June 16, 2020 | House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Objectives of U.S. Arms Sales to the Gulf: Examining Strategic Goals, Risks, and Benefits

Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism
June 16, 2020 | House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Objectives of U.S. Arms Sales to the Gulf: Examining Strategic Goals, Risks, and Benefits

Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism


June 16, 2020

Opening statement

As prepared for delivery

Chairman Engel, Chairman Deutch, Ranking Member Wilson, and distinguished members of the subcommittee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Center on Military and Political Power, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on U.S. arms sales to the Gulf.

I have attempted to provide a detailed written statement that I hope is useful. So, in my 5 minutes, I will focus on the larger strategic context for U.S. arms sales in the Gulf, and quickly offer some specific policy recommendations.

The U.S. confronts an intense great power competition with the authoritarian adversaries of China and Russia that requires increased attention and resources. That competition with China and Russia is particularly intense in the Indo-Pacific and eastern Europe.

Yet, at the same time, the U.S. confronts persistent threats in the Middle East.

These include, first and foremost, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as terrorist groups such as ISIS.  To make matters worse, the great power competition is also increasingly playing out in the Middle East as well.

Many Americans may be tired and uninterested in the Middle East after all of these years, but the Middle East remains interested in us. And as we learned painfully on 9/11, unaddressed threats in the wider Middle East can follow us home and hurt us here.

We retain serious national security interests in the Middle East. I agree with Dr. Exum that those core interests include counter terrorism, counter proliferation, the free flow of commerce, and the defense of Israel.

Interestingly, almost none of the eleven defense objectives listed in the National Defense Strategy can be accomplished if the U.S. neglects the Middle East.

To make matters worse, the international arms embargo on Iran may end this coming October.

If this occurs, Tehran will be free to acquire new and advanced military capabilities from Moscow and Beijing.

Yet, the U.S. lacks sufficient defense resources to prevail in the great power competition and counter continuing threats in the Middle East, while simultaneously conducting an overdue generational military modernization effort.

So, what is to be done?

Part of the answer lies in building Gulf partner military capacity. This can be a frustrating process riddled with pitfalls, dilemmas, and challenges, some of which my colleagues have already highlighted. But building partner capacity, as hard as it may be, actually represents the best path to reducing the burden on U.S. taxpayers and troops in the Middle East while protecting American interests.

And a well-designed, well-implemented, closely-monitored, and constantly reassessed arms sales program – accompanied by robust training – represents an essential component of any successful effort to build partner capacity.

Yet – for understandable reasons – there has been a heated debate in Washington regarding U.S. arms sales to some Gulf partners, especially Saudi Arabia.

We must continue to protect our national security interests, while never forsaking our humanitarian principles.  We can and should do both.

So, for the sake of time, with this context in mind, here are seven policy recommendations Congress may want to consider.

  1. For reasons I touched on already and in my written statement, I encourage Congress to support, in a bipartisan manner, efforts to extend the arms embargo on Iran.
  2. The U.S., working with allies and partners, should redouble efforts to interdict Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis in Yemen. Members of Congress may want to seek updates from the administration on current efforts to interdict arms shipments from Iran to Yemen, with a focus on how these efforts can be strengthened.
  3. Congress should demand that the administration improve foreign military sales training programs in the Gulf, pressing the administration to refine metrics and demonstrate progress. Congress may want to task GAO to conduct a new study of FMS training. It does us little good if a country has some of the best equipment in the world if they don’t know how to maintain or operate it.
  4. Members may want to request briefings from the intelligence community on Chinese and Russian use of bribery related to arms sales, looking for opportunities where possible to deter the practice and expose those involved.
  5. If Riyadh refuses to end airstrikes against civilian targets in Yemen, Congress may choose to sustain efforts to block the sales of the munitions used in these airstrikes. But Congress should think twice before blocking weapons sales to Saudi Arabia not associated with the airstrikes in Yemen and that may help the Saudis develop capabilities to counter Iran.
  6. Congress should require the administration to establish a U.S.-Israel Operations Technology Working Group in order to reinforce Israel’s QME, prevent dangerous capabilities gaps from emerging, and ensure that American and Israel warfighters never confront a more technologically advanced foe. Ranking Member Wilson and Representative Houlahan introduced the bipartisan US-Israel Military Capability Act of 2020 (H.R. 7148), which would do just that.
  7. Congress should amend the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2776) to provide more information to better assess the merit of any future emergency declaration related to arms sales. Section 1270 in the House’s version of the FY 2020 NDAA (H.R. 2500) would have done that. This provision, however, was not included in the final bill, and members may decide to renew that effort this year.

I thank this subcommittee for the opportunity to testify. I look forward to answering your questions.

Read the full written testimony here.


Full written testimony


Gulf States Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy