US Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales, as UK freezes weapons licenses to the Kingdom

Decisions pile pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its ruinous war in Yemen as tensions with Iran mount in Middle East 

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Friday 21 June 2019 12:00
Yemeni pro-government forces patrol near Mukalla airport, southwestern Yemen - The US Senate took a defiant stance against the White House, advancing a measure that would end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen
Yemeni pro-government forces patrol near Mukalla airport, southwestern Yemen - The US Senate took a defiant stance against the White House, advancing a measure that would end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen

The US Senate has voted to block a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, just hours after the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the British sale of arms to the Kingdom for use in Yemen was unlawful.

Both actions test Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West and pile further pressure on the Kingdom to reassess its actions in Yemen, where together with its Gulf allies it has been fighting a ruinous five-year war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

It also points to concerns about powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The day before both decisions, UN investigators announced they had found “credible evidence” the young prince was linked to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the States, the rare bipartisan action saw two of the resolutions passed with 53 votes on Thursday, while another group was approved narrowly, with 51 votes.

Seven Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, broke with Donald Trump to reject at least some of the arms sales he was trying to push through.

Robert Menendez, the top Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the vote was a reminder that Congress could not be overlooked.

"This is a power grab, pure and simple," he said of Mr Trump's attempts to push the Saudi arms deal through. "[It will have] lasting implications for the role of Congress in the sale of arms around the world."

The Democrat-led House of Representatives is also expected to vote to block the sale too before it reaches Mr Trump’s desk.

However, it is unlikely Congress will then be able to secure the two-thirds majority needed to prevent a presidential veto, which Mr Trump has now promised to go ahead with, leaving the sale in limbo.

The president sparked fury on Capitol Hill last month by bypassing Congress to push through an $8 billion deal with Saudi Arabia which included precision-guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition and aircraft maintenance support.

At the time Mr Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that amid ongoing tensions with Iran it was a matter of urgency.

The Saudis have recently faced a number of attacks from Houthi rebels in Yemen. Just hours before the Senate vote, Iran shot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran military releases footage of 'missile strike on US drone'

The White House hit back saying stopping the sales "would send a message that the United States is abandoning its partners and allies at the very moment when threats to them are increasing.”

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee echoed the statement adding that “to reject these sales at this time and under these circumstances is to reward recent Iranian aggression and to encourage further Iranian escalation,"

He said that blocking the sale would also "encourage miscalculation on the part of Iranians which will be disastrous."

Meanwhile the UK government confirmed that it had stopped approving the sale of weapons that could be used in Yemen after the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of anti-arms-trade campaigners.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, said the authorities would challenge the verdict but said but for now it suspended new export licences while it considers the implications of the judgment.

Both actions come amid soaring tensions in the Middle East that many fear may topple into war.

US officials said the States made preparations for a military strike against Iran on Thursday shortly after Iran downed the US drone over the Strait of Hormuz. However, with just hours to go the operation was abruptly called off.

Airline companies have scrambled to re-route their planes over Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman, fearing an outbreak of further violence.

British Airways was the latest to change their flight paths, following Australia's Qantas, Dutch carrier KLM and Germany’s Lufthansa.

Earlier the US Federal Aviation Administration barred American-registered aircraft from flying over the area.

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