Fact Check: How Much Does Saudi Arabia Spend On Arms Deals With The U.S.?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK. When talking about his reaction to the missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump has emphasized weapons deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.
KELLY: A hundred and ten billion dollars. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to talk a closer look at that number. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So 110 billion - is that the state of the current arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?
MYRE: No, it is not. The president seems to be mixing some old contracts, some current contracts and some hoped-for contracts. We spoke to some people who study this, including Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution. He noted that, during the Obama administration, the Saudis bought about $112-billion-worth of U.S. weapons. So they - that was in the - that ballpark. But those contracts are mostly completed by now. And here's what Riedel said when I asked him about the state of sales with the current administration.
BRUCE RIEDEL: Since Donald Trump has been president, the United States and Saudi Arabia have concluded less than $4-billion-worth of arms agreements.
KELLY: Less than $4 billion, so that is a big gap. Do we know how much the Saudis actually do spend, are currently spending on weapons from the U.S.?
MYRE: Well, they do spend a lot. And they've really ramped up their defense spending in recent years, particularly because of this protracted war they're fighting in Yemen. In fact, their defense budget is now considered to be the third-largest in the world, trailing only the United States and China.
MYRE: And last year, we've seen reports they bought $3.4 billion of weapons from the U.S., far more than any other country. So as a general principle, the Saudis are the biggest weapons buyer from the United States - not on the scale that the president has suggested.
KELLY: OK. So that 110 billion may be aspirational, a kind of wish list. But what kind of weapons have they bought?
MYRE: So the fighter planes and the F-15 are really the most significant single purchase right now because they're using that daily in Yemen in the bombing campaign that's now been going on for more than three years. But the Saudis don't have a lot of big contracts at the moment, as we just heard. And it's really the United States that has the leverage because the - in this relationship right now because of the way it supports and supplies the Saudi Air Force. Here's Bruce Riedel again.
RIEDEL: If tonight President Trump told the king he was cutting off spare parts to the Saudi Air Force, the Saudi Air Force would be grounded tomorrow morning.
MYRE: And the president has said that if the U.S. doesn't sell weapons to the Saudis, then Russia or China would step in and do it. But it's really not that simple. Riedel noted that you can't simply strap a Chinese bomb on an American F-15. The - all the systems have to talk to one another. So the Saudis really would be in a tough spot if the United States were to use that leverage and cut them off.
KELLY: And look ahead with me, Greg. Have the Saudis made any kind of comments in terms of what arms deals they're looking for in future?
MYRE: The big one that's sort of been under some sort of discussion is a missile defense system. But again, they've spent an awful lot of money on the war in Yemen. And they're not necessarily seen as being in the market for a big new contract right now. Second point, the U.S. Congress and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has to approve these contracts. And the Democrats and some Republicans are quite upset with the way the Saudis are prosecuting the war in Yemen. And for the past year or so, they've really been reluctant, and it doesn't look like it would be an easy go for the Saudis to get a new contract.
KELLY: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.
MYRE: Thank you.
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