Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest oil-blessed countries in the politically volatile Middle East, continues to strengthen its military relationship with the United States.
According to the latest figures released by the US Department of Commerce, Saudi Arabia is America’s’ largest foreign military sales (FMS) customer, with more than $84.3 billion in arms supplies.
Currently, Saudi Arabia has the world’s fifth-largest defense budget after the United States, China, Russia, and India.
The 2023 budget figures, released by the Saudi Ministry of Finance back in December 2022, indicated a proposed expenditure of $69 billion for defense in 2023—approximately 23 percent of its total budget, which increased by 50 percent from last year.
The US Commerce Department declared Saudi Arabia ”the market of the month” in its September promotional campaign for arms sales.
Under its Vision 2030 economic diversification program, Saudi Arabia aims to localize 50 percent of its military procurement by 2030 under the aegis of two military-industrial bodies: The General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) and Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), which contracts directly with foreign companies.
But the rise in defense spending and arms purchases comes at a time when Saudi Arabia has been accused of killing hundreds of African migrants, mostly Ethiopians, trying to cross the border from Yemen.
Are US-made small arms—including assault rifles, pistols, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, mortars, hand grenades and anti-personnel land mines—being used in the killings?
The United Nations has expressed serious concern over the killings. “I think trying to stop migration using the barrel of a gun is intolerable,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on August 21.
A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) provided eye-witness accounts of some of the killings. The report accused Saudi border guards of killing hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023.
“Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons and shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic. If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these killings would be a crime against humanity,” HRW said.
The report raises grave concerns with respect to whether these attacks were ordered by the Saudi government. It states that if they occurred as part of a government policy to kill migrants, they would be “a crime against humanity”.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Visiting Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told IDN it is important to know whether US weapons are being used in these horrendous attacks. Unfortunately, it’s likely because the United States supplies the overwhelming majority of weapons provided to Saudi Arabia.
“The US government should immediately halt all new arms transfer agreements and all ongoing deliveries to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly demonstrated that it should not be eligible to receive US military equipment and training. The Saudi-led coalition’s documented uses of US weapons in attacks on civilians in Yemen are another striking example of Saudi Arabia’s failure to honor the conditions of US weapons transfers,” she pointed out.
“The burden of proof must be on the Saudis to fully investigate these crimes and ensure accountability for past attacks and prevention of their repetition. The burden of proof should not be on the US government to determine whether the Saudi government or people acting on its behalf committed these atrocities”, said Dr. Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
She said in the Conventional Arms Transfer policy released earlier this year, the Biden Administration claimed to be setting a standard that arms transfers would not be approved when its analysis concluded that “it is more likely than not” that the arms transferred would be used to commit or facilitate the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law.
“How much more proof do they need?” she asked.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia imports nearly 80 percent of its arms from the United States.
Through FMS, the United States supports three key security assistance organizations in Saudi Arabia—the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior.
While Saudi Arabia has normalized relations with Iran and maintained a lasting ceasefire with Yemen, aerospace, air defense and territorial defense remain strong government priorities.
Key projects include the construction of facilities at the King Salman Airbase and the relocation and establishment of the King Faisal Air Academy, according to the US Department of Commerce.
In an interview with IDN, Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms Transfer Programme, at SIPRI, said SIPRI estimates that in the 5-year period 2018-2022, the US accounted for 78 percent of Saudi Arabia’s imports of major arms.
Excerpts from the interview:
The arms supplied during those 5 years included 91 F-15SA combat aircraft, ordered in 2011, with hundreds of land-attack missiles and over 20,000 guided bombs, 56 combat helicopters, 153 tanks and hundreds of Patriot air defense missiles.
As a result, Saudi Arabia was the largest recipient of major arms from the US in 2018-22, accounting for 19% of total US arms exports.
The US continues to supply many major arms to Saudi Arabia, with deliveries for open contracts planned in the coming 5 years, including 4 MMSC frigates, 31 more F-15SA combat aircraft, 7 advanced THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) air and missile defense systems and 100s more Patriot missiles.
In addition, he said, US arms-producing companies have been pursuing further contracts for maritime patrol aircraft, transport aircraft, armored vehicles and artillery.
Diversifying arms supplies
Q: Does Saudi Arabia also buy arms from other countries?
A: Yes, the Saudi Arabian demand for arms is significant, and the country has been trying to diversify its arms supplies in order not to be too dependent on US weapons.
Though the US was by far the dominant supplier to Saudi Arabia in the past 5 years, weapons were also supplied by others, mainly European countries. France accounted for 6.4 and Spain for 4.9 percent of Saudi arms imports in 2018-2022.
In the previous 5 year period, 2013-2017, the UK accounted for 23% of Saudi arms imports due to deliveries of 24 Typhoon combat aircraft with advanced cruise missiles. The UK has been chasing another deal for 48 more Typhoons, but that aircraft contains many parts from Germany, which is refusing to allow the sale.
Others are therefore chasing that Saudi requirement, and recent rumors are that France has been pushing very hard to get Saudi interested in their equivalent Rafale combat aircraft.
China has also been marketing its arms to Saudi Arabia, although the arms trade between the two countries is secretive. Such trade accounts for a small share of Saudi arms imports, at less than 2% in 2018-2022. China is known to have been able to sell certain arms to Saudi, which the US has not yet wanted to supply to Saudi, in particularly armed drones.
Russia has been trying to sell arms to Saudi, and there have been reports in the past about significant deals being discussed between the two states. But it never resulted in anything truly significant.
Arms industries in a range of other countries have marketed their products to Saudi Arabia, and in the past decade the country has received weapons from countries as diverse as Canada, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa and Brazil.
A few countries have stopped arms trade with Saudi Arabia completely or to a large extent, such as Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, as they have major concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia and about the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.
Finally, Saudi Arabia wants to decrease its dependence on imports and has big plans to expand its national arms industry in the coming decade, something which is also highlighted in its government budget statements.
For that purpose, it is keenly pursuing arms deals, which include significant technology transfers and it is attracting foreign experts to work in the Saudi arms industry. Several major US and UK companies have already Joint Ventures for subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia since many years, Wezeman said