The US is the world’s number one international seller of arms. This is true whichever way you slice the data: using SIPRI’s measure of the volume of major conventional arms transfers, and even more so using the Congressional Research Service estimates of the financial value of orders.
The US distributes its arms widely, selling major conventional weapons to 96 countries between 2011-2015, according to SIPRI. But the great majority of US arms went to the Middle East (41%) or Asia and the Pacific (40%).
Arms sales to the Middle East in particular raise a lot of questions about US foreign policy priorities. The number one recipient of US arms for the period was Saudi Arabia, receiving 9.7% of US arms. With $115 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi agreed under the Obama administration, many more deliveries are still forthcoming.
Saudi Arabia is hardly a model of democracy and human rights. An absolute monarchy that brooks no dissent, that carries out public beheadings, where women do not have status as legally responsible individuals but are placed under male ‘guardianship’, and where a blogger was recently sentenced to 2000 lashes for being an atheist.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is currently leading a brutal campaign of air strikes in Yemen, in support of one side in the country’s civil war, which has so far claimed over 10,000 lives. A third of the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes have hit civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, markets, and funeral gatherings. Moreover, a Saudi-led naval blockade has created a humanitarian emergency in Yemen, which is now on the brink of famine.
The planes, bombs, missiles and other equipment with which Saudi Arabia prosecutes this campaign are from the US and its loyal lieutenant, the UK. The US has, until recently, supported the Saudi campaign, like Saudi Arabia fearing that the Houthi rebels on the other side are a proxy for Iran. Now, following the most recent Saudi atrocity, killing 140 people at a funeral, the US has called for an end to the bombing. But they are not ending the supply of bombs.
Saudi Arabia is vastly oversupplied with weaponry, more than they can actually use, and spends over 13% of its GDP on the military. They face no serious conventional military threat; notwithstanding their paranoia about Iran, whose military forces are mostly using clapped-out Cold War relics.
What about the US’s second biggest client during 2011-15? The United Arab Emirates, another Gulf dictatorship), and another participant in the coalition bombing Yemen.
Rather further down the list, in 22nd position, is Israel. While its not top of the list, it occupies a unique place in US foreign policy and arm supplies: it gets American weaponry for free.
Under the Premiership of Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, Israel’s occupation (a word you won’t hear breathed by either Presidential candidate) of the Palestinian territories has continued to deepen, expand, and show every sign of becoming permanent. Obama’s efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and his calls for Israel to stop building Israeli settlements, have been snubbed by Netanyahu. The two-state solution, the keystone of US foreign policy for the Middle East for over 20 years, has been effectively killed off by Israeli actions. Meanwhile, in an unprecedented action for a foreign leader, Bibi addressed both houses of Congress as part of his strenuous efforts to sabotage President Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal.
Bibi’s punishment for his systematic undermining of US foreign policy goals? A stern increase in military aid, with a new deal for $38 billion worth of US aid over the next decade signed in September. Bibi showed his gratitude to Obama within a couple of weeks by announcing a major new settlement which would virtually cut the West Bank in two, rendering the notion of a future Palestinian state on the tattered remains of the West Bank even more laughable. The Administration’s condemnation of the announcement rang rather hollow in the light of the aid deal.
The US arms Israel are justified as ensuring that it maintains its ‘qualitative military edge’ over its Arab neighbors. But most of these neighbors spend far less on their militaries than Israel, and are way behind in terms of both technology and military organization and readiness. The only country in the region that outspends Israel is – Saudi Arabia! So Israel needs all this US military aid to defend itself from the arms the US and its UK ally sell to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people regularly feel the sharp end of America’s largesse, during Israel’s periodic flattening of Gaza and the unrelenting cruelty of the occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza.
A meaningful debate would ask what the US is actually trying to achieve with arms sales to the Middle East? What are the strategic and human consequences of these sales? Is propping up the corrupt, Wahabist al-Saud regime either desirable or a good long-term strategic bet? And a proper debate would start to question the US’s knee-jerk support for Israel, regardless of the abuses they commit or how they undermine US policy. Is $38 billion worth of arms for Israel really a good use of taxpayers’ money, and is it really contributing to a just peace in the Middle East?
 Aside from the fact that the ability of Saudi Arabia to effectively use all its military equipment in a conflict with a serious military opponent is highly questionable, that Saudi Arabia and Israel are currently tacit allies against Iran, and that the Saudis in any case have zero intention of intervening militarily on behalf of the Palestinians.