Intel: How Saudi Arabia is looking past the US for arms

al-monitor Saudi army artillery fires shells toward Houthi movement positions at the Saudi border with Yemen, April 15, 2015. Photo by REUTERS.

Nov 8, 2018

Just a day after Democrats took control of the US House of Representative, Saudi Arabia inked a deal Wednesday with Spanish shipbuilder Navantia to jointly build five corvettes for the Saudi navy. Riyadh has also made a $1 billion bid to partner with South African state-owned defense group Denel to grow its domestic defense industry, Reuters reported today.

The developments are the latest signs that Riyadh could look elsewhere for military equipment if Congress continues to hold up US weapons sales over the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen and the slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Why it matters: The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, has been holding up sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since June. Enter Spain, which has backstopped Riyadh’s bomb supplies for the Yemen conflict by greenlighting the sale of 400 of the munitions in September.

But it’s not clear that Spain can backfill all of the US weapons that Congress is holding up. A $7 billion US sale sent to Capitol Hill for approval in May would provide 120,000 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are on a mission to localize half of their military spending by 2030. The proposed partnership with South Africa’s Denel would include the acquisition of a minority stake in German defense contractor Rheinmetall, which designs armored fighting vehicles and howitzers that could be deployed to Yemen. (Riyadh is already a leading customer for the company’s services).

The view from Washington: Speaking at the Middle East Institute conference in Washington today, David Hale, the State Department’s number-three official, re-upped US calls for a cease-fire in Yemen. “Coalition airstrikes must cease in all populated areas of Yemen,” Hale said. If the conflict continues, he added, it could be “one of the world’s worst instances of famine.”

Other experts at the conference said the Pentagon might decide to use its leverage to stop coalition bombing in the conflict, including holding up US technical support and spare parts for the F-15s that the coalition uses to bomb Houthi targets. “The Yemen war is incredibly, incredibly frustrating,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former top official at the State Department and the UN. “At some point, if you’re in a hole, stop digging. This war needs to stop, and the US has the power.”

What’s next: As the Donald Trump administration presses for a cease-fire in Yemen, fighting over the port of Hodeidah continues to rage, with the Saudi-led coalition capturing a major road into the city and dozens of fighters dying in clashes. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain on a 180-day deadline for the State Department to certify that the Arab coalition has reduced civilian harm in the Yemen conflict, a congressionally mandated condition for US support.

Know more: Look for greater regional fallout from Spain’s decision to provide arms to Saudi Arabia, including on US plans for an “Arab NATO” that have been stalled over the Qatar crisis.

-Jack Detsch

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