dedicated to covering the full picture of the struggle for justice in Palestine. Funded almost entirely by our readers, our truth-telling journalism is an essential counterweight to the propaganda that passes for news in mainstream and legacy media.

Our news and analysis is available to everyone – which is why we need your support. Please contribute so that we can continue to raise the voices of those who advocate for the rights of Palestinians to live in dignity and peace.

Support Mondoweiss from as little as $1. Thank you.


Read More

Michael Arria