By: Mason Krohn
On October 27, 1987, Donald J. Trump paid a lofty $94,801 to display an ad in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe. While this price was just a drop in the bucket of Trump’s wealth, it portrayed a clear indication of his stance on Saudi Arabia. Within the newspapers, Trump described the Persian Gulf as, “an area of only marginal significance to the United States”. Furthermore, he claimed, “the world is laughing at America's politicians as we protect ships we don't own, carrying oil we don't need, destined for allies who won't help”. A lot has changed since 1987, because a month ago, Trump made his first trip out of the United States when Air Force One landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, otherwise known as “an area of only marginal significance”. Ironically, when asked if his 1987 full-page advertisement pointed towards political aspirations, Trump’s spokesman stated, “Right now Donald Trump has no ambition to seek political office of any kind.” However, in 2017, Donald Trump holds the future of Saudi-American relations in his hands through his presidential actions and it appears that the kingdom is more significant to Mr. Trump than ever before.
One of the most paramount outcomes of Trump’s visit to the Middle Eastern nation was the creation of a massive arms deal pledging $110 billion in weapons to the kingdom. Prior to Trump taking office, President Obama sold $112 billion in weapons over eight years to Saudi Arabia. The majority of these arms were sold in 2012 in a deal negotiated by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Saudi Arabia signs away these agreements because they are in need of advanced weaponry that the kingdom cannot manufacture. The arms not only uplift their hegemony, but assist Saudi Arabia in their campaign against the Houthi rebel group in Yemen whom the Saudi Arabian government believes gains support from Iran. However, despite their historical purchases, according to the Brookings Institution, there is no deal. In actuality, there are a group of letters of intent in the place of contracts. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon’s arms sales wing, refers to these unofficial agreements as “intended sales” because nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. Moreover, the kingdom is unlikely to have the capability to follow through with the intended sales due to the heavy drop in oil prices which remains the most significant source of capital for Saudi Arabia.
Whether the deal holds true or not, Trump’s sudden willingness to hand American weapons to a nation like Saudi Arabia reveals a few of his motives and priorities in the Middle East. First off, Trump’s stated purpose for creating the arms deal was to boost economic growth for the United States. During his trip he stated, “We made and saved billions of dollars and millions of jobs.” Yet, an analysis by the New York Times found that his figures were quite overexaggerated. Assuming the arms deals were to go through, by the time they become formal agreements, the values are destined to drop. While Obama was in office, offers standing at $115 billion to the Saudis were knocked down to $57 billion after contracts were written out. On top of that, Saudi Arabia maintains a policy that half of its military purchases will be local which means defense contractors are incentivized to relocate jobs inside of the kingdom. In support of this policy, Raytheon has not promised the creation of any domestic employment, but instead announced the formation of a unit named Raytheon Arabia which would aid the Saudi economy. Therefore, the arms deal is stirring growth for Saudi Arabians more than anything else rather than providing Americans with opportunities.
Notably, this deal was signed amidst uproar from human rights advocates against previous weapon usage by the kingdom. The Saudi Arabian military has a bad track record of protecting civilians given that they have used American drones to take out groups of innocent Yemeni people who are unaffiliated with the Houthi movement. In 2016, more than 140 Yemeni citizens lost their lives when airstrikes targeted a funeral. What was a ceremony for the death of one man quickly turned into a national tragedy. Nonetheless, the Saudi-led coalition has continued to relentlessly bomb hospitals, markets, schools, and homes contributing to a death toll of 10,000 while infrastructure is demolished into rubble. Trump has committed himself into a value system for Middle Eastern policy that places human rights on the backburner. Beyond opening relations with a country notorious for its mistreatment of women, Trump is handing over the tools Saudi Arabia needs to bring countless atrocities into fruition.
Even more worrisome for Americans is the impacts of dropping American-labeled bombs on the starving and angered Yemeni populace. Anti-American sentiment has swept through the region due to our past arms deals. For instance, in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, a billboard reads, “America is killing the Yemeni people. They are feeding on our blood.” Keep on driving, and another sign displays, “The American companies enter a country to steal its wealth and humiliate its people.” All the violence within Yemen that America condones is only further radicalizing its citizens. The hatred of the Yemeni people falls back on the United States because we supply the weapons used for killing. But with Trump increasing our distribution of bombs, drones, and military aircraft to the Saudi kingdom, we give the people of Yemen even more reason to band together in their animosity against Americans.
The “$110 billion arms deal” may be merely symbolic and ineffective, but for the people of Yemen and even America, such a proposal can be frightening. Nevertheless, the whole world watched as Trump planted his foot on the side of Middle Eastern politics he wishes to align with: a side of apathy for human rights in favor of the falsehood of economic opportunity. For the sake of Yemeni civilians and even the American people, one can only hope for the return of 1987, non-interventionist Trump.