Home » New Bills Aim to Block U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE Amid Concerns of Regional Conflict

New Bills Aim to Block U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE Amid Concerns of Regional Conflict

Rep. Ilhan Omar is introducing two pieces of legislation to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, citing atrocities committed by both countries. The U.S. made high-profile sales to both countries in December, shoring up their offensive capabilities amid the possibility of a regional war and a growing risk of confrontation with Yemen’s Houthis.

The Saudi bill is the Minnesota progressive’s latest attempt to hold the Saudi regime to account for its sordid human rights record. It would stop the sale of aircraft support, intelligence sensors, and other materiel relied upon by the Royal Saudi Air Force amid a blockade that has devastated Yemen’s population. In December, the State Department approved a $582 million sale to Saudi Arabia to renew its drone surveillance system.

The UAE also recently escalated its involvement in the war on Yemen, leading to Houthi rocket attacks that have eroded the sense of security the Emirati states had cultivated. Omar’s measure would prohibit the sale of high explosive rockets, radar systems, and other military equipment to the UAE. In December, the State Department approved an $85 million sale of high explosive rockets and defense-related radar equipment to the UAE.

The closely focused bills make no mention of regional dynamics. In a statement to The Intercept, Omar pointed to human rights abuses committed by both countries as the basis for the legislation. “These sales go directly against our values as well as the cause of peace and human rights,” Omar said in a statement to The Intercept. 

President Joe Biden campaigned in 2020 on making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Since becoming president, however, the Biden administration has authorized billions in weapons sales to the oil-rich monarchy. In 2021, Omar introduced similar legislation to block a $650 million sale of missiles and other weapons to the kingdom.

“It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to kill and torture dissidents and support modern-day slavery,” Omar said. “Saudi Arabia executed over 170 people in the last year alone — including executions just for Twitter posts.”

Last year, Saudi Arabia sentenced a retired teacher to death for posts on X critical of the Saudi royal family and calling for the release of imprisoned Islamic scholars. The year prior, Riyadh sentenced a 72-year-old dual U.S.-Saudi citizen to 16 years’ imprisonment for posts on X critical of the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia also sentenced a Saudi Ph.D. student residing in the U.K. to 34 years’ imprisonment for simply following and retweeting activists critical of the regime.

Though Saudi Arabia formally abolished slavery in 1962, its coercive treatment of migrant domestic workers has been described by Human Rights Watch as “clearly” amounting to “slavery.” The Biden administration acknowledges this, describing slavery without using the word “slavery”; the State Department’s most recent report on the country’s human rights practices stating that “forced labor occurred among migrant workers” and that Saudi law “does not prohibit or criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor.” 

In 2013, U.S. law enforcement officials reportedly investigated a “possible case of modern slavery” at a Saudi diplomatic compound in Virginia involving two women from the Philippines. A State Department spokesperson said that the investigation was complicated by the possibility that suspects enjoyed diplomatic immunity, which has prevented prosecution in previous cases. A similar case in London involving a Filipina domestic worker exploited by a Saudi diplomat made its way to the U.K. Supreme Court, which ruled that diplomats cannot hide behind diplomatic immunity in slavery cases.

Omar also condemned the UAE’s secret arms sales to Sudan. In September, a New York Times report revealed that the UAE was engaged in a sophisticated covert operation to supply weapons to the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, a paramilitary linked to Russia’s Wagner Group that is carrying out ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

“The United Arab Emirates have been violating the UN arms embargo in Darfur to support the RSF, which the State Department recently determined is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Omar said. “They have also been arming the Ethiopian government, which has been accused of atrocities in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia.”

“Refugees International is shocked by today’s New York Times report,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former top USAID official under the Biden administration, said of the news in a press release, adding that “the UAE has allied itself with the perpetrators of the 2003 Darfur genocide.”

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January 2024