Saudi role in journalist’s alleged murder threatens CT defense contracts

A Black Hawk helicopter

Washington – Sikorsky and other U.S. defense contractors have been put in a tough spot by the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 17 days ago.

The lucrative market Sikorsky and other defense contractors developed in Saudi Arabia is threatened by calls from members of Congress for sanctions against the oil rich kingdom, which could derail the sale of billions of dollars of Sikorsky-made helicopters and Boing’s F-15 jet fighters, whose engines are made by Pratt & Whitney.

Saudi Arabia was awarded $138.9 billion in potential military contracts under U.S. Foreign Military Sales rules from 2009 to April 2018, according to a recent report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

That included $29.4 billion in F-15 sales and a “letter of intent” to purchase 150 Sikorsky Black Hawks and helicopters made by other companies valued at $29 billion. The Saudis also wanted to purchase 14 MH-60Rs “Seahawks” worth $1.9 billion for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces.

“Persian Gulf countries have more money to spend on weapons than other countries do, so they are an attractive market for Sikorsky,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

Sikorsky referred all questions this week about its Saudi sales to the U.S. Army, which did not return requests for information.

Nearly every major U.S. defense contractor has pending sales with Saudi Arabia, the top buyer of American-made weaponry, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute.

But the alleged murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi has prompted a growing number of lawmakers to want sanctions imposed on Saudi Arabia that would end U.S. military sales.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.,  a Trump ally who is a key figure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among the first to come out forcefully in favor of curtailing the arm sales.

It’s up to the president,” Graham said on Fox News when asked what President Donald Trump should do about the situation. “I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”

Trump seems disinclined to end the sales, which he says create a lot of U.S. jobs.

But after vacillating for days about Khashoggi’s disappearance and the role in it the Saudi government may have played, Trump late Thursday seemed to shift his thinking. Asked if he thought the Saudi dissident was dead, the president said it “certainly looks that way to me” and vowed “very severe” consequences for Saudi Arabia if the government is proved to be behind Khashoggi’s murder.

Still, it’s up to Congress to approve sanctions against the Saudi kingdom and the defense industry is a powerful lobbying force on Capitol Hill.

“It’s hard to say right now whether Congress will try to block any arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” said Thompson. “They would have to balance human rights and geopolitical concerns in the region.”

Saudi Arabia has an outsized influence in the global price of oil, and the kingdom and the United States have shared objectives of maintaining regional stability and containing Iran.

‘An extrajudicial killing’

Still, the Khashoggi scandal has put great pressure on Congress to act.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., are leading a call to investigate whether  Saudi Arabia was responsible for “an extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression” under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has called for the United States to immediately cease military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia continues to bomb civilians inside Yemen, knowingly fund an intolerant version of Islam that easily leads to radicalization, and now they feel so immune from consequences that they have reportedly kidnapped and murdered a U.S. resident who criticized the regime,” he said.

Joined by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Murphy last year sponsored a resolution of disapproval to halt $500 million in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Murphy wanted to block the part of the package that included offensive weapons, including precision-guided munitions, to protest Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against rebel factions in Yemen, which the Saudi government sees as aligned with Iran. No Connecticut-made weaponry was included in the resolution.

The senators used a 1976 law that allows any senator to force a vote on halting overseas arms sales. But the Senate rejected their resolution.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and 10 other Democratic senators wrote Trump this week demanding the president disclose all his business dealings with Saudi Arabia.

The letter said that Trump has boasted that the Saudis “buy apartments from me” and that the Saudi government “has spent substantial sums” at Trump properties, including the Trump International Hotels in Washington D.C. and Manhattan.

Trump denied any business dealings in the kingdom.

“For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter),” the president tweeted Tuesday.

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