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The long history of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia

News of the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last week has prompted numerous lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to urge the Trump administration to halt U.S.-Saudi arm sales and reevaluate a decades-long alliance that has enabled the Gulf nation’s bad behavior.

President Donald Trump, however, shot down the possibility Thursday, telling reporters he is unwilling to give up the billions of dollars in funding from the U.S.-Saudi arms deal reached in May 2017.

“I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” Trump said. “They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”

While the $110 billion number Trump touted is “fake news” (last year’s deal likely amounted to $4 billion), the arms agreement is the latest in nearly one century of U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia. Although U.S.-Saudi relations grew slightly tense toward the end of President Obama’s term, largely due to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and Saudi’s unwillingness to engage with Iran, Obama’s administration oversaw the largest U.S.-Saudi arms deals in American history.

A 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service found that, from 2008 to 2015, Obama’s sales to Saudi Arabia amounted to nearly $94 billion. Those sales showed no signs of slowing down in 2015 as Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab countries in a military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States has supported Saudi’s efforts with “weapons sales, aerial refueling, intelligence, and targeting support,” BuzzFeed News reported.

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have warmed considerably under President Trump, whose family remains especially close with the Gulf kingdom’s totalitarian prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although Saudi Arabia has not purchased new arms platforms under Trump, according to Lawfare’s Bruce Reidel, the Trump administration has helped soften Saudi’s image, refusing to hold them accountable for war crimes in Yemen or for human rights violations within the country, and positioning the Gulf nation as a counter to Iran’s influence in the region.

Shortly after Trump visited Saudi Arabia in the spring, the Senate tabled a bipartisan resolution to stop U.S. military funding that supports Saudi Arabia’s brutal actions in Yemen. As ThinkProgress reporter D. Parvaz wrote at the time, U.S. military officials have aided Saudi efforts in Yemen “by refueling Saudi coalition bombers, an unauthorized action that can be stopped using the War Powers Resolution. The bill that failed … invoked the resolution and called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces in the country not fighting al Qaeda.”

As of August 2018, strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have resulted in the deaths of nearly 6,600 civilians, including children, and the wounding of nearly 10,500, with millions more suffering from food and medical shortages as a result of the Saudi assault on the port city of Hodeidah. The Trump administration has barely made a peep about these actions, instead officially certifying that the Saudi-led coalition is “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

Khashoggi’s case is unlikely to put an end to the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. At the same press conference on Thursday, Trump downplayed the alleged murder at the hands of a Saudi “assassination squad,” telling reporters, “Again, this took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen, is that right? He’s a permanent resident.”

Meanwhile, numerous companies and investors have pulled out of the Saudi Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh next week, with the Financial Times and CNN being the latest to do so. In an interview with CNBC Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he was still planning to attend the conference.

“We are concerned about what is the status of Mr. Khashoggi,” he said. “[But] I am planning on going at this point.”

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