27 February 2017

Steven A. Cook

In late January, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the minister of defense, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the King Faisal Air Academy. On the occasion, the Saudis reportedly added to their fleet of warplanes a number of brand new F-15SAs. The new planes are a variant of the Boeing-manufactured F-15 fighter jets and are part of a $29.4 billion deal signed in late 2011 that includes 84 new F-15SAs and an additional 68 of the F-15S variant that will be upgraded.

It was a big purchase, but the Saudis were not done. Since 2014, Riyadh has placed orders for another $30 billion worth of American weapons, the bulk of which were requisitioned after Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen began in March 2015. The Saudis have also spent another $22 billion on weapons from the United Kingdom and France. The numbers are staggering, making the House of Saud the second largest importer of weapons in the world after India.

Recently, Intelligence Squared US hosted a debate on the motion that the special U.S.-Saudi relationship has outlived its usefulness. At the end of the discussion, which pitted two teams of two experts against each other, 56 percent of those in attendance were convinced that Saudi Arabia should remain a strategic ally. Based on weapons sales alone, Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a strategic partner of — and effectively a jobs program for — the American defense industry. A more appropriate question for the event might have been, “Is Saudi Arabia a competent ally?”

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