You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Is Obama Selling Arms to a Theocratic Dictatorship?

On December 29, the White House announced that it was sending nearly $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, part of a $60 billion package—the largest arms deal in history. President Obama has come a long way since his 2008 declaration that “nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700 billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia.” Apparently it was the borrowing part that really irked him—not the arming of a gender-apartheid, theocratic dictatorship.

The justification for the arms sale is simple. The deal will provide at least 50,000 jobs to Americans—good PR at a time of great economic distress. More importantly, it is intended to counter the very real threat of Iran, a regional menace that has brutally repressed its own people and sponsored terrorism worldwide. But arming one theocratic dictator to stop another is not only bad policy, it is profoundly immoral.

To see why, just consider the reaction of one Saudi dissident to the news. “America has never supported human rights in Saudi Arabia,” a leading female democracy activist told me on condition of anonymity. “America wants stability no matter what the price. But Saudi Arabia has become a police-state. My friends and I are being arrested, especially writers, activists, and reformers. It’s becoming North Korea with less military power. Someone may be reading what I’m writing to you now.”

Indeed, after signing a recent reformist petition, prominent liberal Mohammed Saeed Taib was banned from traveling, even to his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Shortly thereafter, Saudi poet Ali Al Domaini was called in for questioning. One by one, reformers are being intimidated, arrested, and silenced—and these are the lucky ones. Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar and Abdul Hamid Al Fakki were beheaded in recent months for “witchcraft.”

Yet the United States is sending the $60 million dollars without demanding any human rights reforms in return. The late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson once said, “We Americans are fortunate to have at our service the greatest economy the world has ever known. It can do more than enrich our lives. It can be pressed into service as an instrument of our commitment to individual liberty.” Both Democratic and Republican administrations have missed crucial opportunities to condition U.S. aid and arms on the rights of Saudi women to drive, Christians to pray, and gays to live. The White House could have demanded an end to the industry of Saudi textbooks calling Jews and Christians “apes and pigs.” Instead, it compromised its most cherished ideals and sacrificed liberty in the name of stability. As a result, it will get neither.

The Iranian nuclear program can and must be stopped. But the West must also recognize that a government that enslaves women, beheads witches, bans dissent, arrests journalists, and indoctrinates millions of children with racism is an enemy—no matter how much oil it has.

David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and cofounder of