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Lawmakers Demand to See the Side Deals in Trump’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Democrats suspect the weapons sales are sending jobs to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Several Democratic lawmakers are demanding that the Trump administration disclose the details of side deals connected with U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia, Foreign Policy has learned, maintaining that the so-called offsets undercut the financial benefits of weapons sales touted by the White House. 

The push by six House Democrats led by Rep. Katie Porter of California is just the latest tussle between Capitol Hill and the commander in chief over the cozy relationship between the White House and Persian Gulf nations. 

The lawmakers want the administration to release information on the deals, negotiated between Saudi officials and U.S. defense contractors, that allow Riyadh to onshore some manufacturing and technology as part of an effort to grow its defense industry. Last month, Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration is in discussions to end a decades-long practice of informally notifying Congress about U.S. arms sales. The administration is contemplating another major arms deal with Saudi Arabia—this one for precision-guided munitions—that includes significant offsets, a congressional aide said. 

But lawmakers said the practice of brokering the side deals, which they referred to as “sweeteners,” largely discredit Trump’s claims that deals inked under his administration could lead to “over a million” new American jobs. An analysis by the Center for International Policy put the total number of jobs created by Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia at between 20,000 to 40,000. 

“We write to you because we believe that the Trump administration has grossly exaggerated the economic benefits of arms exports, particularly to Saudi Arabia,” the lawmakers wrote to Cordell Hull, the acting undersecretary of commerce for industry and security. “Further, we believe that the extraordinary transfer of military technology to Saudi Arabia as part of recent arms sales may undermine the American defense industrial capacity and fuel violence in the Middle East.”

Democratic lawmakers have sought to further scrutinize arms sales to the Middle East since the Trump administration declared a May 2019 national security emergency to override congressional opposition and force through 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan—drawing a stinging congressional rebuke. The Trump administration, for its part, has touted arms sales as a means of deepening diplomatic relations with a host of foreign partners. Two months later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper faced strong pushback from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren over his refusal to extend his recusal from decisions involving Raytheon, which makes precision-guided bombs sold to Saudi Arabia. Esper is a former top lobbyist for Raytheon. 

Porter and fellow California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who is also a signatory on the letter sent Tuesday, have also pushed back on Pentagon requests that would narrow lobbying restrictions for former generals and senior officials, allowing them to advocate on behalf of defense contractors one year after leaving positions at the companies, instead of two years after. 

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the seeming divergence between U.S. and Saudi foreign-policy interests has been thrown into sharp contrast as Congress pushed back heavily against the Defense Department’s refueling mission in Yemen and, more recently, the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia last year.

“Giving this kind of military technology to the Gulf states is cause for concern,” Porter told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. “Congress must investigate, not only because these sales undermined human rights and regional security but also because they may have undermined our own defense industrial capacity.”

President Donald Trump’s push to tout U.S. defense exports as a major driver for jobs growth has run up against the desires of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both led by kings-in-waiting who see beefing up their national weapons industries as part of a push toward economic modernization. Still, both countries are eager to get American gear however they can, experts said, given the uptick in tensions in the region since the United States exited the 2015 Iran nuclear deal two years ago. 

“They’re more concerned with getting the latest and the greatest,” said Dave Des Roches, a former Defense Department and White House official now with the National Defense University. “They want to be peers with the United States. They want to be fully compatible.”

Under the $8.1 billion in sales approved under the Trump administration’s emergency declaration last year, Saudi Arabia received U.S. advisory services to the Ministry of Defense and a deal to co-produce Paveway guided munitions, according to State Department documents seen by Foreign Policy. The UAE received similar smart bombs and Javelin anti-tank missiles, among other weapons. 

Trump touted the value of increased defense cooperation—hinting at co-production and offset agreements—during his first trip abroad as president, to Saudi Arabia, in May 2017. But since then, the U.S. administration has made less of a point of touting the cooperation agreements, which a congressional aide told Foreign Policy often amount to 50 or 60 percent of the total sale value for sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

“I think most people who work on that in the administration don’t see that as a positive for trying to maintain the transfers,” the aide said. “Trump hasn’t really repeated that since the first visit.”

Yet behind the scenes, Peter Navarro, a top Trump ally in the White House who serves as the president’s director of manufacturing and trade policy, has become an increasingly intense advocate for arms sales to the Gulf, according to New York Times reporting, pushing lawmakers directly to approve sales of Raytheon-made precision-guided weapons to the Gulf that had stalled amid the brutal Saudi-led air war in Yemen.  

But some advocates think the signal that’s being sent to Saudi Arabia with the offset deals is a sign that the Trump administration is allowing Riyadh to take advantage of its cozy relationship with the White House, gaining a bigger foothold in U.S. foreign policy than it deserves. 

“They’ve overvalued the relationship and they’ve overlooked egregious violations and norms of the relationship and hyper-inflated arms sales over other norms you’d expect from a partner,” said Seth Binder, the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington think tank. “It’s certainly out of whack. And the return on investment doesn’t seem to match.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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