The Trump administration is poised to move quickly to approve major weapons packages for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that President Obama blocked during his final months in office over human rights concerns in both nations, U.S. officials and congressional sources say.
While the White House declined to discuss its plans, one U.S. official directly involved in the transfers told The Washington Times that a roughly $300 million precision-guided missile technology package for Riyadh and a multibillion-dollar F-16 deal for Bahrain are now in the pipeline ready for clearance from the new administration.
The deals, if approved, would send a significant signal about the priorities of the new administration, where the security challenge posed by forces such as Islamist jihadi groups and Iran is taking a much greater precedence in setting foreign policy.
“These are significant sales for key allies in the Gulf who are facing the threat from Iran and who can contribute to the fight against the Islamic State,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Whereas the Obama administration held back on these, they’re now in the new administration’s court for a decision — and I would anticipate the decision will be to move forward.”
The Pentagon also declined to comment. But congressional sources said they anticipate the Trump administration will easily overcome resistance on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and some Republicans have called for restrictions on sales to Riyadh amid an outcry from human rights groups over large-scale civilian casualties of the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen.
Amnesty International has charged that the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition waging war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen “appear[s] to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques, which may amount to war crimes.”
More than 60 members of the House signed a bipartisan letter calling on former President Obama to delay a $1.15 billion sale of battle tanks to Saudi Arabia last Summer. In September Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Sens. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota to try to block the sale.
While the bill was tabled by a 71-27 procedural vote, the senators made headlines arguing that Riyadh’s indiscriminate bombing in Yemen was feeding extremist narratives and strengthening al Qaeda and Islamic State in the war-torn nation.
The Obama administration ultimately approved the Saudi tank deal — a move many saw as part of a pattern to ease security fears of the Saudis and other Arab Gulf states in the wake of the nuclear deal Mr. Obama strongly backed with Iran.
But during his final days in office, Mr. Obama suddenly shifted on weapons sales to the Saudis, specifically with regard to the now-pending package of precision-guided weapons technology.
An Obama administration official told Reuters in December that “systemic” and “endemic” problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting in Yemen had led to the decision to spike the sale of the so-called smart bomb technology from Raytheon.
The U.S. official who spoke with The Times this week questioned that logic and suggested the Trump White House is now poised to embrace the deal, which would include enough of the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company’s “Paveway” guidance systems to “convert thousands of dumb bombs into smart bombs.”
The U.S. has sold precision-guided bombs and technology to the Saudis as far back as 2008, but the kingdom has reportedly been badly in need of a resupply since its campaign in Yemen kicked off two years ago.
“While we’re very concerned about Saudi actions in Yemen in terms of the civilian casualties, we believe a more accurate partner is a more effective partner and results in fewer casualties,” the official said. “If they’re going to drop stuff, it should be precision-guided rather than dumb.”
On a separate track, the Obama administration in October blocked the proposed $3 billion sale of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain until the tiny Sunni Arab monarchy demonstrated measurable progress on human rights. The government in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has aggressively cracked down on its restive Shiite Muslim majority since the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
It’s not clear whether the Bahrain and Saudi deals will face the same level of opposition on Capitol Hill as was seen last fall. Once the Trump administration signs off on the deals, Congress will have 30 days to block them.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Murphy declined to comment for this article.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker suggested the Bahrain deal may be imminent, but declined to comment on the Saudi deal.
“I’m hoping the Bahrain deal is going to roll out without the restrictions,” the Tennessee Republican told Defense News last week. “I think it could happen soon.”
A senior aide to Mr. Corker told The Times that the senator stands by the assertion.
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Sources close to the government in Riyadh, however, said that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is “very, very up” on the Trump administration and believes it will pursue a significantly different policy from the Obama administration, particularly toward Iran.
Other U.S. officials, speaking on background this week, noted that the Trump administration already moved during its first days in office to approve roughly $1 billion in sales for America’s Gulf Arab allies, including some $400 million in air-to-air missiles and helicopter parts for Kuwait and a $500 million-plus package that included Aerostat observation balloons for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis in particular are likely to see billions of dollars in more defense sales in the coming years.
William Hartung of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy noted in an analysis published in December that the Obama administration offered more than $115 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh in 42 separate deals between 2009 and 2016 — more than any U.S. administration in history.
“The majority of this equipment is still in the pipeline, and could tie the United States to the Saudi military for years to come,” wrote Mr. Hartung, who said in an interview this week that the Trump administration should proceed with caution on both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“In the case of Bahrain, whatever purported benefits they would get from more F-16s are counterweighted by the fact that they suppress democracy,” he said. The Obama administration’s sudden resistance in December had also sent “a concrete message” to the Saudis that “we’re not going to tolerate their indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen,” he added.
“To lift that now, without some indication from the Saudis that they’re going to stop doing it, makes no sense,” Mr. Hartung said.