- Medea Benjaminco-founder of CodePink and author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.
In his first foreign trip abroad as president, Donald Trump traveled this weekend to Saudi Arabia, where he signed a series of arms deals totaling $110 billion. This comes in addition to more than $115 billion offered in arms deals to Saudi Arabia by President Obama during his time in office. The deal also includes precision-guided munitions, which the Obama administration had stopped selling Saudi Arabia out of fear they would be used to bomb civilians amid the ongoing Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. Since 2015, 10,000 people have been killed in the ongoing fighting, which has also decimated the country’s health, water, sewage and sanitation systems. The arms deal includes tanks, artillery, ships, helicopters, a missile defense system and cybersecurity technology. We speak to Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink and author of the book “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.”
AMY GOODMAN: In his first foreign trip abroad as president, Donald Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia this weekend, where he signed an arms deals totaling $110 billion. This comes in addition to more than $115 billion offered in arms deals to Saudi Arabia by President Obama during his time in office. Speaking in Riyadh on Sunday, President Trump praised the deal.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase, and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies, the greatest anywhere in the world. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a far greater role in security and operations having to do with security.
AMY GOODMAN: The arms deal comes as the Pentagon continues to support a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, where years of fighting has decimated the country’s health, water, sewage and sanitation systems. Over 10,000 civilians have died since the Saudi invasion began in 2015. The U.N. says around 19 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need some form of aid, with many of them at risk of famine. Trump mentioned Yemen twice in his speech, but only to first praise the Saudis for their war against the Houthis and then to condemn Iran for its support of militant groups. The arms deal includes tanks, artillery, ships, helicopters, a missile defense system and cybersecurity technology. The deal also includes precision-guided munitions, which the Obama administration had stopped selling Saudi Arabia out of fear they would be used to bomb civilians in Yemen.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy condemned the arms deal, writing in The Huffington Post, quote, “By selling the Saudis these precision-guided weapons more—not fewer—civilians will be killed because it is Saudi Arabia’s strategy to starve Yemenis to death to increase their own leverage at the negotiating table. They couldn’t do this without the weapons we are selling them,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the human rights arm of the American Bar Association has informed the Senate the arms deal may be illegal due to the Saudi atrocities in Yemen. Vanderbilt University law professor Michael Newton wrote, quote, “Continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia—and specifically of arms used in airstrikes—should not be presumed to be permissible,” unquote.
Meanwhile, in another deal reached over the weekend, the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates announced on Sunday they’ll give $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund.
To talk more about the significance of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, we go now to Washington, D.C., to talk to Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink and author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. She wrote an article last week headlined “10 Reasons Trump Should Not Strengthen U.S.-Saudi Ties.”
Medea, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s just appalling to see Trump in Saudi Arabia, Amy, touting this $110 billion arms deal, when you look at the history of how those arms have been used. You talked about their use in devastating Yemen. We also have the example of them crushing the democratic uprising in neighboring Bahrain, using those weapons to fund al-Qaeda groups in Iraq and in Syria, and using those weapons internally to crush dissent, particularly in the Shia areas, which is happening right now with the Saudi siege of the Shia town of Awamiyah, that is getting absolutely no press in the United States. So, Congress does have the right—and, I would say, the obligation—to stop these arms deals. It didn’t do it under Obama. It’s time they do it under Trump. They’ll only do it if we, the people, put pressure on Congress to say no weapons sales to the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that these precision-guided weapons that President Obama, under enormous pressure from peace activists and others for selling this to Saudi Arabia, finally stopped, the fact that Trump has resumed these weapons?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, he’s resumed those weapons. Again, Congress could stop it. And he also will probably be giving the green light for the invasion of the port of Hodeidah, which is where the majority of humanitarian aid comes in. The humanitarian community says that will be catastrophic.
So, I think, once again, we have to put the pressure on Congress to say no green light for the invasion of that port. And, in fact, what we do need is an emphasis on going back to the negotiating table, find a political solution to this crisis in Yemen, which is the furthest thing from what President Trump wants to do, because you could see from his trip to Saudi Arabia that this is all about encircling Iran, this is all about inflaming even further sectarian violence, which is what the U.S. has been doing by supporting the Saudi involvement in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: Why would the invasion of Hodeidah be catastrophic, as you say?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Because this is where the food comes in. Ninety percent of the food in Yemen is imported. If they cannot get food into Hodeidah, which has already been hampered by the Saudi bombing of the cranes there and by a Saudi blockade of vessels coming in—but if they further destroy the ability to bring humanitarian aid into Hodeidah, it will result in a full-blown famine.
AMY GOODMAN: And cholera, the issue of cholera? Hundreds of Yemenis have now died because of the devastation of the sanitation system.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Half of the medical facilities in Yemen have been destroyed, again, in the significant—most of them by the Saudi bombing campaign. You have now an outbreak of cholera that is declared a national catastrophe in Yemen, where they’re saying that now one out of every 10 minutes a Yemeni is dying from the effects of cholera.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think President Trump went to Saudi Arabia first, the first country in the world, his first foreign trip? Most presidents, since Reagan, have visited either Canada or Mexico as their first foreign trip.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first, Amy, think of all the protests that would have broken out in Canada and Mexico with Trump’s appearance. You didn’t see one protester on the streets of Saudi Arabia, because protesters would be arrested, flogged, beaten, tortured and perhaps beheaded. So it was a, quote, “friendly” place for Donald Trump in that respect.
He also wants to tout the weapons sales, and he talks about it in terms of jobs, jobs, jobs back in the United States. And he wants to, between the trip to Saudi Arabia and the trip to Israel, be sending this very clear message to Iran. And let’s be clear: The best foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration was the nuclear deal with Iran. This is something that Trump may well destroy.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to CNN Sunday, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff criticized Trump’s position on human rights in his Riyadh speech.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: I was also struck by the suggestion—and I think this is a broader element of the administration’s policy—that they’re going to de-emphasize issues of human rights, that what countries do within their own boundaries, we’re essentially going to look the other way. That’s not a high priority of ours anymore. The promotion of democracy, the promotion of human rights is going to take a backseat. I think that would be a terrible abdication of our global leadership when it comes to advocating for people who are the subject of persecution or imprisoned or journalists that are thrown in jail or people not allowed to practice their faith. I think it would be a historic mistake for us to walk away from that. And it was summed up, I think, most poignantly, to me, when Angela Merkel came to visit the president, when one of the headlines read, “The Leader of the Free World Meets Donald Trump.” That’s not what we expect of our president, and that needs to be—human rights need to be, nonetheless, a top priority for the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It was quite ironic when Rex Tillerson was speaking at a press conference with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia right next to him and said that he hopes the people of Iran get the freedoms of speech and association they deserve. And a reporter said, “What about Saudi Arabia?” He wouldn’t answer that question. So the selectivity is just astounding.
I think going to a country like Saudi Arabia, that has no free speech, no free association, no national elections, no political parties, no trade unions, where people like Raif Badawi, the blogger, is imprisoned for 10 years for blogging, where human rights lawyers are imprisoned for 15 years for defending human rights—it is appalling that Trump would go to Saudi Arabia and not even mention the issue of human rights, much less try to meet with one of the advocates for human rights, while he was visiting Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to some of the comments Trump made about Saudi Arabia during his campaign, when he frequently denounced Saudi Arabia. In a Facebook post on June 16, 2016, he wrote, quote, “Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!” In an interview with The New York Times last year, Trump also claimed that without U.S. support and protection, quote, “Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long.” During a February 2016 interview with Fox & Friends, Trump accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the 9/11 attacks.
DONALD TRUMP: Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis. It was Saudi. I mean, take a look at Saudi Arabia. Open the documents. We ought to get Bush or somebody to have the documents opened, because, frankly, if you open the documents, I think you’re going to see that it was Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Trump speaking in February last year on Fox & Friends. Medea Benjamin?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: He said a lot of truthful things during the campaign that now he goes back on as soon as he is president. It is quite astounding to see him in Saudi Arabia, the very country that is behind the 9/11 attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers, that is still trying behind the scenes to stop the ability of 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, in fact has blackmailed the U.S., saying that it would pull out $750 billion of investments. And meanwhile, Donald Trump is trying to get them to invest more in the U.S. economy, so they can continue to blackmail us.
AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go to another comment he made, going back to Donald Trump on the campaign trail, at a presidential debate in October, accusing the Clinton Foundation of being a criminal enterprise for taking millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and other countries.
DONALD TRUMP: It’s a criminal enterprise, Saudi Arabia giving $25 million, Qatar, all of these countries. You talk about women and women’s rights? So, these are people that push gays off business—off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet you take their money. So I’d like to ask you right now: Why don’t you give back the money that you’ve taken from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly? Why don’t you give back the money?
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Donald Trump in October in a debate with Hillary Clinton. Well, in another deal reached over the weekend, the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates announced they would give $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund. Medea?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s the height of hypocrisy. If the Saudis indeed wanted to help women entrepreneurs, they should lift the guardianship system that treats women as minors their entire life. They should allow women to drive. They should stop the gender segregation that exists at every level of Saudi society, from the schools to the business places to places of worship.
And to have Ivanka Trump being—meeting with Saudi women entrepreneurs and touting this new investment is absolutely ridiculous. Ivanka Trump could have met with the women who have been signing petitions asking for lifting of that guardianship system. She could have been meeting with the women who have been punished for trying to drive. Those would be good ways to help women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: Interesting, neither Ivanka Trump nor Melania were—Melania Trump, the first lady, were covered in—at the events and when Donald Trump spoke.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s also interesting that they were the only women at the events. You looked out, and you saw just a sea of men. And so, I think there are so many things that Ivanka or Melania could have done, could have said, that would show solidarity with the Saudi women who are fighting and have been fighting for decades for their rights. And yet they didn’t utter a word of support for those women.
AMY GOODMAN: Medea, what role did Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, play in making the arms deal happen?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right before Donald Trump’s trip, the son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was meeting with the Saudis to clinch this deal. And, in fact, in what was described as a jaw-dropping moment, he picked up the phone to call the head of Lockheed Martin to negotiate a better deal for the Saudis. You wonder why the representative of the United States is trying to get a better deal for the Saudis instead of the other way around. But he made sure that deal would be ready by the time Donald Trump got there to announce the $110 billion deal.
AMY GOODMAN: Medea, I want to ask you to stay with us, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. She wrote an article last week headlined “10 Reasons Trump Should Not Strengthen U.S.-Saudi Ties.” When we come back, she’ll be joined by Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council. Stay with us.