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As Saudi Arabia Executes Sheikh al-Nimr, Will U.S. Respond by Cutting $50 Billion in Weapons Sales?

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After Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, protesters in the Iranian capital of Tehran responded by torching part of the Saudi Embassy. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia responded by severing ties with Iran. With Saudi Arabia and Iran backing opposing groups in Syria and Iraq, and on opposite sides of the conflict in Yemen, we examine how this will impact both regional tensions and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Under the Obama administration, the United States has entered a record $50 billion in new arms sales agreements with the Saudis. “If the Obama administration wants to show its displeasure with this execution and try to bring an end to the war in Yemen, there’s got to be a distancing from Saudi Arabia, beginning with cutting off some of these arms supplies,” says William Hartung, senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor and director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. We also speak with Toby Jones, an associate professor of history and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University and author of “Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia,” and with Ali al-Ahmed, the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, which could have major repercussions in the region. We’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Ali al-Ahmed, the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, one of Saudi Arabia’s youngest political prisoners, detained when he was 14. Also joining us from Rutgers College—Rutgers University in New Jersey, Toby Jones, an associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies there. He’s author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. And here in New York, Bill Hartung is with us, senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor, also director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy; his latest book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

I want to bring Toby Jones into this discussion. Talk about the significance of this mass execution, this leading opposition figure in Iran, as well as 46 others, and what it means for the United States, a close ally of the Saudi regime.

TOBY JONES: Good morning, Amy. Thanks.

I’m going to say two things about this, very broadly. One is that reading this through the lens of geopolitics and the regional sort of relationship, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is, of course, critical, and it’s important, especially as relations sour and things tend to fall out. But this was also about domestic politics in Saudi Arabia. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced a new budget, in which it forecast a significant budget shortfall as a result of declining oil revenues. When revenues start to fall like that in Saudi Arabia, there’s pressure on the social welfare state, and Saudi Arabia anticipates that there might be pushback and opposition from within society, as Ali al-Ahmed’s suggested earlier. Killing a Shiite cleric goes a long way in deflecting attention away from political, economic pressures. Sectarianism is at an all-time high, and has been over the last decade or so. And so the Saudis are seeking to capitalize, I believe, symbolically, on the killing of al-Nimr as a way to buy a little bit of time to figure out how to negotiate its way through an economic crisis. And, of course, there’s also the war in Yemen and justifying a continued failing project there. Using sectarianism as a way to achieve goals there is important, too.

With respect to the U.S. relationship and how all of this figures in—and I think the U.S. is probably caught a little bit off guard here. Al-Nimr has been on death row for quite a long time. I don’t think any of us really expected that the Saudis would carry through with this. It raises all kinds of questions about timing: Why now? Why kill al-Nimr alongside a bunch of al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as some of those other young Shiite men who were executed on Saturday, as well? So the U.S. is caught off guard. It’s called for calm. It’s called for dialogue. These are odd expressions and demands from the United States. I mean, the U.S. knows that the Saudis are not interested in dialogue with Iran. Saudi Arabia sees itself as in a tense and fraught relationship with its neighbors across the Gulf. And the U.S. also understands very well that it’s precisely crisis and it’s escalation of tension between Tehran and Riyadh that plays into Saudi Arabia’s ways that they talk about insecurity, their regional phobias and fears. They frame everything around escalating series of crises. The U.S. understands this very well. I mean, the Saudis are masters at manipulating that kind of language in order to keep the Americans in a certain geostrategic position. But, to be clear, it’s also a position that I think the United States is happy to play.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, if you can talk about the U.S.-Saudi arms relationship? I mean, hasn’t, in the last year, the U.S. been involved with the largest arms sales in their history, this to the Saudi regime?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, throughout the Obama administration, we’ve seen $50 billion in new arms sales agreements with the Saudis, which is a record for any kind of period like that. And so, they’re all in behind the Saudi military. They’re providing logistical support, bombs, refueling for the war in Yemen, U.S. companies training the Saudi National Guard, which is their internal security force. We’ve trained 10,000 Saudi military personnel in the last 10 years—five years, rather. So, you know, my belief is if the Obama administration wants to show displeasure with this execution, try to bring an end to the war in Yemen and so forth, there’s got to be a distancing from Saudi Arabia, beginning with cutting off some of these arms supplies.

AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t U.S. weapons manufacturers in their heyday right now, making record profits?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, and this is a huge boon to them, the Saudi market. They just announced a major combat ship sale, which will benefit Lockheed Martin. Boeing fighter planes are in the mix, Boeing helicopters. General Dynamics is keeping a whole tank line open through sales to Saudi Arabia. So there’s both a dependency on the U.S. arms industry on Saudi sales and also huge financial benefits keeping this—you know, this gravy train running for them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how Saudi Arabia is using these weapons in Yemen?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order there. They’ve been bombing markets, hospitals, refugee camps—more than 2,000 civilian casualties, most of them from the Saudi bombing. Basically, the Saudis, many believe, are engaging in war crimes in Yemen. And the U.S. logistical and arms support is facilitating that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali al-Ahmed, what could the U.S. do? And what—how do you assess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia?

ALI AL-AHMED: This is a complex relationship that really is led and dominated by the Saudi ability to buy silence and support. If you look at the reaction of presidential candidates, for example, you don’t see any of them speaking out against these executions. It’s odd that, for example, Mr. Ben Carson would say that the Saudi government is an ally of us and we should support it, at the same time that the Saudi monarchy prevents black people from becoming diplomats or judges because they view blacks as slaves. So, really, here you see a contradiction of the—what we know as American values, is that the Saudis have been able to buy their way by giving money to a lot of politicians, to their foundations, like the Clinton Foundation, the Carter foundation, and shaping their opinion. And, unfortunately, because in America politics works on money, the Saudi monarchy has really broken that code and understood how to use it.

The United States can do a few things, really, right now. They can first, for example, stop the U.S. taxpayers spending money on protecting the Saudi monarchy and Gulf monarchies. Professor Roger Stern of Princeton has a study that says that the United States has been spending over $200 billion a year in military expenditure in the Gulf. That is the largest military expenditure abroad. It is to—the effect is—the default effect is, it’s protecting these monarchies. The U.S. should not be spending that money. The monarchies can spend their own money defending themselves.

Secondly is, for example, I would urge the U.S. government to intervene to ensure that the Saudi monarchy will return the body of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to his family, because they refused to do so after the execution. I think that would be a great example of how the U.S. can use its power to bring some healing to this process, because the Middle East might implode, Saudi Arabia itself might implode, because of this. So, I think they should take some, you know, serious steps.

And I really met with the State Department over the past few weeks, and I told them—and I wrote an article about it—says, “You must take steps now. Don’t wait until the executions take place,” because we knew that these executions were happening. It’s important to prevent any ignition in the region before it happened. But unfortunately—

AMY GOODMAN: And do you feel that the State Department took your advice?

ALI AL-AHMED: No, they didn’t. They didn’t. I mean, this—

AMY GOODMAN: So, Toby Jones, we have 30 seconds. Why is the U.S. not being more vocal in its criticism of Saudi Arabia?

TOBY JONES: Well, the U.S. is stuck. I mean, aside from questions of profit, the U.S. is also beholden—you know, and it’s partly the product of its own making. I mean, this is a generational commitment to Saudi Arabia, in which for over three decades we’ve committed ourselves. Now, whether this is true or not, we’ve committed ourselves to protecting the flow of energy out of the Persian Gulf. It’s the largest producer of oil on the planet in this one area. And the United States has tied its military fortunes, in many ways the pocketbooks of its gunmakers, as well as the Pentagon, to what comes in and goes out of the Persian Gulf. If you think about it critically, that’s what needs to change, but it’s also the hardest thing to re-engineer, this breaking away not only from oil dependency, but also from the massive financial and military investment that the U.S. has made in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have—

TOBY JONES: But the bottom line is, it’s not stabilizing. It’s destabilizing.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Rutgers University professor Toby Jones, arms expert Bill Hartung and Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, thanks for joining us.

When we come back, an exclusive extended interview with the jailed American activist, just recently back from Peru after 20 years, Lori Berenson.

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