29 June 2017 – On Monday 26 June, Chairman of the United States (US) Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing he will provide no further clearances on arms sales to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states until the ongoing Qatar crisis is resolved. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes Senator Corker’s decision and calls on Congress to take additional steps to ensure security assistance does not contribute to instability in the Arab Gulf region, including the reinstatement of reform conditions on existing agreements.
On 5 June 2017, several states including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced they were severing ties with Qatar over accusations of funding terrorism. Along with suspending diplomatic relations, the countries have established an effective blockade of Qatar, cutting off land, air, and sea access to the emirate and deporting Qatari citizens.
The row came just weeks after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and announced new plans for “deeper security cooperation” with the GCC, including a purported $100 billion arms package for the kingdom. Despite the president’s claim to have established a unified US-Arab front to confront regional threats like ISIS and Iran, however, the GCC crisis has immediately undermined the coalition and threatened US defense policy in the region. Qatar is home to approximately 11,000 American personnel stationed at Al Udeid Air Base – the headquarters for Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) and a key hub for anti-ISIS sorties – and the blockade has complicated US-led joint operations and coordination. In Bahrain, which is a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), the government even ordered Qatari troops to leave the US naval base in Manama, directly impacting any ongoing operations relevant to those personnel and the facility’s force posture.
The crisis has also emerged amid growing Congressional apprehension over unconditional US arms sales to the GCC, culminating in Senator Corker’s letter. On 13 June 2017, the Senate nearly rejected a $500 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia citing potential war crimes in Yemen, marking a significant increase in bipartisan opposition over the previous major weapons transfer to the kingdom in September 2016. Secretary Tillerson also sparked controversy, and indicated a departure from the previous administration’s policy, when the State Department revealed it would be lifting human rights restrictions from a multibillion dollar sale of F-16 combat aircraft to Bahrain. This transfer has yet to be formally notified to Congress for review.
Notably, before signaling a change of course with his letter to Secretary Tillerson, Senator Corker voted for the sales to Saudi Arabia and applauded the administration’s decision to remove reform conditions from the F-16 deal, arguing that weapons transfers should be determined by American strategic interests rather than domestic rights concerns. Now, the senator has indicated that he will refrain from approving “sales of lethal military equipment” during the informal review period until there is a “better understanding” of how the GCC will “reunify” to “combat terrorism… and counter Iran”
“Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE are destabilizing the region on a whim, and Senator Corker is right to use US security assistance as leverage to promote good governance in line with American interests,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “However, before the crisis, the Senator endorsed the administration’s decision to remove reform conditions from existing deals, greenlighting a dramatic deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain and possibly emboldening Saudi Arabia and its partners to take this disruptive action against Qatar. For sustainable stability and security in the region, Congress must go further and urge substantive human rights reforms before shipping even one more gun to the Gulf.”
As Senator Corker’s letter suggests, US security assistance is not wholly unconditional and may be used to advance American interests. The ongoing crisis similarly demonstrates that a secure, stable Arab Gulf – a key US foreign policy objective – is deeply linked to domestic and regional good governance, rule of law, and human rights reform. Moreover, it is a reminder that American weapons can implicate the US in domestic repression and regional turmoil. ADHRB therefore welcomes Senator Corker’s decision to withhold arms clearances, but also calls on Congress to take stronger action by reinstating reform conditions on US weapons transfers to GCC states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.