How the Saudis ended up with so many American weapons

On August 9, 2018 a fighter jet dropped a
bomb on this street in Dahyan, Yemen.
It exploded here, near a busy marketplace.
Killing 40 children on a school bus.
The plane was from a coalition led by Saudi
They have conducted thousands of airstrikes
in Yemen since 2015 – many aimed at civilian targets.
This is the bomb.
And this photo, reportedly taken after the
attack, shows that the serial number – 94271
– corresponds to a 500-pound laser-guided
bomb built by the Lockheed Martin corporation.
It was made in the United States.
In fact, most of Saudi Arabia’s weapons
The US is the biggest arms dealer in the world
– and Saudi Arabia is its number one customer.
For nearly 75 years, the two countries
have been strategic allies — trying to keep
the Middle East stable for their own benefit.
But today, the Middle East has fallen apart.
And Saudi Arabia has been using US weapons
to make it worse.
So why does the US sell Saudi Arabia so many
and will it ever stop?
In 1938, a lot of it was discovered in the
new country of Saudi Arabia.
“For here are more proved and readily accessible reserves
than in all of North and South America together.”
In 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt made
a deal with the Saudi King AbdulAziz al-Saud:
The Saudis would provide the US with a safe,
reliable source of oil and in exchange, the
US would support and protect the Saudis.
This was at a time when the US was making
other alliances in the Middle East.
“Oil, however. Together with its strategic location, it has made this area important in world affairs.”
But at first, US arms sales to their allies in the Middle
East were limited.
The US hoped fewer weapons
would mean less conflict and therefore a steady
supply of oil.
But that didn’t last for long.
War broke out between Israel and these Arab
in 1967.
This put the US in an awkward situation – it
had allies on both sides.
The US ultimately decided to sell fighter
jets to Israel to give them an advantage over
the Arab states.
But war broke out again six years later.
This time, the US sent thousands of tons of
arms to Israel .
This outraged the Arab allies, including Saudi
So they struck back.
“The oil producing countries of the Arab world decided to use their oil as a political weapon.”
These Arab states cut-off oil supplies to
the US to protest their support of Israel…
And it caused a crisis.
The price of oil nearly quadrupled in the
The cut-off ended several months later when
the US brokered a peace deal between Israel and Egypt.
But to help rebuild its relationship with
its Arab allies, the US decided to sell
them weapons.
And the Saudis were particularly eager to buy.
By the 1970s, oil profits had made Saudi Arabia’s
monarchy extraordinarily rich – and they could
afford to buy a range of advanced weapons.
Between 1970 and ’76, US sales to Saudi Arabia
In the meantime just
across the Gulf, Iran had emerged as
another extremely strategic ally to the US.
Like Saudi Arabia, it was a large, oil-rich
But more importantly, it shared this long
border with the Soviet Union – America’s
primary enemy during the Cold War.
So, President Nixon said the US would ““sell
Iran virtually any conventional weapons it
Together, Saudi Arabia and Iran became America’s
Twin Pillars in the Middle East.
For the US, selling them guns, bombs, planes,
and tanks was a way to prevent the Soviets
from entering the Middle East, and protect the oil supply.
And having these countries rely on American
weapons gave the US important leverage to
dictate how and when they were used.
It was also an important sign of trust and
support between allies.
US arms came with years of training and maintenance,
so each weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, for
example, was a long-term commitment to work
This would prove to be important because Saudi
Arabia and the US would soon have to rely
even more on each other…
In 1979, the Islamic revolution overthrew
the pro-US Shah of Iran who was replaced by
a religious leader; Ayatollah Khomeini.
Suddenly, one of the America’s twin pillars
turned on it.
The new Iran was ambitious and extremely anti-American.
While armed with $9B worth of American-made
And it was also the enemy of Saudi Arabia.
Each saw itself as the leader of the muslim
world; and started competing for influence
in the Middle East.
So Saudi Arabia continued to want more weapons and the US continued to sell them.
In the meantime, the Soviet Union, which had
been developing its own alliances in the Middle East
for decades, started selling advanced weapons to countries like Iraq and Syria.
At this point a full-scale arms race was taking
place in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia
was the biggest buyer thanks to the US.
“I do not think it contributes towards achieving peace in the Middle East.
And therefore I think this arms sale should be disapproved.”
These sales sparked fierce debates in the
Like on June 5, 1986 when President Ronald
Reagan supported the sale of 2,500 missiles
to Saudi Arabia:
“Our proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia will increase the Saudi’s ability to withstand
the threat from radical Arab states.”
Many in Congress were skeptical about
selling more weapons in the name of defense…
“Over the past 30 years , the US has sold over 50 billion dollars worth
of military weapons and services to the Saudis.
More than we’ve sold to any nation on Earth.
Where are the reciprocal acts of friendship?”
Reagan argued that the arms sales were an
important part of the alliance.
“We have had for more than 40 years now, a relationship and an agreement,
mutual security agreement, with the Saudi Arabians.
And it has been beneficial to both
of us.”
He insisted that it was important that the US be the ones to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia…
“First of all, look, they’re gonna have arms,
whether we do it or not.
But when they have them from us, there are
restrictions on their use of them; and that they
are restricted to using them defensively.
Or then there are things that we will do.”
“It is not a very valid argument, but I can use the same argument on drugs out in the street.
If I don’t sell drugs to someone, someone
else will.
The question is not whether someone else
will, the question is whether it’s right.”
Congress pushed for some changes to the deal before ultimately approving the sale.
In fact, Congress would never fully block a foreign arms sale.
Over the next 20 years, the strength of the
US-Saudi alliance would waiver,
but their reliance on each other never quite
The Soviet threat vanished when the country
collapsed in 1991.
But Iraq under Saddam Hussein emerged as a
new threat to both Saudi Arabia and the US.
So the Saudis went all out.
In 1993, the US and Saudi Arabia agreed on
a record number of arms sales.
But arms sales decreased during the late 1990s
and hit rock-bottom after the 9/11 attacks
– 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Two years later, the US launched a war in
Iraq and threw the Middle East into chaos.
It turned to Saudi Arabia as a partner and
arms sales started increasing again.
Over the next decade, the Middle East continued
to fall apart…
And Iran took advantage of the chaos by supporting
militant groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq
– turning these conflicts into proxy wars.
To the US, this is Iran destabilizing the
Middle East, but to the Saudis, this is
Iran closing in on them.
So Saudi Arabia started using its weapons – aggressively.
Along with a coalition of allies, Saudi Arabia
intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015.
The Saudis claimed they wanted to restore
the government, but only made the conflict worse.
Iran stepped in to support the rebels, turning Yemen into a proxy war.
The Saudi’s aggressive tactics have created the worst humanitarian
crisis in the world.
Out of nearly 16,000 airstrikes since 2015,
the Saudi-coalition has hit civilian targets
a third of the time.
Most estimates put the civilian death toll well
over 10,000.
The UN has found that many of the civilian
attacks were intentional
and could be considered war crimes.
The problem is the US has continued to sell
arms to Saudi Arabia this whole time.
In fact, the Obama Administration approved
the most arms sales to the Saudis in US history.
These included not just new weapons, but also
replacements for weapons used or damaged in
Including this bomb: likely sold to Saudi
Arabia in 2015 and dropped on a school bus
in 2018.
“$3 billion dollars, $533 million dollars,
$525 million dollars.
That’s peanuts for you.”
While the Trump administration focuses on
the supposed economic benefits of selling weapons, it
misses the real point:
Decades of arming Saudi Arabia was supposed
to give the US some leverage over it.
But that’s clearly not working.
Saudi Arabia’s leader – Crown Prince Mohammed
bin Salman is accused of ordering the brutal
murder of a US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
And it’s sparked historic resistance to
the US-Saudi relationship…
“I will not support arms sales until all responsible
for the death of Mr. Khashoggi have been brought to justice.”
And I will no longer support the war in Yemen as constructed.”
“The bombing of a school bus full of children and other civilian targets
is not something I want America’s fingerprints on.”
So will the US actually stop selling weapons
to Saudi Arabia?
It’s a difficult question.
The Middle East is more unstable than ever.
After 75 years, Saudi Arabia and the US still
need each other.
But it’s clearly not a trustworthy alliance

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