Last week, the US and Saudi Arabia signed a deal for the purchase of a new sophisticated missile defence system. The deal has been in place since December 2016 and has eventually been finalised and confirmed by a State Department official on Wednesday. This signature will allow Saudi Arabia to purchase a $ 15 billion anti-ballistic missile defence system from the American Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company based in Maryland.
Not only Lockheed Martin is one of the Pentagon’s best arms suppliers, but the deal includes the acquisition of the THAAD, or terminal high altitude area defence, which is regarded as America’s “crown jewel” in missile defence systems. Saudi Arabia will get 44 THAAD launchers, missiles and related equipment.
Given the latest event in Istanbul, the deal could be at risk. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, US-based Saudi journalist of the Washington Post, at the Saudi consulate in October, indeed, lifted worries and opposition among the Congress members, who put pressure in order to downgrade US-Saudi relations.
However, President Trump stood by the long-standing ally, suggesting that the deal is important for at least two reasons.
From a security perspective, Israel would face big regional challenges without the strong and stabilizing presence of Saudi Arabia. The deal, indeed, is meant to strengthen Saudi posture in the Middle East. Moreover, it will bolster US national security by supporting the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region against the threat of Iran and extremist groups financed and supported by Teheran.
Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also pointed out that “Besides probably being the largest missile defence sale to date, it also represents an important political commitment by both the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to counter Iranian ballistic missiles by every means possible.”
On the other hand, the deal is important from an economic reason. If not from the US, Riyadh would buy armaments from other countries. As President Trump strongly affirmed, there would be other means to “punish” the Kingdom’s conduct. He had no intention to lose a billion worth order and, despite Congress’s opposition, he proceeded with the deal. However, he did not persuade the senators.
On Wednesday, the Senate advanced a resolution to withdraw US support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, in response to the murder of the journalist in Istanbul and to stress the unacceptability of Saudi methods.
The resolution passed the first round of the vote, 63 to 37. The great difference denotes the already existing concern about US commitment in the war and an even greater disapproval for Trump’s support to the kingdom after the murder of Khashoggi.
This vote marks also an unprecedented crisis between the Congress and the White House over war powers. Senators’ vote comes a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis briefed the chamber. The main point of the speech was the importance of maintaining US support to the Saudi coalition in Yemen to guarantee security in the region and hamper Iran’s regional influence.
Though the President may veto the resolution, thus crippling Senators’ effort, it will nonetheless show a strong opposition inside the US, between the White House and the Upper Chamber. And even if the resolution may not pass now, it probably will in a few months, given that also the Democratic leadership, including Nancy Peloso, sponsors it. The debate is likely to remain vivid and may create further friction inside the leadership. And this is something that we would not really see within one of the world biggest military and economic powers.