Days after the Obama administration approved a major arms sale agreement to Saudi Arabia, Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is considering blocking the move, citing objections to the country’s human rights record and a possible regional arms race.
“I will work with a bipartisan coalition to explore forcing a vote on blocking this sale,” said Paul, according to a statement provided to Foreign Policy magazine.
“Saudi Arabia is an unreliable ally with a poor human rights record. We should not rush to sell them advanced arms and promote an arms race in the Middle East.”
Paul’s statement comes amid a deteriorating situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the south, where Riyadh has been involved in a US-supported intervention for more than a year.
Peace talks being brokered by the United Nations and held in Kuwait fell apart last week and fighting resumed on Tuesday, as airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition struck a food facility, killing more than a dozen people.
Though a nominal truce was agreed to by the warring Yemeni factions in April, the fighting never significantly abated, with 272 civilian deaths reported from April until the collapse of talks, according to the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights.
Paul, and his colleague on the Senate foreign relations committee, Democratic senator Chris Murphy, have been critics of US policy in Yemen and of providingSaudi Arabia with the logistical and military support it has asked for.
“If you talk to Yemeni Americans, they will tell you in Yemen this isn’t a Saudi bombing campaign, it’s a US bombing campaign,” Murphy said, speaking on Capitol Hill in June, according to a report by Defense News. “Every single civilian death inside Yemen is attributable to the United States. We accept that as a consequence of our participation,” he said.
The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the agency responsible for carrying out arms sales to foreign countries, said in a statement on Tuesday that the proposed $1.15bn sale “conveys US commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security and armed forces modernization”.
While US legislators have 30 days after the arms sale was agreed to try and block the sale, they rarely try to intervene.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched an intervention along with several of its Sunni Arab allies in an attempt to restore President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whose government was overrun by Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Shia Iran, Riyadh’s chief regional rival, of supporting the Houthis, a charge Tehran denies.
In the intervening period, the conflict has ground on with no clear end in sight, despite off and on talks associated with the UN peace process.
Critics of the conflict have bemoaned the vast humanitarian cost, which has seen thousands of people die, many of them civilians. More than 1,100 children have died since the fighting began, according to Unicef, the UN children’s agency.
Yemen, already the Middle East’s most impoverished country before the onset of war, has since been left on the precipice of famine, while more than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes, according to a tally by the Associated Press.
The lack of a central governing force in Yemen has also been a boon for terrorist groups, according to security analysts and the US government’s own state department figures, which show a major uptick in fighters affiliated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2015 since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention.
“Even if the fighting ended soon, whoever assumes control over the shattered country will face an AQAP with far more resources and recruits than the AQAP against which previous Yemeni governments have struggled,” said a June intelligence assessment put out by the Soufan Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in New York.