- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
As Saudi Arabia rolls out the red carpet for President Donald Trump this weekend, his administration will arrive bearing the same gifts as every visiting president before him: billions in high-tech American weaponry and military support, and pledges for more.
The Kingdom’s relationship with the new administration in Washington appears poised to enter a new phase, with the Saudis taking the lead in the fight to contain Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, spearheading a region-side counterterrorism effort, and appearing eager to build a deeper defense partnership with Washington that could be good for business for both countries.
There are are also more personal matters. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has reportedly formed a close relationship with 31 year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son and the country’s ambitious minister of defense, according to a report in the New York Times. The two scions of powerful families, given huge responsibilities at relatively young ages, have been speaking since soon after Trump won the presidency in November and have emerged as the driving forces behind putting together a massive defense package set to be unveiled in the coming days, thought to be worth about $110 billion over the next ten years.
Those sales will be spread out over a variety of expensive and high-maintenance projects including new ships, tanks, armored vehicles, precision guided bombs, missile defense and radar systems according to people with knowledge of the discussions, and several published reports.
Two Capitol Hill staffers tell FP that no new deals have been sent to the oversight committees for approval, indicating that while the package will be billed as a brand-new initiative, most of the agreements were in fact first reached under the Obama administration, or are far too early in the process to be anywhere near the finish line.
The biggest item in the basket looks to be the restart of a deal for four brand-new Littoral Combat Ships by by Lockheed Martin for about $6 billion. The Saudi version of the vessels will come more heavily armed than their American counterparts, and will replace the aging vessels in the Kingdom’s Eastern Fleet, based in the Arabian Gulf facing Iran.
The original proposed sale — worth an estimated $11 billion when it was first announced in October 2015 — was rejected by the Saudis three months later due to their concerns over the cost and the redesigns Lockheed Martin engineers made to the original American hulls. Discussions have continued since that time, and many of those concerns appear to have been ironed out.
Also included in the total is an August 2016 deal for 153 Abrams tanks worth about $1.1 billion, and the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits — which upgrade so-called dumb bombs to smart bombs — worth over $350 million. The deal for the kits was suspended by the Obama administration in December, citing concerns over the high civilian casualty toll in the Saudi air campaign in Yemen.
The Trump administration has openly said that those kinds of humanitarian concerns will be less important going forward, and there is little indication the president will touch on human rights during his highly anticipated speech about counterterrorism in Riyadh over the weekend. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explicitly laid out the administration’s view that Washington won’t “condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values,” as doing so “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
When some of these packages begin arriving on Capitol Hill for final approval, they will likely face a fight. A bipartisan group of senators already fought to block the tank sale last year, and has expressed deep reservations over the 16,000 munitions kits, which one State Department official told FP that Secretary Tillerson is still reviewing.
In April, a group of 30 mostly Democratic senators sent a letter to president Trump to hold off on the sale, and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) led the charge with a new bill that would set human rights conditions on U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis are important partners in the Middle East,” Murphy wrote, but “we have an obligation to ensure U.S. military support is not being used to kill innocent civilians, and requiring Saudi Arabia to meet these basic conditions should be a no brainer.”
Just days before Trump’s visit, Riyadh announced the formation of Saudi Arabian Military Industries, a government-owned defense company that will build and repair aircraft, drones, ground vehicles, missiles, and radar systems. The plan, as the government envisions it, is to build the company into one of the world’s top defense companies by 2030 and employ 40,000 people.
It’s a huge undertaking for a nation that is one of the world’s top five defense spenders, but only builds and repairs about two percent of its armaments domestically. Traditionally, U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia come with massive, long-term sustainment contracts for repair and modernization, something the new company, if successful, could bite into.
Few analysts expect the relationship to change dramatically however. The most reliable equipment still comes from American factories, and “the Saudis recognize one way to keep the U.S. involved in the region is to buy military equipment,” said Dov Zakheim, former under secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration.
But the emphasis on arms sales shows how the Trump administration has militarized many of its cabinet and policymaking positions, leading to a “heavy military bias” within the decision making apparatus, according to another former Obama WHite House official.
Another big ticket item — and one of the only to be initiated by the Trump team — expected to be unveiled is an initial agreement for the sale of the Lockheed Martin-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system (THAAD), which costs about $1 billion. The radar and missile capability would be coupled with more sales of the latest Patriot missile systems, in a direct nod to the missile threat emanating from Iran.
One former Obama administration official who asked to speak anonymously said that while many of these deals are familiar to veterans of the prior administration, “it’s clear that the Trump administration is seeking to reset the relationship” with Saudi Arabia by making a splashy announcement over the weaponry.
“Frankly, sales of weapons may be one of the easiest way to do that,” the former official said. “I would prefer that to the United States doubling down on a bad approach to Yemen, meaning we provide military support to or get involved directly.”
Photo Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images