Arms trade in the Gulf is once again under the spotlight as the global public health crisis from the coronavirus pandemic raises questions about sales to countries engaged in armed conflict. The United Nations secretary-general appealed for a global cease-fire, calling on leaders around the world “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” There have been pleas, as well as some actions by governments, to divert resources from defense sectors toward public health sectors. This includes President Donald J. Trump invoking the Defense Production Act in March – a law enacted in 1950 (as the Korean War started) that gives the government more control during emergencies to direct industrial production – a measure that he saw “as a ‘break the glass’ last resort.” More broadly, countries around the world have had to reassess the most pressing challenges they face and rethink what “national defense” means during a pandemic. On the other end of the spectrum, the economic toll suffered by the Gulf Arab states because of the pandemic and a steep drop in oil prices has led experts to question whether Gulf states will be able to sustain their arms spending.
Arms sales to the Gulf Arab states are also under added scrutiny against the backdrop of internal U.S. politics and heightened regional tensions. In May, the U.S. Department of State’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick, was fired for reasons that are allegedly related to an investigation he was conducting into whether the administration had unlawfully declared an emergency in 2019 to allow weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Eliot Engel, chairmen of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, stated it was “troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.” As noted by Mandy Smithberger and Liz Hempowicz from the Project on Government Oversight, this points to core issues, including “whether the State Department has been improperly sidelined from national security decision-making, [and] whether advancing arms sales has undermined other national security interests.”
These past few years, against the backdrop of the war in Yemen, concerns over human rights abuses, and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calls to halt arms sales to the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have multiplied and intensified. These exports have provoked public outcry and prompted actions from nongovernmental organizations. They have also led to attempts to block them in Congress, including through strong bipartisan legislation. However, neither strained U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia nor the global pandemic has had any real impact on the decisions made by the Trump administration on this front. In 2019, U.S. arms sales to the Middle East more than doubled in value, with spending from the Gulf states increasing from $5.8 billion in 2018 to $14.2 billion, including the fast-tracked $8 billion to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Linick was investigating. More recently, in May, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the Pentagon had approved the sale of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles to the UAE, for an estimated cost of more than $500 million. The Trump administration is also planning to sell $500 million worth of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the continued deteriorating situations in Yemen and Libya have played an important role in keeping these issues on the front burner. In Libya, there has been an increase in arms flows from external parties, mainly the UAE and Turkey, contributing to continued armed conflict and instability. Questions also have been raised about the funneling of weapons to nonstate actors in Yemen (from Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and Syria (from Saudi Arabia and Qatar). This has a direct impact on political debates in the United States and other traditional arms suppliers of the Gulf Arab states because the arms transferred are often made in the United States, France, or the United Kingdom. These transfers pose difficult legal questions because, as unlicensed reexports, they breach international law by violating not only arms embargoes but also end-user agreements that are part of arms deals.
Thus, a lot is weighing on the future of arms trade in the Gulf, including the prospect of Gulf countries reassessing their priorities given the economic contraction they are experiencing. In the United States, the combination of long-term considerations linked to the health crisis, aggravated tensions in the region, and the controversy surrounding the firing of Linick has given momentum to advocates of reviewing arms control processes and the priority sometimes given to arms sales over other national interests. In particular, there have been calls to strengthen congressional oversight by having both houses approve proposed arms sales before they can go through instead of needing a two-thirds majority to block them. In fact, this idea to “flip the script” was proposed by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden in 1986.
Recent events have also highlighted the importance of challenging traditional narratives surrounding arms sales to the Gulf, notably the idea that these translate into so many U.S. jobs that the national interest it represents should not be questioned. In 2018, journalists exposed Trump’s escalating claims about the jobs that arms sales to Saudi Arabia created in 2017, from 450,000 jobs to 500,000, then 600,000, and eventually “over a million jobs.” More recently, the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung investigated the issue and concluded that a more accurate number of jobs created in support of arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be 20,000 to 40,000.
These are questions that Gulf Arab states themselves may eventually wish to examine, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia since both have increasingly looked to the defense sector as a means of economic diversification and regional ambitions. The unprecedented times the world and region are experiencing offer new perspectives and opportunities to prioritize public health and “soft security” issues, and the Gulf Arab states could decide to lead by example in turning this corner. For Riyadh, the nascent stage of its indigenous arms industry could make such a transition easier.
The UAE is, in this respect, an interesting case study. In particular, the country could become the first in the region to manufacture and export N95 masks – an achievement made possible by efforts to transform its defense industry (the company Strata used to make airplane parts). Recently, the country has also deployed substantial efforts abroad for humanitarian diplomacy, and its minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, called for a cease-fire and diplomacy in Libya. These examples are linked to realist strategic calculi: deflecting the negative international attention to its role in the Libyan chaos, for instance, as well as economic challenges and incentives, including the possible necessity to rethink the rentier social contract. But, whatever drives them, the evolving strategies of Gulf Arab states could impact arms trade in the region – driven by new dynamics in which client states have gained mounting leverage and power.
It is possible that the United States will look to boost its future arms exports to the Middle East despite increasing scrutiny. But as it tries to do so, it is not certain it will find as many enthusiastic buyers as it normally does.