clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The US may use a loophole to sell billions in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE

It would let the Trump administration circumvent Congress’s authority to approve or reject weapons sales.

A fighter aligned with Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition-backed government, shows Houthi rebel landmines the militia had recovered on September 22, 2018 in Al-Himah, Yemen.
A fighter aligned with Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition-backed government shows Houthi rebel land mines the militia had recovered on September 22, 2018, in al-Himah, Yemen.
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

The US plans to send billions of dollars in weapons to Middle Eastern allies — including Saudi Arabia — by declaring an emergency that experts say doesn’t really exist.

Multiple reports detail that Trump officials are considering using a legal loophole within days to export roughly $7 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have waged a brutal war in Yemen against Houthi rebels for more than four years.

The idea, pushed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials, would allow the administration to circumvent Congress’s authority to approve or reject weapons sales.

There is a provision in a weapons export law allowing the executive branch to sell arms without congressional sign-off if “an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.” Administrations rarely invoke it, experts say, mainly because of how controversial it is and the high bar required to claim a dire situation exists.

President George W. Bush used the provision in 2006 to send precision-guided weapons to Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah July War, but that was last time an administration took advantage of the loophole.

President Donald Trump likely will claim that Saudi Arabia and the UAE need new munitions because they face repeated attacks from Houthi rebels. However, the Yemen war has raged since 2015, with the US supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s side. It’s jarring now to say that an emergency exists after all this time, especially when the US previously sold weapons to the Saudis through the normal process.

There’s also the fact that introducing more weapons to the war will likely worsen a catastrophic situation. The conflict has already claimed tens of thousands of lives; some estimates indicate that at least 60,000 people have died, though it’s hard to keep an accurate tally because of dangerous conditions in Yemen. Last August, the Saudi-led coalition carried out a horrific attack on a school bus where dozens of people, including 40 children, died.

The US sending more munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE likely won’t do much to tip the scales of the fight — but could imperil the lives of millions of people in Yemen already suffering from wounds, famine, and disease.

“The Trump administration is manufacturing an emergency to push through the sale of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Scott Paul, a Yemen expert at the humanitarian group Oxfam America, told me. “Once again, the Trump administration is demonstrating that it values profit and its Gulf allies over resolving the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”

The Trump administration knows Congress likely wouldn’t approve the deal

News of the loophole plan comes at a particularly tense moment.

The US and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, are locked in a potentially deadly standoff. Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it had intelligence showing that Iran planned to attack Americans in the Middle East. As a result, the US put an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and anti-missile batteries in the region, though it’s not clear exactly where. The administration is even considering sending thousands of troops to the region, perhaps in an effort to deter an Iranian assault.

Iran, meanwhile, told its proxies in Iraq to prepare for war if the US attacks, and has greatly accelerated low-enriched uranium production for its nuclear program (though it has not said that it plans to pursue a nuclear weapon). The weeks-long crisis has split Democrats and Republicans in Congress over just how forcefully the US should engage Iran right now, while Saudi Arabia has mostly pushed for America to seriously get involved.

Lawmakers from both parties remain enraged with the Trump administration’s handling of the killing of Saudi journalist, dissident, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi last October. Despite ample evidence showing a planned, coordinated assassination, Trump did little to punish Riyadh other than impose a few sanctions.

That wasn’t enough for many Democrats and Republicans, including reliable Trump allies. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, told reporters on Thursday that he would “not do business as usual with the Saudis until we have a better reckoning” with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler who US spies say ordered the Khashoggi hit.

The likely reason the administration wants to invoke the loophole is not that an emergency exists, then, but that Trump officials fear lawmakers might shoot down the arms sale.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who first raised awareness of the administration’s plan, told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. “It sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress.”

Trump has long prioritized weapons sales over human rights

Asked by reporters last November if he would stop a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing, Trump emphatically said no.

“This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” he said in the Oval Office. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” referring to his desire to sell $110 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, adding that “it would not be acceptable to me.”

Trump’s comments made one thing extremely clear: He cares much more about getting American companies paid than defending human rights. It was perhaps one of Trump’s most honest articulations about how he conducts foreign policy: He won’t call out a country that infringes on human dignity as long as it’s willing to inject cash into the American economy.

Partly for that reason, Trump has continued to strengthen America’s relationship with the Saudi regime despite its conduct in Yemen, its stoking of tensions with Iran, and the Khashoggi murder. And now, with the impending use of the loophole, it appears Trump has literally put a price tag on the lives of those already suffering in the Saudi-led war.

“Yemenis will continue to pay the price of the US’s indefinite and unconditional support of one side in their country’s horrific war,” Paul, the Oxfam expert, told me.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.