November 12, 2010 | The Hill

Arming the Kingdom

With the election behind us, and representatives still celebrating (or not) back in their home states, time is running out to affect a foreign policy matter that will have lasting implications on global stability for decades. On October 20th the White House sent details to the U.S. Congress of the largest arms sale in American history, which prompted the 30 calendar day countdown for Congress to object to it before it automatically goes through. This sale is a $60 billion package of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. When the elected officials return to Washington on November 15th, they will have four days to act if they have an objection. While an outright objection is very unlikely, it would be unwise to let this arms deal sail through without serious oversight from the Congress.

The sale includes purely offensive weapons: 80 F-15 fighter jets, 190 new helicopters and an array of missiles, bombs, and launchers. A senior Obama official explained the reason behind the monstrous arms package, “We want Iran to understand that its nuclear program is not getting them leverage over their neighbors, that they are not getting an advantage.” This strategy is a legacy of the Bush administration. In 2007 the administration announced it would begin arming Gulf States to counter Iran. A senior official stated, “We're paying attention to the needs of our allies and what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran. One way to deal with that is to make our allies and friends strong.”

Pressure on Iran, with the purpose of stopping their nuclear program, is vital, but with time quickly running out before they get the bomb, it is critical that pressure is being exerted precisely and most effectively. It is not clear that this arms deal falls in that category.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is a perfect case study of the complexity of the Middle East. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is governed by a monarchy in accordance with Sharia Law, and heavily influenced by the orthodox Muslim Shura counsel. It is home to the two ‘holiest’ Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina. Religious freedom is non-existent, women are treated like property, and flogging for “sexual deviance” (homosexuality), amputating hands for thievery, and decapitations for capital offences are still practiced. And, like the majority of Muslim countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not recognize the statehood of Israel.

There is also a history of Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia. In 1995 a car bomb in the Kingdom’s capital of Riyadh killed seven people, five of them American, and in 1996 Islamist militants exploded a fuel truck outside a U.S. military based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia killing 19 U.S. military in the Khubar Towers facility and wounded 515, of which 240 were American. Last but not least, the Kingdom was home to Osama Bin Laden (where he enjoyed rockstar status for years) and 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11th 2001.

In spite of these major problems, the U.S. does enjoy benefits from the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia sends 20 percent of its oil exports to the U.S and Saudi Arabia’s secular leaders oppose Iran’s bombastic defiance towards the international community including its rush to nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran is destabilizing for not only the West, but for the Arab region as well. Press reports even indicated that Saudi Arabia will permit Israel to use its airspace in the event of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilitates. The day that report broke, the Kingdom issued a press release denouncing it due to domestic and international pressure not to side with the Israel.

To allow Israel its airspace would be remarkable but not out of character. In 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Saudi Arabia granted the U.S. over-flight rights and even reportedly allowed U.S. Special Ops to stage operations from Saudi soil. Having a strategic partner in this part of the world comes in very handy. Most recently, it was intelligence provided by Saudi Arabia that helped to thwart the transfer of explosives from Yemen to Chicago.

It is clear there are benefits that go along with being a friend of the Saudis, but if a country’s mores are more like those of our enemies than our allies, we should be careful how we reciprocate those benefits. It would be wise for Congress to ask several questions regarding this potential enormous weapons sale: What, exactly, do the Saudis consider the aim of acquiring these particular weapons? What kind of threat could these weapons pose to our allies such as Israel? What sort of measures will be in place to ensure the weapons cannot be used by radicalized Saudis? And lastly, if the U.S. is going to continue providing military assistance to Saudi Arabia, what are we requiring the Saudi government to do to reform its government and protect basic civil liberties of its people? These are critical questions that must be asked in the next two weeks and for as long as the U.S. maintains this awkward friendship with this bipolar country.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.