Unchecked weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are a national security threat, experts warn

WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia buys more American-made weapons and military equipment than any other country, but those weapons often end up in the wrong hands and work against U.S. national security interests, experts warn. 

In some cases, the weapons are ultimately used by fighters linked to al-Qaida, ultra-conservative Sunni militia groups and other warring factions that are enemies of the United States. 

“We’ve sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia that are being used in the conflict in Yemen. Those weapons are then often captured by rebel groups and used against us in the Middle East,” said Bassima Alghussein, CEO of Alghussein Global Strategies, a foreign policy consulting firm, during a Monday panel discussion at Johns Hopkins University. 

“Not to mention the human rights abuses being carried out in Yemen by Saudi Arabia with American weapons.” 

The weapons sold to Saudi Arabia include guns, anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, heat-seeking lasers and artillery, according to a 2019 investigation by CNN. 

“When you sell weapons to an ally, you have a common strategy and can anticipate what will happen to the weaponry. With Saudi Arabia, though, it’s unclear what happens once the weapons trade hands,” said Hassan Mneimneh, a Middle East expert and nonresident scholar at the think tank The Middle East Institute. 

U.S. officials should ask themselves if the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia is worth compromising American national security, Mneimneh said. 

“We ought not be a supermarket for weapons. We have to know what these weapons are being used for,” he said. 

In July, President Donald Trump vetoed a series of bipartisan measures that would have blocked the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its coalition partner in Yemen. The measures were proposed largely in response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which is believed to have been ordered by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud. 

 An early version of the annual defense spending bill had provisions that would have banned the sale of some defensive weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, but they were not in the final version of the bill passed in December. 

Experts also worry that American arms sales to Saudi Arabia have put pressure on Iran to procure weapons, creating a regional arms race at a time when tensions between the Iranian and American governments are high. 

“The Iranians are holding themselves back politically and militarily, but the pressure from Saudi Arabia is not helping” said Jeff Stacey, a national security consultant and former State Department official. “But Iran will cease to do so if the situation continues, or if Trump wins reelection.” 

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.