In Depth: The Case for the US Changing its Arms Sales Policy With Saudi Arabia

This article gives an overview of the causes of the Iran-Saudi conflict and recommends a course of action for the US to reduce violence in the region.


Saying that geopolitical tensions in the Middle East have been rife would be an understatement at best. Ever since the Second World War, regimes fractured, alliances shifted, and foreign powers intervened in the name of freedom and for the sake of oil. After years of conflict, the two Middle-Eastern countries whose influence is paramount are Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a result, these two regional powers have tense relations fractured down the line of religion (the Shiite-Sunni divide) in conjunction with the desire of each country to become the sole regional hegemon (Ighani 2016). This divide has manifested itself in violent conflicts such as the Yemen War which have caught the eye of the international community. Oil has more-or-less defined the Middle East’s role in global affairs; consequently, foreign countries (such as the United States) have a heightened interest in the region and seek political advantage. The United States has escalated its involvement in the internal affairs of the Middle East, making many question the extent to which intervention in the Iran-Saudi conflict is justified. While this is an extremely complicated issue with no unified stance, by analyzing the impact from a historical lens, it becomes apparent that the United States is only justified in its supply of military equipment and operations that serve defensive purposes.

Background of the Iran-Saudi Arabian Conflict

Most historians contend that the conflict started in the 1970s with the culmination of the Iranian Revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini was declared the supreme leader of Iran. This was a crucial event in triggering the conflict that would later ensue because Khomeini explicitly stated his intent to export his religious model across his border and into the rest of the Middle East (Mabon 2015). Problematically, while the majority in Iran were Shia Muslims, the Middle East is predominately a Sunni population. This meant that by exporting Iran’s religious paradigm, disputes were inevitable. The second major cause of the conflict was that the two countries were and are still are fighting for regional hegemony. By becoming the primary power in the region, either Iran or Saudi Arabia would call the shots in one of the most conflict-prone areas in the world and would be able to leverage other global powers who were interested in the region by mandating consistency with their foreign policy stances (Litvak 2017). Because of this, both Iran and Saudi Arabia avoid direct conflict, opting for proxy wars as the more politically convenient yet just as destructive choice. Their capability to do so has been enhanced after the Arab Spring in which social media changed the minds of a large part of the population – culminating in a revolutionary spirit that led to instability (Kessler 2013). The United States’ military support of Saudi Arabia has served in creating a humanitarian catastrophe. With Yemen and Syria enduring bombardment and infrastructure damage, the war has undermined social development for large portions of the population. (Wisotzki 2018).

Reducing Airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia

Eliminating the provision of arms that are used for offensive purposes such as firearms and fighter jets will help to quell the violence that is occurring in Yemen. By reducing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United States would be able to prevent the Royal Saudi Air Force from bombing the Yemenis as the United States provides the fueling, training, repair parts, and the planes for the Saudi Army. Given that the United States almost exclusively provides the supplies (fuel, weapons, etc.) to keep the air force running, there are very few options for the Saudi force other than to drastically cut down on the airstrikes that are occurring in the Yemen War (Riedel 2018). Without the logistical infrastructure to sustain the war, the Saudi government would be forced to reduce the number of airstrikes conducted which would help alleviate the harms that befall those in Yemen. These airstrikes cause some of the most appalling circumstances for the Yemenis: infrastructure is destroyed, medical care and food distribution are increasingly difficult – resulting in a nationwide famine, and ports are getting blocked which prevents any humanitarian aid from reaching the areas where it is most needed (Byman 2018). Fortunately, by eliminating sales of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman will either be forced to continue the Saudi and Emirati offensive (which has proved to be unsuccessful) or to begin peace negotiations as a result of a serious reduction in military capabilities. Anything else would undermine his regional goals of asserting dominance over Iran because Saudi Arabia without their primary ally will be significantly weakened, making it easier for Iran to crush the Saudi coalition in Yemen – weakening the globe’s perception of Saudi Arabia. Either one of these scenarios would end up reducing violence and could potentially be an end to the Yemen War – especially considering the influence that the US has from a militaristic standpoint (Bazzi 2018).

Economic Benefits of Reducing Arms Sales

Furthermore, reducing arms sales to Saudi Arabia (except for defensive military functions) would have positive impacts on the economy of all countries in the Middle East for a few reasons. First, it would likely reduce spending because conflict is becoming unsustainable from an economic standpoint. Conflict requires training, equipping, food, water, and housing to hundreds of thousands of soldiers which over time exacts a toll on the resources of the government (Cordesman 2018). Even though both Iran and Saudi Arabia do possess many oil reserves which are revenue for the government, a large and ever-increasing portion of this money is going to war efforts that culminate in more decimation in the impacted areas. This takes away from funding that could otherwise go towards infrastructure, schools, and social safety net programs to ensure the well-being of citizens. Second, because of the divisive nature of wars, many parties who oppose Iran (or Saudi Arabia for that matter) place sanctions on the other to make it more difficult to sustain the war effort – thereby securing the interests of the country imposing the sanctions. This impacts almost every working individual in the country because it means that the demand for goods from the country who got hit with sanctions would decrease. Many of these sanctions are the functional equivalent of a country-wide boycott (Feiler 2015). The economic impact of sanctions is so devastating that in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran decided to halt its nuclear operations in exchange for the lifting of sanctions in order to stimulate its economy. At the end of the day, the well being of the citizens in the country in question have a considerable impact on the stability of the rule that is possessed by both Mohammad Bin Salman and Ayatollah Khamenei which is what both of them want to maintain.

Improvements to HR Credibility of the US

While the Iran-Saudi conflict clearly has negative implications for those two countries, American involvement has also harmed the international reputation of the United States. By limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia the international perception of the United States would shift from a hypocritical advocate of democracy to a nation that is starting to have consistency. Because of the sheer brutality of the Yemen War, a plethora of human rights advocates has been calling for the US to halt the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, this has not materialized in any form as a result of decades-old US-Saudi relations. (Shebaya 2018). One of the cornerstones of US foreign policy is the idea of democracy promotion to reduce the amount of authoritarian rule in the world. This is done in order to reduce the amount of violence and to give the citizens a voice in how the internal affairs of their country are handled. However, without a strong international reputation, getting foreign countries to accept US attempts to promote democracy will be near impossible as other countries will perceive democracy promotion as a means of causing political instability (Latif 2011). More international legitimacy does two things. First, it ensures that human rights promotion is effective which means that other countries all over the world with severe human rights infractions such as Uganda, Chad, North Korea, Tajikistan, Venezuela, and more will listen to the United States HR groups with more legitimacy because they can place a higher degree of faith in the fact that the US will attempt to resolve the problems at hand. Second, when countries see that the United States is a reliable actor and lives up to their promises for human rights, more countries will give credibility to the US which would in turn actually make it easier for the US to fulfill their foreign policy goals on the international level.

Potential for Other Countries to Provide Arms for Saudi Arabia

Despite the fact that there are numerous benefits to restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, many still bring up valid objections. One of these is the idea of “fill-in” in which other countries (many believe Russia or China) will replace the US as the primary seller of arms to Saudi Arabia, nullifying any benefit of US action. Furthermore, the country who supplies weapons would likely be one that has a less stringent stance on human rights violations around the world (Leone 2017). However, as Terrence Guay, a professor at Pennsylvania State University explains, there are two primary flaws with this argument. First, the cost to transition is extremely prohibitive because a switch would entail purchasing different ammunition, training, weapons, etc. This would mean a greater amount of public opposition to the war effort as many citizens would rather see that money spent on the development of Saudi Arabia itself – making it harder for MBS to justify the war to his citizenry. Second, the United States is the primary arms provider to Saudi Arabia and a transition would be a logistical nightmare because it would mean that every soldier would need to learn new equipment, Saudi Arabia would need to negotiate the arms agreement and then wait for imports of new weapons which ensures that this “fill-in” is not feasible in, at the very least, the short term (Guay 2018).

Potential for Heightened Iranian Aggression

Many discussions of US policy ignore the demands of the other primary regional power – Iran. Some scholars argue that restricting the offensive capabilities of Saudi Arabia would mean that Iran would have the capability to exert its influence – unrestricted. This would, in turn, lead to more conflicts because the other countries would be forced to respond for their regional needs to be secured which would only increase the probability of direct confrontation occurring (Marcus 2017). While this argument has a degree of validity, Rajan Menon, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, articulates that US presence only strengthens the Iran-Houthi alliance in Yemen. This is because many groups in the region have strong anti-US sentiments which means that with the US around, they unite around a common enemy (Menon 2018). Furthermore, the proposal in this paper still continues to provide defensive military equipment and training. Doing so would entail leaving missile defense systems intact, continuing the sale of armor, etc. to the Saudi Army so that they would not be able to escalate conflicts that spur within the region, but also would be able to respond to incoming threats. By maintaining a strong defense system, the Saudi government can deter conflicts by making an invasion of Saudi Arabia or its allies much more difficult to execute and likely would require additional time, funding and research for their opponents. This all means that it is possible to prevent the escalation of current tensions while simultaneously preventing the likelihood of future conflicts.


The war on Yemen is a devastating atrocity but is not an isolated incident. It is the culmination of decades of tensions and disputes with the most powerful countries in the most volatile region in the world – making these conflicts inevitable, especially when there is a multitude of parties who have differing regional objectives. And while it is difficult to put all the blame on a single actor or to correctly place all the blame on one group of people, one thing remains clear – that the conflict is harmful to all people involved and immediate steps must be taken to ensure that conflict can be best avoided. By solely providing defensive military gear and no other form of military aid or arms sales, the conflict will likely become less intense, and best case, come to a complete halt. Only by focusing on the issues that impact the most disadvantaged within the region, can policymakers work to make the world a better place.

Works Cited

Bazzi, Mohamad. “The United States Could End the War in Yemen If It Wanted To.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Oct. 2018,

Byman, Daniel L. “Yemen after a Saudi Withdrawal: How Much Would Change?”, The Brookings Institution, 5 Dec. 2018,

Cordesman, Anthony “Military Spending: The Other Side of Saudi Security.” Military Spending: The Other Side of Saudi Security | Center for Strategic and International Studies, 13 Mar. 2018,

Feiler, Gil. Economic Implications of Iran Sanctions Relief. Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2015,

Guay, Terrence. “Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Give Trump All the Leverage He Needs in Khashoggi Affair.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 14 Nov. 2018,

Ighani, Helia. Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry. Council on Foreign Relations, 2016,

Kessler, Edward. “Social Media and the Movement of Ideas.” European Judaism, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 26–35., doi:10.3167/ej.2013.46.01.04.

Latif, Muhammad Ijaz, and Hussain Abbas. “US Democracy Promotion and Popular Revolutions in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities.” Pakistan Horizon, vol. 64, no. 3, 2011, pp. 25–42. JSTOR,

Leone, Daniel. “The Dangers of Slashing Foreign Aid to the Middle East.” Wharton Public Policy Initative, University of Pennsylvania, 20 July 2017,

Litvak, Meir. Iran and Saudi Arabia: Religious and Strategic Rivalry. Edited by Joshua Teitelbaum, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2017, pp. 49–54, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and the New Regional Landscape,

Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East. Vol. 132. IB Tauris, 2015.

Marcus, Jonathan. “Why Saudi Arabia and Iran Are Bitter Rivals.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Nov. 2017,

Menon, Rajan. “The War From Hell-Supported by the United States.” The Nation, 18 Sept. 2018,

Riedel, Bruce. “After Khashoggi, US Arms Sales to the Saudis Are Essential Leverage.”, The Brookings Institution, 10 Oct. 2018,

Shebaya, Halim. “Trump’s Hypocrisy, from Jerusalem to Tehran.” USA | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 5 Jan. 2018,

Wisotzki, Simone. VIOLATING THE ARMS TRADE TREATY: Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia and the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2018,

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