The US state department has approved the sale of $290m in bombs to Saudi Arabia as part of a flurry of arms deals with Middle Eastern dictatorships in the last weeks of the Trump administration.
Critics of the sales say they are being rushed through despite broad congressional and public opposition to such military support because of the human rights records of the regimes involved and in the case of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the huge civilian death toll from the war in Yemen.
The state department’s defence security cooperation agency announced the approval of sale of the GBU-39 small diameter bomb munitions and related equipment to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. On the same day, the agency also announced approvals for the sale of AH-64E Apache helicopters worth $4bn to Kuwait, $104m in defensive equipment against missile attack for the plane of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as $65.6m in precision targeting equipment for Egyptian warplanes. Egypt has been criticised for the civilian impact of its counter-insurgency campaign in north Sinai.
On Wednesday, a New York thinktank is planning to sue Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the proposed sale of $23bn worth of advanced weaponry, including drones and stealth warplanes to UAE, saying the administration has failed to meet legal requirements to provide a full rationale for the sale, and to consider the impact on US security and world peace.
The state department said the sales supported “US foreign policy and national security objectives by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East”.
In the case of the UAE arms deal, the administration claimed it enabled the UAE “to deter increasing Iranian aggressive behavior and threats”. The deal was agreed after the Emirates agreed to normalise relations with Israel, and analysts believe the arms sales to the Saudis and to Kuwait are in part incentives for them to follow suit.
Critics of the arms deals said they were destabilising and rewarded human rights abuses.
“The Trump administration is rushing through with parting arms gifts to Saudi Arabia despite its deplorable human rights record,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident murdered by the Saudi regime in 2018
“President Trump’s lame duck Middle East arms bonanza continues,” William Hartung, the director of the arms and security programme at the Centre of International Policy think tank, said. “Selling more bombs to Saudi Arabia given its history of indiscriminate air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians in Yemen should be a non-starter. If Congress can’t block it, the Biden administration should do so when it takes office.”
“Congress and the new administration should also review the sale of equipment to Egypt in light of its brutal and counterproductive counter-terror campaign in the Sinai, which has involved severe human rights abuses, the killing of innocent civilians, and the driving of thousands of families from their homes,” Hartung added.
In a lawsuit expected to be filed on Wednesday, the New York Centre for Foreign Policy Affairs will accuse Pompeo’s state department of rushing the sale of drones and F35 fighter jets to UAE, ignoring the requirements of the arms export control act, to consider the impact on world peace and US security, and the administrative procedures act, “requiring that the department provide a reasoned explanation for its decision”.
Noting the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led air war in Yemen, the lawsuit calls for an injunction to stop the sale, which was narrowly approved by the Senate earlier in December.
The spate of arms sales comes as Joe Biden’s transition team is complaining it is not being properly briefed by the Pentagon on ongoing military operations, as is customary for an incoming administration in the weeks preceding inauguration, on January 20.
“Literally dozens of written requests for information are outstanding as we speak,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told National Public Radio.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the UK parliament’s defence committee and a former junior defence minister, speculated on Twitter: “I wager Trump blocking Biden’s access to US national security agencies, including intelligence briefings and friendly force locations, is because he has a couple of significant operations up his sleeve which may get the green light before 20 Jan[uary].”
The UK, the world’s second biggest arms merchant, resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia in June after a year-long pause, ordered after a court of appeal ruling that ministers had ignored evidence that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen broke humanitarian law. The court found that the government had failed to assess the civilian death toll from the Saudi-led air war directed against Houthi forces in Yemen.
In July the trade secretary, Liz Truss, said sales would restart after an official review concluded there had been only “isolated incidents” of airstrikes in Yemen that were in breach of international law. As a consequence, Truss argued, the undertaking given by the government to halt sales “falls away”.
UK export statistics do not break down buyers by country, but 60% of the country’s £11bn ($15bn) weapons sales in 2019 were to the Middle East, down from nearly 80% in 2018, before the court order.
The leading UK arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, sold £15bn-worth of arms to the Saudi Arabia over the five years of its intervention in Yemen, principally supplying and maintaining Tornado and Typhoon aircraft used in bombing missions.