Selling Insecurity: Saudi Arabia's Investment in the American Military Industrial Complex

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Willa Hart, Oberlin College
This presentation's argument challenges prevailing assumptions regarding Saudi-American relations. Scholars often analyze the Saudi-U.S. relationship from a security dependency perspective, granting the relationship's agency to the United States by maintaining that Saudi Arabia is dependent on the U.S. for security. However, this perspective is insufficient, because it disregards the relationship's interdependent nature, which is reflected in U.S. economic interest in selling security to Saudi Arabia. I argue that the U.S. has a necessary interest in maintaining these arms sales beyond geopolitical strategic investment. Such interest is largely rooted in sustaining the American military industry, which influences U.S. foreign policy regarding arms sales. My argument is supported by evidence from Congressional hearings and arms transfers databases, and is furthered by theoretical arguments of Julia Elyachar and Timothy Mitchell.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. arms industry's income from Saudi purchases alone has been particularly sizable. For instance, of the $10 billion in 2016 U.S. arms exports, Saudi purchases comprised 20% of total exports. In order to sustain exports of such quantity to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has consistently supported notions of regional insecurity within the Saudi monarchical regime, especially in its perception of an Iranian threat. This situation entails non-reciprocal sales of U.S. defense equipment to the Saudi government, with the latter as the sole purchaser. Therefore, if sales with Saudi Arabia ceased, income to U.S. firms from arms dealing would shrink, affecting profits from the top down. For the Kingdom, its arms cache would merely stop expanding, at least at the rate the U.S. enables. U.S. interest in Saudi arms purchases fosters a need that spurs the seemingly-natural trade cycle; the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia to continue to think it needs U.S. defense equipment. What is called a security dependency is actually pragmatic discourse for American economic interest in a Saudi appetite for war.

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