Continued Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE Undermine Congressional Authority

In May 2019, the Trump Administration approved a new shipment of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) valued at $8 billion, as part of an ‘emergency’ sale meant to bolster regional allies and counter regional aggression. By tagging the sales as for an ‘emergency’ the administration is able to avoid Congressional scrutiny. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have reacted critically against the fast-tracked arms sales, which many view as an attempt to sidestep congressional oversight power. In addition, many cited concerns about the massive civilian casualties caused by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, stating that American weapons should not be used to commit atrocities. It is essential that Congress not only block this emergency sale, but halt further arms sales to countries that abuse human rights, and take steps to hold allies accountable for their abuses.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have actively worked to suppress human rights in the region. In 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE assisted in violently squashing the pro-democracy protest movement in Bahrain. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a coalition intervention in Yemen, where the coalition forces have targeted civilians with its airstrikes. During their participation in the war, the UAE has utilized torture against detainees, supplied US weapons to known Al-Qaeda affiliates, and used US weapons to buy the support of militias known to be committing gross violations of human rights.

The Saudi-led coalition announced it would launch airstrikes against targets in Yemen in 2015. Since then it has been estimated that over 19,000 airstrikes have been launched, resulting in 10,471 casualties, including women and children. Some of these airstrikes have been traced back to US arms, and have become a daily occurrence for millions of vulnerable Yemini citizens. Daily sorties have devastated critical infrastructure, escalating the urgency of basic food, housing, and healthcare assistance that nearly three-quarters of Yemen’s population requires. In total, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project has estimated that the war has resulted in nearly 100,000 casualties thus far, and has forced more than 570,000 people to flee their homes. Due to the civilian cost of the war, the UN has named the Yemen war the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with over 22.2 million people in need of basic assistance to survive.

While much of the attention on the conflict in Yemen has previously been focused on the Saudi-led air war, the UAE is also responsible for major human rights violations. A report by the United Nations-appointed Group of Eminent Experts found the UAE was guilty of war crimes, including enforced disappearances, rape, torture, and the use of child soldiers. Many of these violations have taken place in a secret network of Yemeni prisons where civilians are held in unsanitary conditions, and security officials sexually, physically, and psychologically torture detainees through sleep deprivation, electrocution of the genitals, beatings with wooden bats, and rape.

In response to the human rights abuses ongoing in Yemen, many countries such as Norway, Sweden, Austria, Greece, and the Belgian region of Wallonia have voluntary ceased to export weapons to Saudi Arabia. Germany has also extended a six-month ban on exports of weapons to all countries involved in the Yemen war, while the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands have banned futures arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Austria has advocated for an European Union-wide arms embargo against the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition for their connection to the war and civilian casualties in Yemen. While European countries lead the charge for safeguarding human rights in Yemen and take steps to ensure that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are held accountable, the US continues to actively sell weapons to the two countries.

In recent years, the US Congress has taken steps to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In March 2019, Congress voted to halt all future arms sales to those involved in the war in Yemen (S.J.Res.7). The resolution was sponsored by Senator Sanders (D-VT), and co-sponsored by Mike Lee (R-UT). Though the bill passed the House and the Senate, it was vetoed by President Trump, and neither chambers could muster the support to override his veto.

Since then, Congress has continued to oppose the Trump Administration’s push to provide arms to the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition. On 20 June, the Senate passed three resolutions (S.J.Res. 28,29, and 30) addressing 22 different ‘emergency’ arms sales that had been approved by the President. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the ‘emergency’ designation, by citing growing tensions with Iran, despite bi-partisan criticism that the months-long escalation with Iran did not qualify as an emergency. The resolutions called for halting $8 billion in US arms from going to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These resolutions had a better chance at succeeding than SJ Res 7, because the President’s use of an obscure ‘emergency’ clause to circumvent congressional approval had attracted wide-spread anger.

On 10 July 2019, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a committee hearing, entitled Defense Cooperation: Use of Emergency Authorities Under the Arms Export Control Act, to discuss the legality of the President’s effort to bypass congressional approval through using an emergency designation. This discussion comes alongside an anticipated additional $110 billion in ‘counterterrorism and security’ materials to be sold to Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration. At the hearing, both Democrats and Republicans criticized the administration for sidestepping congressional oversight committees. Ted Cruz (R-TX) condemned the State Department’s decision to “circumvent the law and act unilaterally,” stating that “the process that the State Department followed for these weapons sales … was crap.” Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) called into question Trump’s emergency designation, arguing that recent flare ups with Iran do not constitute a sufficient emergency to bypass congressional approval. Given the ongoing hostilities in Yemen and attacks on civilians, many in Congress feel that continued arms sales raise additional concerns that the US is becoming increasingly complicit in the casualties and war crimes in Yemen.

On 11 July 2019, the UAE announced it would be pulling out forces from Yemen. Emirati officials declined to publicly state exactly why they are withdrawing forces from the war. While it may have been influenced by international criticism of the UAE’s involvement in the humanitarian crisis, Emirati officials instead emphasized they would focus on conducting counterterrorism. They also noted that Emirati soldiers had trained 90,000 Yemeni soldiers, although the Group of Eminent Experts has raised concerns about widespread human rights abuses committed by UAE-supported Yemeni militias.

On 17 July 2019, the House voted to pass the three Joint Resolutions the Senate had passed on 20 June, setting up another showdown with President Trump regarding continued sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. While Trump ultimately vetoed them and neither chamber could override the veto, the bills garnered support from a growing number of Republicans worried the President is ignoring Congress’ power to oversee weapons sales.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are responsible for gross human rights violations in Yemen, some of which are committed with US-supplied weapons and training. Through their resolutions, the Senate and the House have demonstrated they are concerned about American culpability in these abuses. Despite their efforts to end US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, President Trump has attempted to circumvent and undermine Congressional approval. It is critical that Congress continues to act to block all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and to take measures to extricate the US from the war in Yemen.

MacKenzie LeMunyan is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB