With huge arms deal, US pivots back to Saudis. How does it affect the region?

The $110 billion deal places the US squarely on Saudi Arabia's side in its rivalry with Iran, and is likely to further embolden the Saudis in their devastating war in Yemen, analysts say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump (C) and other leaders react to a wall of computer screens coming online as they tour the Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017.

The $110 billion arms deal President Trump signed with Saudi Arabia may ultimately be as destabilizing in the Middle East as it is good for business in the US.

“Our vision is one of peace, security, and prosperity,” Mr. Trump told Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh, as he called on them to crush Islamic State jihadists and to isolate Iran. He thanked Saudi King Salman “for the creation of this great moment in history, and for your massive investment in America, its industry, and its jobs.”

But the mammoth deal is likely to further embolden Saudi Arabia in its devastating war in Yemen, analysts say, even as it retools a strategic alliance that places the United States squarely on the side of Saudi Arabia in its sectarian and regional rivalry with Iran.

“It’s the deal of the century,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert with the London School of Economics.

“This is a deal not just about selling weapons … but ensures that the US is committed to the strategic security of Saudi Arabia,” says Mr. Gerges. The US is embracing the Saudi “vision in the region … to counter Iran, standing up to Iran, preventing Iran from spreading its influence. The US now is engaged in the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is why the Saudis are elated.”

The result, says Gerges, is that the US – wittingly or not – “has poured gasoline on the raging fire” of sectarian conflict that has bedeviled the Middle East with proxy wars from Yemen and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed Iran’s landmark nuclear deal in 2015 and was reelected by a wide margin days ago, was disparaging of the Sunni summit in Saudi Arabia in a news conference Monday, saying it “had no political value and will bear no results,” Reuters reported.

“Who can say regional stability can be restored without Iran?” he said. “Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran?”

Impact on Yemen

The most significant immediate impact of the arms deal is likely to be in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been accused of war crimes. Its two-year involvement has been defined more by civilian casualties – with airstrikes against hospitals, schools, and infrastructure – than by any military accomplishment.

A strike against a funeral in the Yemeni capital Sanaa last October killed 140 people, for example, provoking especially strong criticism from Washington. US military cooperation “is not a blank check,” an official in the Obama White House said at the time.

Such reservations appear to be gone, as Trump renews the traditional US embrace. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially, say their fight in Yemen is to defeat Houthi rebels, which have modest backing from Iran, and re-install the Saudi-backed government.

The result has been an asymmetric fight that has reduced Yemen – one of the poorest countries in the world – to the brink of famine. Analysts say the US military support is likely to intensify the fighting, even if the new weaponry has a limited impact on the militias.

“It’s not just allowing the conflict to burn on, but to escalate the conflict severely,” says Adam Baron, a Yemen specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations, speaking from Beirut.

“Full-throated endorsement of a world view that puts Iran as the cause of all problems in the region seems like a recipe for escalation, rather than de-escalation of tensions,” he says.

“If you look at the history of conflicts in Yemen, this is often a place where firepower alone is not going to hand you a decisive victory,” says Mr. Baron. “It’s hard to see anything other than a political solution. Of course, the longer this war goes on, the more difficult it is to get to a political solution.”

Tensions over Iran nuclear deal

Saudi Arabia has for half a century played a critical role in projecting US and Western military power in the Middle East, punctuated by multi-billion dollar arms purchases that until the 1990s the Saudi kingdom rarely used – or could even deploy effectively with its relatively small armed forces.

President Barack Obama kept up the pace of arms sales, selling $115 billion worth in eight years. And many elements of the new Trump deal were hammered out by the Obama administration.

But US-Saudi tensions rose as Washington negotiated the nuclear deal with its Shiite rival, Iran. The US and Iran were still implacable enemies, on paper, but the deal yielded an unprecedented level of cooperation that the Saudis felt was achieved at their expense.

Still, Yemenis in Houthi-controlled territory, including the capital, Sanaa, often blame American support of Saudi Arabia for their suffering.

There is “widespread and growing hatred of the US for its support of the war, which Yemenis find difficult to comprehend,” says April Longley Alley, a senior Arabian Peninsula analyst with the International Crisis Group, in a report about a late-April visit to Sanaa. “As an American, probably the most frequent question I am asked is: ‘Why is the United States attacking us?’”

That view was echoed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut after the Trump arms deal was signed.

“US supplies bombs that terrorize Yemen, helps w targeting, refuels Saudi planes. With $110b sale, we are more complicit in this than ever,” Mr. Murphy wrote in a tweet.

Son-in-law personally intervened

Despite sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia by Trump on the campaign trail, the Saudis have been heartened by the fact that Trump has reaffirmed a decades-long strategic relationship.

The president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, personally intervened in the Saudi deal on May 1, calling the chief executive of Lockheed Martin to ask if the price of a particular radar system could be lowered, while in the presence of “slack-jawed” Saudi officials, The New York Times reported last week.

“I’m not very convinced about arguments in favor of continuing to supply large numbers of weapons to the Saudis or other Arab states. I think there are major concerns about that,” says Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher for the Arms and Military Expenditure Program of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“It might create instability, and further asymmetries in the military balance, and also [they] show their willingness to use these weapons,” he says.

“I don’t see how the Saudis can defeat the rebel groups in Yemen unless they use even more extreme force,” he adds, “which would have humanitarian effects that are completely unacceptable.”

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