Senate opponents join forces to prevent U.S. arms sales to Saudis

Saudi forces take part in military exercises during a visit by Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah at the Saudi-led coalition military base in Yemen's southern embattled city of Aden. (Credit: Ahmed Farwan/flickr)

Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., do not see eye to eye on most issues. However, the two agree that the U.S. should not be selling arms to Saudi Arabia. A joint resolution introduced by the two and fellow Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., seeks to block the proposed $1.5 billion in tanks and arms sales to Saudi Arabia, announced in August.

It is a major rebuke to the Obama administration for its continued support of Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition in support of the Yemeni government. Coalition airstrikes against rebel groups have also hit civilians and humanitarian groups, fueling calls for an end to the campaign.

“Selling $1.15 billion in tanks, guns, ammunition and more to a country with a poor human rights record embroiled in a bitter war is a recipe for disaster and an escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region,” Paul said in a statement.

The move may be too late. There was a 30-day window for Congress to act on the arms deal, which was approved by the State Department on Aug. 9. The sale includes: more than 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles and an array of other arms and military equipment to the Saudi government. The senators argue that they could work around that 30-day window, forcing a vote under a provision in the Arms Export Act of 1976.

“Saudi Arabia is an important partner, but their war in Yemen, funded by the U.S., has become a disaster that is making our country less safe every day,” Murphy said in a statement. “Thousands of civilians are being killed, and terrorist groups inside the country, like al-Qaida and ISIS, are getting stronger. Until the Saudis’ conduct changes, the U.S. should put a pause on further arms sales.”

Oxfam America immediately supported the resolution after it was announced on Friday. It pointed out that the people of Yemen are suffering in a humanitarian crisis, with 14 million people unable to meet their basic food needs. Airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and other civilian targets. Oxfam is pushing for a political solution to Yemen’s crisis and the end of violence.

The U.S. has sold Saudi Arabia and other countries billions of dollars in arms in recent years. Congress blocking the new arms deal is a step in the right direction, advocates say.

“We urge the Obama administration to withdraw its support to the Saudi-led coalition and for Congress to adopt this legislation and hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire,” Scott Paul, senior humanitarian adviser for Oxfam, said in a statement. “Congress’ silence would signal to the Yemeni people that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is unconditional – no matter how cruel the parties’ methods of warfare or how unwilling they are to make peace.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.