Why I Oppose the Saudi Weapons Deal

Sanders’s remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate in support of a joint resolution disapproving a $650 million arms sale to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Thank you, M. President. Let me begin by thanking my colleagues Senator Paul and Senator Lee for their years of work reclaiming Congress’s Constitutional war powers. The understanding that it is Congress that has the Constitutional responsibility to authorize war, not the president, should transcend partisan disagreements.

On November 18th, we introduced a Congressional resolution of disapproval to block the sale of 280 air-to-air missiles, 596 missile launchers, and other weapons and support – totaling some $650 million – to Saudi Arabia. And that is what we will be voting on in a few moments.

Let me be very clear: as the Saudi government continues to wage its devastating war in Yemen and repress its own people, we should not be rewarding them with more arms sales. We should be demanding that they end the devastating war in Yemen, which has killed over 230,000 people in one of the poorest countries on earth.

For more than six years, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen’s civil war has been a key driver of the largest humanitarian disaster in the world. According to UNICEF, 4 out of every 5 children in Yemen need humanitarian assistance, that’s over 11 million children. 400,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition. 1.7 million children have been displaced by violence from this war. And some 15 million people – more than half of whom are children — do not have access to safe water, sanitation, or hygiene.

United Nations Humanitarian Relief coordinator Martin Griffiths said in September, and I quote, ‘The country’s economy has reached new depths of collapse, and a third wave of the pandemic is threatening to crash the country’s already fragile health-care system.’ According to Griffiths, millions of Yemenis are ‘a step away from starvation.’

Under first the Obama and then the Trump administration, the United States was Saudi Arabia’s partner in this horrific war. In 2019, Congress made history by passing the first-ever War Powers Resolution through both chambers of Congress, pressing then-President Trump to end this military support. It marked the first time that Congress invoked the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to direct the president to withdraw troops from an undeclared war.

Sadly, President Trump vetoed that resolution.

Many of us welcomed the Biden administration’s announcement earlier this year that it would end U.S. support for ‘offensive’ military operations led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and name a Special Envoy to help bring this conflict to an end. But the crisis has only continued.

American defense contractors continue to service Saudi planes that are waging this war, and the United States military also continues to provide intelligence to the Saudi armed forces. And now we are looking at a new $650 million arms sale to the Saudi armed forces.

I am aware that ending U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault will not alone end the multi-sided conflict in Yemen. The Houthis are launching bloody attacks on the central Yemeni city of Marib and increasing cross-border attacks on Saudi territory. Violence has also erupted between rival factions in the south of Yemen. A UN expert panel found that all parties to the conflict may have committed war crimes.

U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and this ware should be clear: the United States must do everything in our power to bring this brutal and horrific war to an end. Exporting more missiles to Saudi Arabia does nothing but further this conflict and pour more gasoline on already raging fire.

In my view, the U.S. must support an international observer mission along the Saudi-Yemeni border and spearhead generous international development efforts to rebuild Yemen. This aid should be focused on bolstering local humanitarian and development initiatives like Yemen’s Social Fund for Development.

We also must dramatically increase our diplomatic engagement to press Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh-based Republic of Yemen government, and the Houthis to accept the UN’s roadmap as the basis for a compromise that ends foreign military intervention and allows Yemenis to come to an agreement. The war has gone on too long, and it’s time the United States begins to take bold steps to bring about peace.

M. President, I also think it’s long past time that we took a very hard look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia – a country whose government represents the very opposite of what we profess to believe in. Saudi Arabia is an extremely undemocratic country that is run by a hereditary, authoritarian monarchy, one of the wealthiest in the world, with wealth estimated at up to $1.4 trillion dollars.

At a time when children in Yemen are facing mass starvation, when that impoverished country’s health care system is collapsing, when the people of Gaza are suffering mass unemployment and environmental devastation, when people in the region lack clean drinking water, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bought himself a $500 million yacht, a $300 million French chateau, and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting.

According to Freedom House, a respected human rights organization, ‘Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice.’

Freedom House also notes that working conditions for the large migrant labor force are extremely exploitative. Saudi Arabia is home to millions of migrant workers, many from African countries but also from Pakistan, India and elsewhere. These workers constitute more than 80 percent of the private sector workforce, often as laborers and other service workers. They are governed by an abusive system that gives their employers excessive power over their mobility and legal status in the country. As a result, these migrant workers are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor.

According to Human Rights Watch, under the government headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, ‘Saudi Arabia has experienced the worst period of repression in its modern history.’ Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year that ‘accounts have emerged of alleged torture of high-profile political detainees in Saudi prisons,’ including Saudi women’s rights activists and others. The alleged torture included electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual harassment.

As every member of Congress knows, our own intelligence services have confirmed that Mohammad bin Salman himself ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamaal Khashoggi in 2018 in retaliation for Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi regime. We also know that the Saudi regime has waged a campaign of harassment and attempted kidnapping against other critics, including on U.S. soil.

My question is: Why in the world would the United States reward such a regime with more weapons?

My friends, the answer is we should not. I urge my colleagues to support S.J.Res. 31.