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US government watchdog says weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE lack oversight

Government Accountability Office's report says the US has not provided evidence it vetted arms sales to Gulf Arab countries
Emirati men walk past a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion at the Dubai Airshow on 18 November 2019.
Emirati men walk past a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion at the Dubai Airshow, on 18 November 2019 (AFP)

A US congressional watchdog's report has found serious gaps in the government's oversight of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Human Rights Watch, which called for a suspension of weapons sales.

"Without being able to effectively monitor how US-made weapons are being used by the Saudis and their allies, or if US training and support is mitigating civilian harm, the US risks more than its values. It also risks complicity in the crimes themselves," the rights group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The internal report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), obtained by HRW, says that neither the State nor Defence Departments could "provide evidence" that they had "investigated any incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE".

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The GAO report also concluded that the US government had failed to evaluate civilian casualties and the use of American-made weapons in the killings caused by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The report, also seen by The New York Times, focuses on attacks between 2015-2021 by the Saudi-led coalition, which has been at war with Yemen's Houthi rebels since March 2015.

"The alliance has carried out deadly strikes using combat jets and munitions that have been supplied and maintained largely by American companies with the approval of the State Department and the Pentagon," the report said.

News of the report comes as President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia. The White House confirmed on Tuesday that the trip would take place in mid-July.

Earlier this month, several top US lawmakers urged Biden to rework Washington's relationship with the kingdom and told him to warn Riyadh against pursuing more strategic cooperation with China on ballistic missiles amid reports of his trip.

The GAO report also comes after a bipartisan group of US lawmakers introduced a War Powers resolution that would bring an end to all remaining support for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Create 'specific guidelines'

Yemen has endured years of war since Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and ousted then-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power.

The conflict expanded into a more complex, regional power struggle in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, including the United Arab Emirates, intervened to roll back the Iran-aligned Houthis.

Since then, the conflict has seen an estimated 377,000 people killed, four million displaced, and a staggering 80 percent of the country forced to depend on aid for survival.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have for years warned that US-made weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be being used to commit war crimes in Yemen and that US officials could be implicated.

Yet the Biden administration has continued arms sales to the two countries, including a $650m weapons deal to Riyadh.

The rights group called on GAO to release the full report and also called on the State Department to implement its recommendations, including creating "specific guidance for investigating any indications that US-origin defense articles have been used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE" in ways that violate international law.

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