Arms sale to Saudi Arabia puts American jobs above Yemeni lives

(Originally published in The Catholic Register, Toronto,

By Glen Argan

The global arms trade is a peculiar form of commerce. If, for example, you own an ice cream stand, all customers are welcome. You would sell your ice cream to your worst enemy without qualms.

However, nations are more selective when it comes to selling weapons. They are keen to ensure that their own national interests are being promoted. Some countries even refuse to sell to those countries with bad human rights records.

U.S. President Donald Trump launched his first foreign trip last month with a visit to Saudi Arabia which included the announcement of US$110-billion arms sale. The visit and the arms deal implied several things.

First was the symbolism of the event, which could only be seen as contradicting Trump’s vitriolic campaign against Muslim immigrants and “Islamic terrorism.” When money is there to be made, attitudes quickly soften.

Although Trump excoriated Iran as the main sponsor of terrorist activity in the Middle East and the West, and the Saudis as the enlightened foe of such activity, this flouts the facts. Every terrorist act in Western nations since 9/11 in 2001, has been the work of Sunni extremists, many of them with connections to Saudi Arabia.

As well, the Saudis support the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Middle East. The Saudis are also stoking the brutal civil war in Yemen, having killed roughly 10,000 civilians by bombing schools, markets, weddings, hospitals and places of worship. Further, they prevent humanitarian aid from reaching those suffering from the war, an act which may well be judged to be a war crime.

Iran should not be seen as a great nation of peace, but it did negotiate a pact with the Obama administration to significantly delay development of nuclear weapons and to subject any eventual moves toward a nuclear capability to international inspection. Two days prior to Trump’s arrival in Arabia, Iranians overwhelmingly re-elected the president who negotiated that deal, Hassan Rouhani.

Second, the Saudi arms deal should be seen in light of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s expressed view that concern for human rights hinders America’s ability to promote its economic and national security interests.

Trump, meanwhile, enthusiastically proclaimed the arms sale as “tremendous investments in the United States,” which will provide “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The “America First” policy is very dark indeed. In this case, it means Americans get jobs while Yemenis get starvation and/or death.

The Obama administration was no enemy of the Saudis, selling the kingdom $115 billion in weapons over its eight-year term. (Trump plans $325 billion in arms sales to Arabia over the next 10 years.) Yet, Obama did shy away from selling precision-guided bombs because he believed they would be used against Yemeni civilians.

Despite the arms sales, the Saudis saw Obama as unfriendly, particularly for consummating the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump was subsequently greeted with an effusive red-carpet welcome which included projecting a massive image of his face on the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh where he stayed.

Saudi Arabia may be the only country where Trump is greeted with such warmth; the rest of the world viewing him with distinct and growing unease. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has not only heightened that unease, but has made the Americans a global pariah.

Third, one must ask what the Saudis plan to do once they are armed to the teeth. The House of Saud does fear internal unrest, an eventuality that could surface in a major way once the kingdom’s oil revenues begin to plummet. It also has an intense dislike of the Shiite Muslims whose political power is centred in Iran. In both cases, the Saudis will be ready to counter any threat to their dominance with massive military force.

The U.S. government did not suddenly start creating havoc in the Middle East with Trump’s election. Yet, it appears to have learned nary a thing from its decades of misadventures. The Obama administration gave a glimmer of hope that things might change. But the massive arms sale to the Saudis shows U.S. policy in the region is back on the road to hell, a place where incidentally ice cream is in short supply.

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