The Art of the (Saudi Arms) Deal: More smoke and mirrors?

President Trump was in his element last month when he visited Saudi Arabia. Beaming alongside his host, Crown Prince Salman, Trump unveiled the putative centerpiece of his trip, a ten-year $110-billion arms deal with the Saudis. Along with it, the President suggested, came Saudi Arabia’s commitment to join America’s war on international terrorism.

There’s no question, the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups welcomes all enlistees, particularly from within the Arab community. But what’s not certain is whether Trump has a legitimate claim to credit for the “deal” that helped seal the Saudi commitment.

As it turns out, apparently, what the President signed off on was actually a series of proposed weapons sales which Trump inherited from his predecessor. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, writing yesterday in the Brookings blog, Markaz, describes the Saudi transaction as “fake news.”

“I’ve spoken to contacts in the defense business and on the Hill, and all of them say the same thing: There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far, nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them ‘intended sales.’ None of the deals identified so far are new; all began in the Obama administration.”

The New York Times has reported similarly to Riedel, noting in an article late last month:

“… former officials pointed out that President Barack Obama, whose arms sales to Saudi Arabia totaled $115 billion, had already approved several of the weapons in the package.”

Elements of the overall transaction reportedly include the proposed sale to the Saudis of four frigates; 150 Black Hawk helicopters; and the so-called Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD), an anti-missile system which the U.S. recently sold to South Korea.

Like so much that occurs just after a change of administration, credit for the Saudi agreement will no doubt wallow in dispute. But that question might well turn out to be moot. Riedel says it’s unlikely the oil-rich Saudis will be able to pay for the weapons, in good part because of declining oil prices.

 

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