WASHINGTON — Powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker announced he is blocking U.S. arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council member states to pressure a resolution to the escalating row over Qatar.
The move threatens to close off a major market for the U.S. defense industry and throw off U.S. President Donald Trump's marquee accomplishment during his Riyadh trip of a $110 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal. The deal spurred concern in Israel about protecting its military edge and criticism at home as supportive of the kingdom's air campaign in Yemen, a mushrooming humanitarian crisis.
In a letter Monday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Corker said until there is a path for resolving the ongoing dispute, he will block all such sales. Major arms sales are subject to preliminary approval by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee before the statutory 30-day congressional review process.
Corker's move also comes amid a dramatic shakeup of Saudi leadership. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman made his 31-year-old son and defense minister next in line to the throne on Wednesday, removing the country's counterterrorism czar and a figure well-known to Washington from the line of succession.
Corker, R-Tenn., said he "could not have been more pleased with" Trump's recent meeting with the heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council and their commitments to fostering deeper regional ties against the Islamic State group and Iran, calling them "welcome steps forward." But Corker contrasted the message with the deepening diplomatic crisis.
"Unfortunately, the GCC did not take advantage of the summit and instead chose to devolve into conflict," Corker's letter reads. "All countries in the region need to do more to combat terrorism, but recent disputes among the GCC countries only serve to hurt efforts to fight ISIS and counter Iran.
"For these reasons, before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC," Corker concluded.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement Monday that he shared Corker's concern, "the current GCC dispute distracts from our shared, most pressing security challenges," and that he would "continue to closely scrutinize all proposed foreign military sales based on a variety of issues and concerns."
"In the Gulf, all politics is personal. In their view, this is not how you treat close partners and pursue shared interests," she said. "The Gulf states — Saudi Arabia in particular — don't have a strong grasp of how the arms sale process works, including the Congressional piece. This will inevitably add to Riyadh's feeling that Senator Corker's hold is a personal affront and a comment on the broader U.S.-Saudi relationship."
"While Senator Corker's efforts are admirable, they are unlikely to have the intended effect," she said. "The Gulf states themselves will decide when and how to resolve this dispute. While Washington can urge them to reconcile and support Kuwait's negotiation efforts, the administration cannot force them to table."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.