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Arms Sales Tables

Country Profile

Saudi Arabia is America’s top customer. Since 1990, the U.S. government, through the Pentagon’s arms export program, has arranged for the delivery of more than $39.6 billion in  foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia, and an additional $394 million worth of arms were delivered to the Saudi regime through the State Department’s direct commercial sales program during that same period. (Foreign Military and Construction Sales and Direct Commercial Sales are recorded and published by the Dept. of Defense in Foreign Military Sales, Foreign Military Construction Sales and Military Assistance Facts; the most current online edition includes information through FY 1999.)

Oil rich Saudi Arabia is a cash-paying customer.  It receives no U.S. military assistance to finance these purchases, although it does demand that about 35 percent of all major contracts be "offset"-that is, economic benefits equaling 35 percent of the arms contract value must be steered back to the Saudi economy. (Check out the Offsets Monitoring Project for more information on this phenomenon.)

The United States has very close and long-running military ties to the Saudi regime dating back to 1945. Following the 1990-91 war against Iraq, more than 5,000 U.S. troops and thousands of U.S. military contractors have been continuously based in Saudi Arabia. However, several concerns have been raised about this close military cooperation and the related sales of sophisticated arms. These concerns are:

Sophisticated arms sales to Saudi Arabia spurring regional arms races

With billions of petro-dollars, Saudi Arabia has been buying very modern, deadly weapons from America.

Many of the systems on order, such as the M-1A2 Abrams main battle tank, M-2A2 Bradley armored vehicles, F-15E Strike Eagle attack aircraft and Patriot surface-to-air missile, are the top-of-the-line systems deployed with U.S. forces.

A flurry of expensive arms sales followed the 1990-91 Gulf War. However, long before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia sought to obtain America’s most sophisticated weaponry in order to counterbalance its much more populous regional rivals-Iran and Iraq. From 1986-93, these three countries accounted for nearly 40 percent of all arms exports to developing world countries. Saudi Arabia imported $55.6 billion in arms, Iraq imported $22.7 billion, and Iran imported $13.9 billion. (Richard F. Grimmett, Congressional Research Service, Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World, 1986-93," 29 July 1994)

Recent U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia have dramatically raised the level of military technology in the region, spurring arms races with other Persian Gulf states and with Israel.  Having denied Egypt’s request for the sale of Apache helicopters equipped with Longbow radar, the U.S. government has approved the possible sale of this technology to Saudi Arabia.  This move opens the way for a further shift in the balance of power and technology in this region.

The sale of F-15E bombers provides a good case study of how others respond to sales of high-tech U.S. arms. Saudi Arabia had sought to buy the jet in the mid-1980s, but Congress opposed the sale on the grounds that it would threaten Israel. (While relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia improved following the Gulf War, the two are technically still in a state of war.) In September 1992, the Bush Administration and Congress approved the export of 48 of the aircraft to Saudi Arabia, largely on the basis of an aggressive "jobs now" campaign waged by McDonnell Douglas (MD), the manufacturer of the aircraft. The Air Force was finished procuring the jet, and so MD devised a national campaign to promote the controversial sale explicitly on the number of jobs that it would sustain (see Arms Sales Monitor No. 16 and No. 17). The sale got caught up in presidential politics, with then-candidate Bill Clinton endorsing the deal while on a campaign stop in St. Louis, where the jet is manufactured. Shortly thereafter President Bush announced his support for the sale while at a campaign-style rally at the McDonnell Douglas factory.

This was the first time the jet--which can deliver twelve tons of bombs 1,000 miles--had been exported to any nation. Only two years previously, the plane was rushed into service with the U.S.Air Force for the Gulf War, where it was used on hundreds of deep-strike bombing raids. The Saudi planes will be less capable than U.S. F-15E jets: they will carry less ordnance and are not currently slated to carry AMRAAM or HARM missiles, and the radar will have a lower resolution. Nevertheless, this was the most sophisticated combat aircraft the United States had ever exported...until a year and a half later, when the Clinton Administration and Congress agreed to give Israel 21 F-15E bombers with greater capabilities, in order to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge over Saudi Arabia.

Having gained U.S. government approval for two sales of its most advanced fighter-bomber, MD is eagerly anticipating more: It recently competed (unsuccessfully) for a sale of 20 to 80 long-range attack planes to the United Arab Emirates. The winner of that $8 billion-plus competition is Lockheed Martin, which will develop an "enhanced strategic" version of its popular F-16 fighter for the U.A.E. The F-16"ES" would have several improved features over the F-16s flown by the U.S. Air Force: a reduced radar signature, conformal fuel tanks, internal navigation and targeting gear and a un-refueled combat range of 1,000 miles. In addition, as a condition of the sale, the U.A.E. has demanded that the jets be equipped with the Air Force's most advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM)-- and the Clinton Administration agreed. Previously the U.S. had declined to export this missile to countries in the region. Now Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have all lined up to get AMRAAMs.

Since the U.A.E. jet sale, Saudi Arabia has been making noises about buying more F-15s, which Israel opposes.  Saudi Arabia has threatened the United States not to base decisions future export decisions on regional security and avoiding arms races:  “Officials in the Saudi capital have hinted that the kingdom may look elsewhere for a replacement for the F-5 if the USA continues to link future military sales to Israeli security concerns.” (“Country Briefing: Saudi Arabia,” Jane's Defense Weekly, 18 August 1999, p. 30).  

Through these sales, the U.S. government has dramatically raised the standard of combat aircraft and munitions of U.S. allies in the region, many of whom are engaged in a "cold peace" with each other. Large-scale sales of advanced conventional weapons to our Middle Eastern allies play into the threat perceptions of "unfriendly" governments as well, in this case Iran and Iraq, spurring them to seek countervailing weapons. Such sales by the United States also give the green light to other arms exporters to introduce new levels of military technology into this and other tense regions. A 1995 report by the CIA's non-proliferation center noted that "as countries' reliance on exports to maintain their defense industrial base grows, pressures will increase to export advanced conventional weapons and technologies to remain competitive with the United States in the world arms market" (emphasis added). By making multi-billion dollar sales of extremely advanced weaponry to the Middle East, the United States government has diminished credibility in pressing other governments to refrain from making sales that it views as dangerous. [See U.S. Nonproliferation Policy, hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Washington: U.S. GPO, 1994), pp. 27-29 on the difficulty the United States faces in persuading Russia to forgo arms exports to Iran, given high level U.S. arms transfers to Persian Gulf countries.]

At the same time, defense and intelligence officials now routinely cite the spread of advanced and, on occasion, low end conventional weapons as a threat to U.S. security. And, completing the circle, the military services and industry justify development and production of next-generation weapons on the basis of arms being acquired by Third World nations, including previously-exported U.S. systems. In lobbying Congress for production funds for its F-22 fighter, Lockheed cites the widespread proliferation of very capable combat aircraft, like the Russian MiG-29 and the American-made F-15 and F-16.

High level military expenditures undermining stability

From 1987-97 Saudi Arabia is estimated to have spent $262 billion (constant 1997 dollars) on its military, with its annual military expenditure consuming on average 18 percent of GNP. (By comparison, the United States spent about 4.6 percent of its GNP on the military during this same time.) During just 1995-97, over $31 billion was spent on arms imports from the United States and Europe. (U.S. State Department, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1998)

Low oil prices, a $60 billion tab for the 1991 Gulf War, and tens of billions of dollars worth of new weapons have led to large budget deficits for the past several years. These budgetary problems have led the Saudi Kingdom to revise payments on $25-$30 billion of U.S. arms contracts. A January 1994 deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia extends payment and delivery schedules for outstanding weapons orders; less important orders may be postponed. Saudi financial problems will grow when the embargo on Iraqi oil sales--in place since 1991--is lifted.

According to William Quandt, a middle east scholar at the Brookings Institution, "This is not a popular regime. It's a huge patronage system that has spread the wealth around. If you take that away, you could contribute to a political crisis" (New York Times, 23 August 1993).

In May 1995 the State Department acknowledged that the economic downturn in Saudi Arabia is undermining political stability in the sheikdom, as the Saudi government is cutting popular public subsidies for gas, electricity and water in an effort to redress the deficit. In a letter to Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), the State Department reported that "Tighter government budgets have reduced employment opportunities for young Saudis, frozen wages and slowed the private sector.... The short term economic downturn has colored popular perceptions of the government’s financial management and sharpened the distinctions among the social groups. These economic strains have added to the resentment over the advantages enjoyed by the very large Saudi royal family."

Hamilton asked the State Department whether U.S. efforts to boost sales of advanced weaponry and aircraft have contributed to the Saudis’ financial woes and whether the burden of these payments contributes to anti-American sentiment. "We are aware that the high profile of some U.S. commercial successes has generated criticism of the U.S. in sectors of Saudi society which believe incorrectly that the U.S. has pressed the Saudi government to make unwanted or unneeded purchases," said the State Department. "It is the Saudis alone who have defined their import priorities. Thus, it is misleading to suggest that U.S. companies are responsible for Saudi economic problems." (For a copy of Rep. Hamilton’s inquiry and the State Department’s response, see Congressional Record, 2 May 1995, pp. E908-10)

Actually, the United States has been helping Saudi Arabia define its military needs for over fifty years. In 1991, Lt. Gen. Dennis Malcor completed the most recent DOD assessment of Saudi Arabia’s security needs, which presumably laid the ground work for recent U.S. sales of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, F-15E bombers and M-1A2 tanks. And, according to a report in the Washington Times in May 1995, the Pentagon recommended that the Saudis buy several Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers at $1 billion each.

Opposition to American military presence on Saudi soil

Despite high military spending, Saudi Arabia remains unable to defend itself, principally because of its small population and large territory. There are only about 7 million Saudis, while there are 21 million people in Iraq and 66 million in Iran. The chief of U.S. naval intelligence has said that, regardless of "long-term plans to expand their military with the purchase of equipment..., it is doubtful that the Saudis would be able to counter threats from Iran and Iraq completely. The United States, or a coalition, would have to be called upon again to provide protection or to repel aggression." A prominent Saudi official has said the Gulf War demonstrated that "no matter how built up we become, we can't replace the U.S....The U.S. is our protector."

The "invasion" of Saudi Arabia by hundreds of thousands of Western soldiers during Operation Desert Storm caused a backlash among Saudi conservatives, and some liberals, who want to preserve Arabian culture and fear domination by the West. Some secular Saudis dislike the Saudi family's domination of the state and the corruption it breeds. More radical Muslims assail the royal family for allying itself with the infidel United States. For decades, the Saudis avoided publicly associating themselves too closely with the United States unless absolutely necessary.

A powerful bomb exploded at Saudi National Guard headquarters in Riyadh on 13 November 1995, killing eight and wounding 60 more. Over 1,300 U.S. Army and civilian contractors work there training the Guard, whose main function is to protect the ruling family. Five of the dead and half of the casualties were Americans. Since the blast, the U.S. embassy has repeatedly advised the 30,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia (many of them arms contractors or military personnel) to "keep a low profile." Lt. Gen. Thomas Rhame, director of the Pentagon’s arms sales agency, notified Congress two days after the blast that, "The overall effectiveness of the U.S. security assistance mission in Saudi Arabia is not expected to be hampered as a result of this incident."

Two Islamic groups claimed responsibility for the bombings, and four Saudis were publicly beheaded on 31 May 1996 for their connection to the bombing. Their confession which implicated Saudi financier Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists was later dismissed.

A second bomb exploded at the Khobar Towers, just outside an airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on 25 June 1996. Nineteen American servicemen were killed and 100 were seriously injured in the blast. Speculation that bin Laden was behind the bombings has more recently been dismissed, but the U.S. Justice Department has charged that the Saudi Government is withholding evidence and hindering the investigation into the bombing.

The U.S. government continues to support the government of King Fahd, but it has decided to move U.S. troops away from major cities to more secure (isolated) parts of the country. In June 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Fahd. The two confirmed the "firm and unshakable" relationship between the two countries (Washington Times, 15 June 1997).

Political repression and violations of human rights

Despite the show of U.S. support demonstrated by this astounding quantity of arms sales, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is very poor.  According to the U.S. State Department’s 2000 Human Rights Report, the Saudi government’s "human rights record remained generally poor in a number of areas,” with reports of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and physical abuse of prisoners. Such practices technically violate Saudi law, yet security forces commit abuses “with the acquiescence” of the government.  In addition, the government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, and religion. Since Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, there is no method or right by which citizens can bring about government change.

Amnesty International has recently launched a campaign to highlight the worst abuses of the Saudi justice system and the relative silence of the international community. Concurring with and expanding upon the State Department’s annual report, Amnesty documents experiences young, female, foreign workers who have been charges and sentenced without any semblance of due process, such as access to a lawyer, consulate, or even information about the crimes allegedly committed. Also detailed are tales of torture of prisoners using electro-shock batons—weapons that the U.S. Commerce Department has authorized to be shipped to Saudi Arabia at least a dozen times. 

Saudi Arabia’s position as a strategic Gulf ally has blinded U.S. officials into approving a level and quality of arms exports that should never have been allowed to a non-democratic country with a poor human rights record.  

The United States has also sold small weapons and security equipment most likely to be used in the commission of human rights abuses.  The Pentagon delivered $23 million worth of guns and ammunition to Saudi Arabia during 1996-98, and the State Department authorized export of another $4.8 million of guns, grenade launchers, police riot control equipment, ammunition, and ammunition raw materials and manufacturing equipment during the same time period.  The U.S. Department of Commerce has authorized the transfer of electro-shock batons, and police equipment possibly including thumb cuffs, leg irons, shackles, and handcuffs. 

The following reports by Amnesty International on Saudi Arabia are available online:

  “A Justice System Without Justice,” May 2000.

  Saudi Arabia:  a Secret State of Suffering, March 2000

"Military, Security and Police Relations:  Stop Arming the Torturers,

For an overview of political instability in Saudi Arabia, see Milton Viorst, "The Storm and the Citadel," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 1996.

Regional tensions

Saudi Arabia’s relations with its smaller neighbors have been difficult on occasion, even with the fellow monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qataris and Saudis clashed over a disputed border post in September 1992, leaving two dead. Qatar boycotted several GCC meetings after the skirmish. Qatar and Saudi Arabia were also at odds over the civil war in Yemen in 1994 (Jane's Intelligence Review, August 1994).

In Yemen, victorious northern forces accused the Saudis of sending arms, money and mercenaries to breakaway southern forces. Saudi Arabia tried, and failed, to conquer Yemen, which lies on its southern border, during its consolidation of the Kingdom in the 1930s.

James Wyllie of the University of Aberdeen suggested in 1992 that "Yemeni democracy presents a sharp and embarrassing contrast to Saudi Arabia's deep-seated political conservatism (Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1992). Yemen's 1993 elections, in which women were allowed to vote, were the first ever held on the Arabian peninsula.

Saudi Arabia expelled between 500,000 and 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 to punish Yemen for its opposition to the war against Iraq.

Concerns about proliferation: nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles

The Saudi inclination to buy security may have included attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, according to a Saudi defector. Mohammed Khilewi, first secretary at the Saudi mission to the United Nations until July 1994, said that the Saudis have sought a bomb since 1975. According to Khilewi, the Saudis sought to buy nuclear reactors from China, supported Pakistan's nuclear program, and contributed $5 billion to Iraq's nuclear weapons program between 1985 and 1990. If true, these actions would violate Saudi commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Saudi Arabia signed in 1988 to ease concern over their purchase of long-range Chinese ballistic missiles.

While the U.S. government vocally opposes the development or procurement of ballistic missiles by non-allies, it has been very quiet about the fact that Saudi Arabia possesses the longest-range ballistic missiles of any developing country. In February/March 1988, it was revealed that the Saudi regime had bought an estimated fifty CSS-2 missiles from China. The missiles can travel a distance of more than 1,500 miles and deliver a payload of over 4,000 lbs.        

The Saudis have also been accused of retransferring U.S. military equipment or technology without U.S. approval in violation of obligations under the Arms Export Control Act. The Saudis allegedly gave Iraq 1,500 U.S. 2,000-pound bombs during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War (Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1992). "Inadvertent" transfers of bombs and vehicles to Syria and Bangladesh during the Gulf War have also been reported (Arms Control Today, May 1992). Another "inadvertent" transfer almost took place when an asylum-seeking Saudi F-15 pilot flew his aircraft to Sudan in November 1990. The plane was returned (Washington Post, 15 November 1990).

Support for international terrorism

Mohammed Khilewi, who accused the Saudis of trying to buy access to a nuclear weapon, also says Saudi Arabia has supported terrorism, and has spied on Jewish-American groups and on U.S. military installations. However, the State deparment has found no evidence of official Saudi support for terrorism.

In a June 1994 Congressional hearing, the State Department said:

Some Saudi citizens probably provide funds to HAMAS and other radical Palestinian groups throughout the region, as well as to extremist elements in Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Private Saudi benefactors also sponsor paramilitary training for radial Islamists from many countries in Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan. The State Department has no evidence that the Government of Saudi Arabia sponsors these activities.

In its yearly report, Patterns of Global Terrorism 1996, the State Department maintains this view and says that money from private Saudi citizens flows chiefly to two groups, HAMAS and HUA (the Harakut ul-Ansar, a Pakistani group that operates in the Kashmir region).

Saudi financier Osama Bin Ladin is reportedly a major bank-roller of terrorists and is said to want to rid Saudi Arabia of American forces. He is believed to be in Afghanistan under the protection of the fundamentalist Muslim Taleban militia. Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship in 1994.

While the Saudi government may not be directly supporting terrorist groups, it has not been very cooperative in arresting wanted terrorists. In April 1995, the Saudi government prevented U.S. officers from arresting Imad Mughniyah for his reputed roles in the 1983 car-bombing that killed 241 U.S. troops in Lebanon and for a 1985 TWA hijacking in which one American died. U.S. law officials--who were acting on a last-minute tip by an unnamed informant--were on route to the Jeddah airport to seize Mughinyah during a stop over of a Middle East Airlines flight. However, the Saudi government denied permission for the U.S. plane to land. (Washington Post, 22 April 1995) The U.S. government issued a protest, but the Saudi government said that it could not permit allow a foreign government to arrest a foreign citizen on its soil (Washington Times, 24 April 1995).

Background Information

Last Updated:  March, 2002

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