US agrees to sale of missile defence system to Saudi Arabia, amid congressional outcry over Khashoggi murder

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Trump administration has agreed to allow Saudi Arabia to acquire a sophisticated missile defence system despite a growing congressional outcry about President Donald Trump's unwillingness to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The completion of a deal to allow the kingdom to spend up to US$15 billion (S$20.5 billion) for an anti-ballistic missile system made by Lockheed Martin was confirmed by a State Department official on Wednesday (Nov 28) night, hours after a bipartisan group of senators demanded stronger action against the Saudis.

Earlier Wednesday, senators from both parties rebuffed the administration's attempt to placate lawmakers demanding action and took steps towards opening a free-wheeling debate next week over a resolution that could bar US military support for Saudi Arabia's campaign in Yemen and impose additional sanctions.

The White House sent Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to the Capitol, but the move backfired after senators emerged from a closed-door briefing even angrier than before, in part because CIA director Gina Haspel did not participate.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent ally of Mr Trump, vowed that he would not vote to wrap up key legislative business this year - including a spending Bill needed to avert a partial government shutdown - until he receives a briefing from Ms Haspel on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's possible role in Mr Khashoggi's death.

The final arms agreement - which completed the sale of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) launchers, missiles and other equipment - was signed earlier this week, according to the State Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter.

The official argued that deployment of the Thaad system in Saudi Arabia would bolster US security against the threat of Iranian and extremist groups supported by the Teheran government.

 
 
 
 

Mr Trump has repeatedly ruled out cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia as punishment for the Khashoggi killing, arguing that the kingdom would simply purchase weapons from other nations.

Talks that led to this weapons deal began late in 2016, and Congress was notified in October 2017, the official added. The Thaad system has also been deployed in South Korea, over the strong objections of China, which considers it a threat.

Mr Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom's leadership and a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October. The Crown Prince has denied any role in the killing even as his government's explanations of what happened have shifted.

Prince Mohammed has been on a foreign tour in recent days and has travelled to Buenos Aires for the Group of 20 summit. He has no formal meeting scheduled with Mr Trump, who has largely been supportive of him over the Khashoggi affair.

The Senate on Wednesday voted to allow a debate, which may take place next week, on a measure to restrict US support for the Saudi military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.