On August 9, the State Department approved the latest major US weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, mainly to replace tanks that the kingdom has lost in its war in Yemen against Houthi rebels and allies of the former president. The $1.15 billion deal highlights the Obama administration’s deepening involvement in the Saudi-led war, which has escalated after four months of peace talks broke down on August 6. Since then, warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition have bombed a Yemeni school, a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, and a potato-chip factory, killing more than 40 civilians, including at least 10 children.
The deal for the Saudi army to buy 153 Abrams tanks, hundreds of machine guns, 20 heavy-tank recovery vehicles, ammunition, and assorted other weapons is the latest in a series of arms sales by the United States—and, to a lesser extent, Britain and France—to the kingdom since it launched its war against Yemen in March 2015. In addition to providing intelligence assistance, Washington has rushed billions in smart bombs and other war matériel to help the Saudi air force continue its bombing campaign. Indeed, some of the Saudi weapons systems are so complex and dependent on US spare parts that they would be grounded without American assistance.
Despite its supposed turn away from Gulf allies—and a pivot toward Iran, underscored by the considerable political capital expended to reach last year’s nuclear deal—the Obama administration has dramatically ramped up arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies in the Gulf. Since 2010, the administration has authorized a record $110 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the Congressional Research Service. The planned sales include dozens of advanced F-15 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, naval vessels, Patriot missile-defense systems, hundreds of armored vehicles, and thousands of missiles, bombs, and other munitions. (Some of these weapons, such as the large number of F-15 jets, could take years to be manufactured and delivered, so the final value of the contracts could be different than those authorized by the administration.) Over the past six years, Obama and his aides have concluded deals for nearly $48 billion in weapons sales, according to a Reuters investigation of Saudi military spending—triple the $16 billion in sales under the George W. Bush administration.
In other words, Obama has not fundamentally changed the status quo between Saudi Arabia and Washington. While Saudi rulers frequently criticize Obama for “abandoning” his traditional allies in the Middle East, and shifting US foreign policy to be more friendly toward Iran, his administration has sold more weapons to the kingdom than any previous US president. Obama has publicly criticized Saudi Arabia and its leaders more frequently than some of his predecessors, and he has also reduced direct US involvement in the Middle East, before increasing it again gradually in the US war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obama also resisted calls to intervene more deeply in Syria and to send a larger contingent of American troops to Iraq. Saudi leaders were particularly irate after Obama suggested in an interview with The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg that they should figure out ways to “share the neighborhood” with Iran.