The Cable

SitRep: Saudi Shakeup as Trump Stumps for More Weapons Sales

Houthi rockets target Saudi capital, Trump considering F-35s for Gulf ally.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on October 22. (Alex Brandon /AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on October 22. (Alex Brandon /AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Shakeup in Saudi. There was a massive power play in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated his control over Saudi Arabia’s political system and foreign policy in a series of well- planned moves that included ordering the arrests of prominent officials and businessmen.

FP’s David Kenner writes that “the crown prince is consolidating his own power to a degree that Saudi Arabia has not seen in generations. Recent Saudi monarchs…had tried to build consensus among all the branches of the royal family – and in doing so, had created an unwieldy system that was at times incapable of making decisions.”

What about the Guard? One of those arrested was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who serves as head of the country’s National Guard. The Guard, which is separate from the Saudi military, historically watched over oil facilities and protected the royal family. But as FP’s Paul McLeary reported last month, the Guard has seen in influx of cash and American-made weapons recently, including new Apache helicopters, new airstrips, and new round of American-led training and support.

Rockets add the the din. A rocket launched from Yemen toward Riyadh was shot down by Saudi air defenses over the weekend, providing the regime the opportunity to escalate its rhetoric against Iran, which it blames for supporting Yemeni Houthi rebels. The attack “could rise to be considered as an act of war against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Saudi government said.

The incident threatens to inflame the threat of conflict between Saudi and Iran, the region’s two major powers. The rocket, which was shot down by an American-made Patriot missile system, led Saudi to shut down all land, air and sea ports into Yemen.

War in Yemen. The U.S. has long played a key role in the Saudi-led military effort in the impoverished country, as FP’s Dan De Luce, Paul McLeary and Colum Lynch recently spelled out. But the Pentagon has curtailed its support as Saudi bombs continued to kill more and more civilians. And as De Luce has reported more recently, the blockade will likely only make the historic outbreak of cholera in Yemen even worse.

Speaking of Patriot missiles. President Trump continued his swing through several allied nations in Asia on Monday, pushing the purchase of more U.S. military hardware. Meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday, Trump directly tied trade and security issues together, expressing disappointment that Tokyo didn’t shoot down recent North Korean missile tests.

Abe “will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of lots of additional military equipment from the United States,” Trump said, standing alongside Abe in Tokyo. “The prime minister of Japan is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment, as he should.”

Trump won’t like this. A provision in the 2018 defense bill being considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee would strike a blow at Trump’s “America First” pledge by opening up the U.S. defense industry for foreign supplies for the first time. More from the WaPo:

“In a move that effectively aligns the White House with Senate Democrats…the bill could give foreign manufacturers greater access to the U.S. shipbuilding supply chain,” that had been restricted to U.S. firms. A separate provision would give the Pentagon the ability to waive Buy American laws entirely when there is only one U.S. supplier able to bid on a contract.

War crimes in Afghanistan? The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has asked for authorization to investigate possible war crimes in Afghanistan, a move that could ensnare U.S. troops and commanders, who have fought there since 2001.

Who’s where when. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will spend the week in Europe, where he kicked things off in Finland on Monday in a meeting with the Northern Group, an alliance of twelve northern European nations increasingly concerned about Russia. Later this week, he’ll attend a NATO Defense Ministerial and host a meeting of ministers from the Defeat-ISIS coalition.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Aim high. The Gulf may get its first stealth fighter jet as the Trump administration says it’s considering whether to sell the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the United Arab Emirates. The decision is far from settled thus far but it could prove controversial as the Obama administration had turned down previous Emirati requests to purchase the F-35 on the grounds that it would violate longstanding assurances to Israel that the U.S. seek to preserve an Israeli Qualitative Military Edge over its Arab neighbors.

Paradise Papers. Remember the Panama Papers — the hack of an Panamanian law firm that revealed the illicit offshore financial holdings of world leaders? Well, there’s a sequel now. An unnamed source slipped over 13 million files from offshore law firm Appleby to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared the haul with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Silent partner. Among the more shocking revelations in the Paradise Papers the fact that Trump administration Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross invested in and joined the board of shipping firm Navigator Holdings, whose top client includes Sibur, an energy firm owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and Kremlin-connected oligarch Gennady Timchenko, who is subject to U.S. sanctions.

Documents leaked from the Appleby law firm also show that large investments in Facebook and Twitter have received Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a prominent investor in Facebook and Twitter, received financial backing from Russian state-owned financial institutions for his social media investments, including money from VTB and Gazprom Investholding.

Go big or go home. If the Pentagon wants to secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict, it’s going to have to send in lots of ground troops to get the job done. That’s the conclusion shared with lawmakers in a letter from vice director of the Joint Staff Rear Adm. Michael J. Dumont. Dumont also writes that North Korea would also consider the use of biological and chemical weapons in the event of a war with the United States.

Saudi-Iran rumble. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah took a moment to weigh in on the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, calling it “a Saudi decision that was imposed on” the Lebanese leader and claiming that the terrorist group “did not seek this resignation.” Nasrallah also sought to tamp down fears of an imminent war between Hezbollah and Israel, saying Israel won’t initiate a war unless it can be assured of a “quick, decisive and inexpensive war.”

Who, me? During his Asia trip, President Trump pointed the finger at Iran for its alleged involvement in the firing of a ballistic missile from Yemen towards Riyadh, saying “a shot was just taken by Iran.” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari took issue with the claim of Iranian involvement, calling the allegations “baseless” and saying “We do not have even the possibility to transfer missiles to Yemen.”

Afghanistan. A U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed in fighting in Logar Province, Afghanistan on Sunday, marking the second Special Forces casualty in the past week. The Defense Department says Sgt. 1st Class, Stephen B. Cribben of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group died “as a result of wounds sustained while engaged in combat operations.”

Kunduz. Afghan lawmakers says U.S. airstrikes in Kunduz on Friday killed a number of civilians, with the death toll potentially reaching as many as 22. Afghan and U.S. officials say they’re launching an investigation into the strikes in Chardara district but have yet to confirm the loss of civilian life.

Fat Leonard. A whopping 60 U.S. Navy admirals are currently under investigation for their potential role in the Fat Leonard corruption scandal, which saw a defense contractor ply Navy officers with sex, money, and gifts in return for help security contracts, according to the Washington Post. The Navy told the Post that the 60 admirals are part of 440 current and former officers the service is looking into to determine whether they inappropriately accepted any of Leonard’s largesse.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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