Washington, DC – The US Senate’s leadership cleared the way for a series of votes on Thursday expressing disapproval of $8bn in US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE approved last month by President Donald Trump.
The Senate vote sets up a symbolic rejection of Trump’s claim that “emergency” circumstances require the US to provide Riyadh more precision-guided bombs because of “Iranian threats”.
Senator Bob Menendez, a top Democrat leader on foreign affairs, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and political ally of Trump, are leading the challenge to the Saudi arms sales. At least four Republicans have said they will join 47 Democrats to support the arms sale disapproval.
“These weapons won’t counter Iranian threats. This is all about using them in Yemen,” Menendez said in remarks to the Senate.
Trump and his advisors used the emergency declaration to bypass a requirement in the Arms Export Control Act that Congress approve such arms sales amid growing opposition by politicians to providing US precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The planned sale also provides for co-production and manufacture of high-tech bomb components in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Outrage over Yemen, Khashoggi
The significance of the vote is that it shows continuing bipartisan political opposition within Congress to business as usual with Saudi Arabia, even as the Trump administration exercises favouritism towards the kingdom. Trump is likely to veto the measure and it is unclear if there would be enough Republican defections in Congress to overcome that.
Senate Republicans, however, are preparing legislation to impose new parameters on the US-Saudi strategic relationship, including potential financial sanctions on persons involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
US legislators have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the Saudi-UAE aerial bombing campaign in Yemen – using American weapons – that has caused more than 4,800 civilian deaths and injuries in 2018, according to a UN estimate.
The war is blamed for famine and a severe cholera outbreak that has killed thousands more.
“What’s happening in Yemen is a humanitarian disaster that has been exacerbated by the very weapons we have been giving the Saudis,” Menendez said.
Outrage in Congress peaked after the former Washington Post columnist Khashoggi was killed in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a death squad sent from Riyadh. The CIA has concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) played a role in the assassination of Khashoggi, who had been critical of Saudi human rights abuses.
In a long-anticipated report released on Wednesday, UN extrajudicial executions investigator Agnes Callamard said Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible” and said Prince Mohammed should be investigated.
“This report has reignited and even deepened the concern about why this administration seems incapable of holding Saudi Arabia accountable,” Menendez said, citing its “horrific details” about a discussion between the killers of how to cut up Khashoggi’s body.
Saudi slams UN report on Khashoggi killing as ‘unfounded’
Nuclear weapons fears
Trump has declined to apply available US sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act to the Saudi government for Khashoggi’s killing.
Since the assassination, the administration gave a regulatory green light to US companies to offer the sale of nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns it could lead to Saudi development of nuclear weapons.
R Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, defended the arms sales in an appearance last week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying the weapons were necessary to reassure US allies in the Gulf faced with Iranian aggression.
Separately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a forthcoming US list of countries that recruit child soldiers, dismissing State Department experts’ findings that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been using under-age fighters, according to Reuters news agency that cited unnamed people familiar with the matter.
The Senate last week rejected a bid by Senator Rand Paul, under similar procedures of the Arms Control law, to block US arms sales to Bahrain by a 43-56 vote and to Qatar 42-57.
Trump vetoed a resolution in April that would have withdrawn US military support for the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen. Politicians in Congress were not able to come up with enough votes to override the veto.