On 16 July 2018, Lockheed Martin, an American arms and defense company, was awarded a new defense contract with Saudi Arabia, including $225 million in Foreign Military Sales funding. This new contract serves as a modification to a previous defense contract Lockheed Martin had won concerning Saudi Arabia. The new contract comes despite Saudi Arabia’s long-time involvement and intervention in the war in Yemen as well as systematic human rights violations domestically, within the kingdom.
The total amount of the modification to the contract is $450,000,000, most of which is earmarked for four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant Ships (MMSC). Of this amount, $225,000,000 falls under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) funding. FMS means the United States (US) government and Department of Defense negotiate directly with the customer on behalf of the vendor as opposed to a Direct Commercial Sale (DCS). In a DCS, the customer directly negotiates with the vendor and is allowed to sell defense equipment worth $14 million or less; once it surpasses $14 million then it must get congressional approval. During an FMS, the government is directly involved and can even provide funding and assistance to the customer or country. However, during a DCS, the government is not as involved in the transaction.
Included in Lockheed Martin’s new defense contract with the Defense Department, slated for Saudi Arabia, are about 768 missiles, 48 machine guns, and 4 MMSC. MMSC ships are designed for close-to-shore combat and have a helicopter flight deck, allowing for air attacks. In addition to the weapons involved in this contract, there are several state-of-the-art missile launch systems, sonars, and weapon launchers.
This new contract between Lockheed Martin and Saudi Arabia will modernize Saudi Arabia’s navy and increase its lethality and effectiveness. This is troublesome because of its past human rights abuses, including its ongoing crackdown on human and political rights and civic space, and its involvement in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The defense contract could thus add another layer of concerns to ever-present anxieties about the systematic repression of fundamental freedoms inside Saudi Arabia as well as its aggressive regional policies.
Saudi Arabia has continuously been targeting human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, and other activists for their public dissent and criticism of the ruling family, and ruling system including the kingdom’s official religion or government. Authorities regularly arbitrarily detain, arrest, and torture writers, bloggers, human rights defenders and other activists who criticize the state policies, sentencing many to lengthy prison sentences after unfair trials marred by severe due process violations. Authorities have time and time again banned activists and writers from traveling internationally, intimidated, harassed, and threatened many of them into silence and occasionally sentenced them to public floggings. The criminalization of freedom of expression, coupled with the kingdom’s ban on protests and the formation of independent civil society organizations reflects the Saudi government’s systematic campaign of repression.
The US’s sanctioning of the defense contract demonstrates the US government condones this activity on behalf of the Saudi government, despite Saudi Arabia’s blatant disregard for human rights. It is especially concerning because this contract is done through FMS, meaning this is a government-to-government transaction. The US is aware of the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia but continues to sell weapons and defense equipment to the kingdom through FMS and DCS. By allowing companies like Lockheed Martin to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia through FMS, the US government is a party to the kingdom’s wholesale suppression of civil and political rights. This in turn has resulted in an overall deterioration of an already weak and fragile political space in Saudi Arabia, especially by systematically suppressing fundamental freedoms and civic space. This new defense contract could be especially problematic because the Saudi government has been using its navy recently to take part in the blockade of Yemen as part of its intervention there.
“The administration should use this moment to halt sales rather than issue contracts. It is completely irresponsible to continue weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they persist in their attacks in Yemen that have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. The Trump administration is failing to use what leverage it has to end the conflict and ameliorate the suffering of Yemenis,” Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, told Sludge when asked about the update and renegotiation of the defense contract between Lockheed Martin and Saudi Arabia.
By assisting the Saudi government in strengthening its navy and armed forces, the US is aiding and abetting a kingdom that uses its security establishment and armed forces to commit widespread human rights abuses, domestically and regionally. While it is important that the US supports its allies in ensuring military readiness, the provision of military and military-technical support should not come at the expense of human rights. The US must use this as an opportunity to leverage with Saudi Arabia and condition its arm sales to Saudi Arabia upon tangible and serious human rights reforms, including an end to the inhumane blockade on Yemen, and a lifting of restrictions on fundamental freedoms within the kingdom, not limited to the freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion.
Celia Pena-Gomez is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB.