RIYADH (Dispatches) – President Joe Biden’s vaunted freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia did not see the light of the day as the kingdom signed an agreement on Sunday with U.S. contractor Lockheed Martin to form a joint venture.
The deal was announced by Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), which said it will own 51 percent of the venture, as it seeks to boost the kingdom’s military capabilities.
"The joint venture is aimed at developing localization capabilities through the transfer of technology and knowledge and training of Saudi nationals to manufacture products and provide services to the kingdom’s armed forces,” SAMI said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia has long been a major global arms importer. But some Western countries claim they now refuse to sell weapons to the kingdom over its war on neighboring Yemen which in the throes of what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia six-year war on Yemen has left at least 120,000 people dead and 80 percent of the population in need of aid. The U.S. support to the kingdom began in 2015 when Biden was serving as vice-president to Barack Obama.
Earlier this month, Biden’s administration claimed that it was ending support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen’s devastating war. Biden’s administration also said it was reviewing weapons sales to the kingdom.
Only on Saturday U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of Biden’s Democratic Party and a long-time critic of the Yemen war, hailed the president’s pronouncements on Yemen as a "profound and historic shift”.
"We’re being explicit and bold and open to the Saudis saying, ‘no, this is not a war we support’,” Khanna said. "Now I think that President Biden has made a clear statement that relationship is no longer what it once was.”
But Lockheed Martin’s vice president
Timothy Cahill said Sunday’s deal marked a "major milestone” for the U.S. company.
"This agreement is in line with Lockheed Martin’s strategy to expand its partnership with the kingdom by providing reliable defense and security solutions,” Cahill was quoted as saying in the statement.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund set up SAMI to manufacture arms locally, with the fund expecting it to become one of the world’s top military companies by 2030.
The agreement was signed by SAMI CEO Walid Abukhaled and Cahill at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"SAMI has been exploring avenues to help build a sustainable, self-sufficient military industries sector in the Kingdom,” said Abukhaled, "and our strong and enduring partnership with Lockheed Martin underpins our commitment.”
Lockheed Martin is among the contractors involved in a project to install a $15 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in Saudi Arabia, which was part of a major arms deal approved by former U.S. president Donald Trump in 2017.