Letter from Washington — From the September 2016 issue

Acceptable Losses

Aiding and abetting the Saudi slaughter in Yemen

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Saleh’s own offensive was equally ineffectual, and the Houthis were left to fight another day. Meanwhile, Yemen’s ill fortune proved a blessing, not for the last time, for the U.S. defense establishment. The Obama Administration was already bent on expanding arms sales as part of its drive to boost exports, and now manna fell from heaven. Shocked by their poor performance against the Houthi guerrillas, the Saudis embarked on a massive weapons-buying spree.

At the top of their shopping list were eighty-four specially modified Boeing F-15 jets, along with around 170 helicopters. They also purchased a huge quantity of bombs and missiles — notably, 1,300 cluster bombs sold by the Textron Corporation at a cost of $641 million. Fortunately for Textron, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia had endorsed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a 2008 treaty already signed by more than one hundred nations, which banned these weapons on the grounds that they caused “unacceptable harm” to civilians.

A man in an underground shelter on the outskirts of Saada city, which was hit by a series of Saudi-led air strikes in May 2015. Photograph by Maria Turchenkova.

A man in an underground shelter on the outskirts of Saada city, which was hit by a series of Saudi-led air strikes in May 2015. Photograph by Maria Turchenkova.

This enormous deal totaled $60 billion: the largest arms sale in U.S. history. The scale of the transaction says much about America’s relationship with the House of Saud. The bond was forged at a 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, with both parties agreeing that Saudi Arabia would guarantee the United States cheap oil in return for American military protection. Both sides largely kept to the bargain. The Saudis even subsidized the price of oil exported to the United States — at least until 2002, when they abandoned the policy out of irritation at George W. Bush’s plan to topple the Sunni regime in Iraq.

America’s adherence to its side of the deal is most concretely manifested in a housing compound a dozen or so miles outside Riyadh. Eskan Village is home to 2,000 Americans, military and civilian, dedicated to the security of the regime. For the U.S. military, it is a gratifyingly lucrative arrangement. Some inhabitants of the compound supervise the arming and training of the Saudi National Guard — a mission that has so far generated $35 billion in U.S. military sales. Others are attached to the U.S. Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia, which services the regular armed forces. According to its website, this group is charged with enhancing American national security “through building the capability and capacity of the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces” — a task that absolutely includes acting as an “advocate for U.S. business to supply defense goods and services to the S.A.A.F.” In other words, the Saudis host a sales team dedicated to selling them weapons. Furthermore, they fund its upkeep, paying roughly $30 million a year for the privilege.

As Des Roches reminded me, the U.S. government is the official vendor for weapons sales on behalf of corporations such as Boeing and Textron. “We levy a surcharge for the U.S. government’s involvement,” he explained, reminding me that the sale of the F-15s and other assorted items ran to $60 billion. “Seven percent of that is a significant amount of money,” he continued. “That basically covers U.S. government operating expenses to run things like training for the Bolivian armed forces in counternarcotics, and stuff like that. Up until very, very recently, the Saudis pretty much subsidized everything. People do not realize how much benefit we get from our interaction with them.”

This long relationship has sunk deep roots in the U.S. defense establishment, especially since close acquaintance with the free-spending Saudi hierarchy can lead to attractive postretirement opportunities. David Commons, for example, the Air Force general who directed the military mission from 2011 to 2013, was responsible for what he calls the “management and execution” of the huge 2010 arms sale. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on his return from Saudi Arabia he turned to commerce, where his Middle Eastern connections could be put to good use. First he chaired the Sharaka Group, offering “knowledge, experience, and tenacity” in navigating the “maze” of Saudi bureaucracy. Next he cofounded Astrolabe Enterprises, which, by his account, helps the Saudis buy American weapons. “If they need a capability,” he told me, “we are there.”

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

One capability of which the Saudis are certainly in need is keeping their expensive toys in working order, a lucrative prospect for firms such as Astrolabe. By 2015, the maintenance contract for the F-15s alone was worth $2.5 billion. Almost all the technically demanding work on the highly complex plane, especially on its electronics, appears to require the services of American contract workers. This has led to something of a gold rush for mechanics and engineers. TS Government Solutions, of Lake Elsinore, California, is currently looking for maintenance mechanics “in support of RSAF F-15 platform throughout Saudi Arabia. . . . VERY lucrative comp plan.” There are no less than 1,471 openings listed on the website of ManTech International, of Fairfax, Virginia, the recipient of a $175 million F-15 maintenance contract. “Every time I looked at someone doing something technical on an F-15, it was an American contractor,” Chet Richards, a former Air Force Reserve colonel who served several tours as an air attaché in Riyadh, told me. “These are really, really complex systems. We have trouble keeping them flying in our own air force.”

Other features of the U.S.–Saudi security relationship are more obscure, such as the “secret” CIA drone base deep in the southwestern desert, which became operational in 2011 and has been periodically rediscovered by the media in subsequent years. Dedicated to launching drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen, it was a fruit of Saleh’s delicate balancing act, whereby he tacitly endorsed the ongoing U.S. assassination campaign against Al Qaeda leaders while avoiding direct action against the group himself. Indeed, even as the drones regularly incinerated Al Qaeda members along with innocent bystanders and the occasional wedding party, Saleh not only declined to arrest the terrorists but on occasion provided them with safe houses in Sanaa. Ignorant of (or perhaps unconcerned by) this double-dealing, Washington continued to indulge the wily Yemeni leader with copious aid and training missions.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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