An Exposé on the Motivations Behind U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

By Sacha L. Waters

Over the past years, the United States’ sale of arms to Saudi Arabia has steadily become more controversial. But this particular American cash cow shows no signs of slowing down. Under the Obama and Trump administrations, the executive branch spearheaded billion-dollar arms deals to Saudi Arabia. According to the director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the U.S. made over $110 billion from foreign arms sales through 2018 and 2019. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published data on arms sales in 2019 showing that American arms exports increased by 29% between 2014 and 2018, with Saudi Arabia receiving nearly one-fifth of these exports. The Obama administration made $115 billion in Saudi arms deals, the most of any U.S. administration over the 71-year alliance between Washington and Riyadh. In 2017, President Trump signed a series of letters of intent for Saudi Arabia to purchase U.S. arms worth $110 billion at that moment, and $350 billion over the next 10 years. 

From these record-breaking arms sales, one would assume that the Saudi Arabian kingdom is popular in the United States. But the opposite is true. Despite the fervor with which Washington is engaging in business with Riyadh, most Americans distrust Saudi Arabia. According to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, 70% of Americans believe that selling arms makes the U.S. less safe, with 75% of Democrats, 70% of Independents, and 62% of Republicans holding this viewpoint. Why the distrust? It can be attributed to two key events: the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. 

U.S-based reporter Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey on October 2, 2018. Before his death, he wrote a monthly column in the Washington Post and criticized Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi officials released a statement insisting Khashoggi had been killed in a “rogue operation,” while Turkish officials released a contradictory statement saying the agents were following orders they had received from high-ranking Saudi officials. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence officials reported that the operation required the approval of Salman. Despite President Trump’s statement in support of Saudi Arabia, where he said that although he was “extremely angry and very unhappy,” “nobody has directly pointed a finger” at Salman, the murder negatively affected how Americans viewed the

Kingdom. A Quinnipiac University poll performed in 2018 found that 51% of Americans think of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a good thing while 32% said it was a bad thing. However, in the same poll, 77% said that Saudi Arabia should face consequences for committing the murder, while 14% said they should not. The poll reveals a significant shift in the Republican party’s attitude, for just 11% of Republicans said they consider the U.S.-Saudi relationship a bad thing, but a full 67% believe that Saudi Arabia should face consequences. This data shows that American citizens believe Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The wording “consequences” implies that Washington should take action that would harm its relationship with Riyadh; ergo, Americans were willing to potentially sacrifice the U.S.-Saudi relationship in exchange for justice for Khashoggi. This statement is supported by data from YouGov, which reported 15 days after Khashoggi’s death that one year beforehand Republicans were closely divided in the way they viewed Saudi Arabia, and afterward were more likely to distrust it, with 29% reporting that they saw it as friendly and 31% that they saw it as unfriendly. This shows that American perception of Saudi Arabia has eroded, with Khashoggi’s murder being a key event to facilitate that change. Since the most major component of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is arms sales, it makes sense that Americans’ suspicion of Saudi Arabia would lead to lower approval rating of U.S. arms sales. 

The second key event that has led U.S. citizens to question arms sales is the Yemeni Civil War. The war started in 2014 after a failed political transition led to a conflict between the standing Yemeni government and a rebellious group known as the Houthi movement. The government is backed by Saudi Arabia while the Houthis are backed by Iran. The U.S. has been widely criticized because the arms it sells to Saudi Arabia are being used in the war, which is estimated to have claimed over 100,000 lives. The Independent reported that a survey commissioned by YouGov in 2018 shows that the majority of Americans want Congress to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen specifically. 58% of respondents wanted lawmakers to curtail or halt the supply of arms, while just 13% said they wanted lawmakers to maintain or increase arms sales to U.S. allies participating in the conflict. 75% of respondents who had formed an opinion on the conflict were against American involvement. The International Rescue Committee reported that there is a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. should end its military support. 98% of liberals and 63% of conservatives were in agreement that the U.S. should withdraw all support

for the Saudi-led coalition. The Yemeni Civil War has functioned as a lens through which the American public can view the concrete effect of U.S. arms sales. When thought of in the abstract, U.S. arms sales is a neutral concept. However, the U.S.’ involvement in a war often referred to as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis has allowed the American public to see the catastrophic effects of arms sales, making this policy increasingly domestically unpopular. 

So, if Americans are steadily turning against selling arms to Saudi Arabia, why has it been allowed to continue? Why have the powers-that-be continued to claim billions of dollars from the Kingdom at the expense of Yemen and individuals like Khashoggi? Why have our coffers continued to fill with money stained by the innocent blood of civilians, children, multitudes? 

The key, as is common in politics, lies with money. 

According to Bernie Sanders, 90% of the arms sold to Saudi Arabia are produced by just four companies: Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics. The total assets of these four companies are valued at $133.625 billion, $97.75 billion, $47.53 billion, and $45.40 billion respectively. These companies have money to burn and, thanks to politicians, pockets to put it in. All four habitually set up PACs (Political Action Committees). A PAC is a political committee whose purpose is to raise and spend money to elect or defeat political candidates, and the money raised by the four horsemen of the Yemeni apocalypse is particularly noteworthy. In 2019-2020 alone, Boeing spent $6,246,849 on its PAC, Raytheon spent $2,692,685, Lockheed Martin spent $3,721,295, and General Dynamics spent $2,690,944. These four companies having PACs is predictable; it’s common for corporations to donate to the campaigns of various politicians in order to sway their policymaking. But things become interesting when we examine who these corporations are donating to. The PAC profiles of Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics are virtually identical. All four contributed to the campaigns of primarily Democrats from 1990 to 1994, with the exception of Lockheed Martin, whose data is not available for those years. All four then contributed to primarily Republicans from 1996 up until 2008. During 2008 and 2010, the four corporations contributed to primarily Democrats. They then switched back in 2012, and contributed to primarily Republicans until 2020. (If you’re wondering why the companies contributed to both Republicans and Democrats any given year, it

makes sense that they would donate to both—the four horsemen of the Yemeni apocalypse cannot predict who the winner will be but they can ensure that no matter who wins, the winner is comfortably in their pockets). From 1990 to present day all four corporations backed the same political candidates every single year. This is likely due to a uniting common interest: the desire for ongoing arms deals. Since Republicans are generally more supportive of Saudi arms deals, the four corporations mostly support Republicans. But this is no rule. 

Figure 1: PAC Profile of Boeing 

Figure 2: PAC Profile of Raytheon

Figure 3: PAC Profile of Lockheed Martin 

Figure 4: PAC Profile of General Dynamics 

The heavy Republican trend makes it all the more important to note the occasional jump to Democrats. Why the switch in 2008 and 2010? In 2008, Barack Obama ran against John McCain for president, and the four corporations supported Obama through his initial campaign and midterms. The corporations then switched back to supporting Republicans in 2012, when Obama ran for reelection against Mitt Romney. Why would they support Obama against McCain, only to support Romney when Obama ran for reelection? We know that Obama supports arms deals, and the Democrats largely followed his example while he was in office. Throughout both of Obama’s terms, the Democrats had a majority in the Senate, yet the bipartisan effort to block Obama’s arms sales failed on a 26-71 vote, showing the majority of Democrats supported arms sales during the Obama administration. Since Democrats always supported arms deals, the reason for the switch must lie with Obama’s opponents. In 2019, Romney was not one of the Republicans who crossed the aisle to try blocking arms sales, showing that he also aligned with the four

horsemen’s common interest. Although the Obama administration was clearly reliable, perhaps in 2012 defense contractors saw the presidential candidates as neutral because they both supported arms sales, so they went Republican because they deemed Republican legislators and bureaucrats more likely to support arms sales than Democratic ones. 

This logic only goes so far, as John McCain also supported Saudi arms sales. McCain opposed the attempted obstruction of Obama’s arms sales, arguing that keeping Saudi Arabia strong provided “a critical counterweight” to Iran’s influence. Why did the four horsemen not support him? Well, McCain was a proponent of higher military spending, but strongly criticized pricey defense programs and defense contractors cozying up to lawmakers. In 2004, he uncovered a scandal: a top Air Force acquisition official was inflating the price of a Boeing contract while secretly negotiating for a Boeing job. He denounced several expensive defense contracts, including Lockheed Martin’s F-35 (its most expensive weapons program in history), Lockheed Martin’s F-22, and a joint project by Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics called the Littoral Combat Ship. In 2011, he said: “Over time, we have been left with a defense procurement system that has actually incentivized over-promising and underperformance.” Though McCain supported arms sales, he was not a man who could be bought by defense contractors, and fought against their efforts to corrupt government officials. It is likely that the four horsemen supported Democrats in 2008 and 2010 because McCain specifically would never be in their pockets. 

The reason why the American government has been so unresponsive to the opinions of its citizens about Saudi Arabia is simple: top defense contractors rake in big bucks off arms sales. Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics effectively bribe the system by pouring millions of dollars into the campaigns of politicians they know will continue arms sales, proving yet again in a tidal wave of evidence that in America, honesty can be bought. The integrity of the House, Senate, and presidency alike is hardly worth half a PB&J sandwich, but an Everest of cash tends to do the trick, too. Like a Pinocchio that will never achieve the dream of becoming a real boy, the government is puppeted by companies that profit off of death, destruction, and senseless violence. The people have expressed their position on Saudi Arabia and the arms the U.S. sells, but it makes no difference, because the more money you have, the louder you talk, and the four horsemen talk very loudly indeed.

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