US Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales, UK suspends licenses

Michael Mathes, with Dmitry Zaks in London
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US Senator Lindsey Graham is one of seven Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to block US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies

US Senator Lindsey Graham is one of seven Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to block US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - Saudi Arabia's controversial military campaign in Yemen suffered a double blow Thursday as US lawmakers voted to block President Donald Trump's arms sales to Riyadh hours after Britain temporarily suspended similar sales.

In Washington, the Senate voted to prevent $8.1 billion in US arms in a symbolic bipartisan rebuke to the president and his close ties with the kingdom.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in voting against 22 separate sales of aircraft support maintenance, precision-guided munitions and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan at a moment of heightened tensions in the Middle East.

The votes were only assured this week when Republican leadership agreed to hold the sensitive roll calls on the arms sales, which critics say will aggravate the devastating war in Yemen.

Trump's administration took the extraordinary step of bypassing Congress to approve the sales in May, declaring Iran to be a "fundamental threat" to regional stability.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the administration was responding to an emergency caused by Saudi Arabia's historic rival Iran, which backs the Huthi rebels in Yemen.

But critics in the United States and Britain have expressed concern about the devastating toll that the four-year Saudi bombing campaign in neighboring Yemen has taken on civilians.

"When they target civilians how can we continue to sell those arms?" Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, author of the resolutions, said Thursday.

The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and triggered what the United Nations describes as the world's worst existing humanitarian crisis.

Britain's temporary sales suspension was announced by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox after a British court ordered the government to "reconsider" the sales due to their toll on non-combatants.

"We disagree with the judgement and will seek permission to appeal," Fox said in a statement delivered in parliament, adding authorities "will not grant any new licenses to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen."

Government figures analyzed by CAAT show that Britain, which accounts for 23 percent of arms imports to Saudi Arabia, has licensed nearly £5 billion ($6.4 billion, 5.6 billion euros) in weapons to the kingdom since its Yemen campaign began in 2015.

Germany halted all arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Saudi opposition columnist Jamal Khashoggi's 2018 killing and called on other EU governments to follow suit.

- 'Resolve or weakness' -

The process in Washington, traditionally a major provider of weaponry to the kingdom, is more protracted.

The measures, which passed with votes of 53-45 and 51-45, now go to the Democratic-led House of Representatives, where they are expected to win approval and then head to the president's desk.

Trump is likely to veto them, and it will remain an uphill climb for Congress to come up with a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

Some of the president's allies in Congress are outraged by Saudi Arabia's behavior.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he hoped his vote to block the sales would "send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you're acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship."

Khashoggi's murder in Turkey by Saudi agents triggered a full-blown crisis in Riyadh's relations with the West.

"There is no amount of oil that you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate," Graham said.

Senator Tom Cotton, a hawk who backs Trump's policies in the Gulf, warned colleagues that Tehran would be watching the Saudi arms sales votes "for signs of resolve or weakness" by Washington.

Congress rebuked Trump in March with a historic resolution curtailing the president's war-making powers and ending American support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Trump vetoed the measure in April.