Trump Accuses Saudis of Giving U.S. a Bad Deal. Is That True?

BEIRUT, Lebanon — At a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis., on Saturday, President Trump tore into Saudi Arabia, an important Middle Eastern ally, as yet another country giving the United States a bad deal.

He said that although the kingdom had spent $450 billion in the United States, Washington was still “subsidizing” the Saudi military. Mr. Trump said during the rally that he had complained about that to the Saudi monarch, King Salman, in a phone call.

“King!” Mr. Trump said he told the monarch. Using an expletive, he said, he griped that the United States was losing its shirt defending Saudi Arabia, “and you have a lot of money.”

It is highly unlikely that the call took place as Mr. Trump described, but in any case, the president appears to have mischaracterized the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

We fact-checked Mr. Trump’s claims.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has long rested on a simple equation: The United States buys Saudi oil, and Saudi Arabia buys American weaponry, with the understanding that America would help protect the kingdom in case of a foreign attack.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the first foreign trip of his presidency, Mr. Trump said he had concluded a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom.

But Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst now with the Brookings Institution, wrote an analysis saying that was false.

The alleged deal, according to Mr. Riedel, was actually a conglomeration of nonbinding letters of intent for future business and previous deals initiated during the Obama administration, when the kingdom bought $112 billion in weapons.

Nearly two years after Mr. Trump’s announcement, only one new major arms deal has gone through. This month, the Pentagon awarded a $2.4 billion contract to Lockheed Martin for missile defense technology. The Saudi government was expected to pay $1.5 billion for its part of the deal, Reuters reported.

The Saudi government has continued to pay the United States for munitions, maintenance and training of its forces under previous contracts.

As for subsidies, the kingdom receives about $10,000 per year in American military assistance, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Receiving this aid qualifies the kingdom for a discount on American training — which the kingdom also pays for.

Saudi Arabia has strong economic ties to the United States and is Washington’s largest trading partner in the Middle East.

The kingdom has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, after Venezuela, and is a top oil exporter, making it a major player in global energy markets.

Despite the robust trade, there is no publicly available information to back up Mr. Trump’s claim of $450 billion in Saudi spending in the United States. The White House has not detailed how Mr. Trump arrived at that number.

Total exports of goods and services from the United States to Saudi Arabia in 2018 were about $22.3 billion, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That was down from about $25.4 billion in 2017.

In the long run, the rise in American oil production will probably undermine the foundations of the trade relationship with Saudi Arabia. The more oil that the United States produces, the less it needs to buy from Saudi Arabia. And the kingdom produces little else that the United States wants to buy.

The United States receives other advantages from its strong relationship with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, with its clout in the Muslim world as the protector of Islam’s holiest sites — including Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia — is often a valuable diplomatic partner.

The two countries’ intelligence services work together closely, sharing information about terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and other threats.

Saudi Arabia also often participates in American initiatives in the Middle East, such as the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State. In October, the kingdom gave $100 million to the United States to help stabilize parts of Syria liberated from the militants.

But even with security cooperation, the kingdom usually picks up the bill.

American advisers work in important security, industrial, energy and cyber security offices inside the Saudi government, their jobs paid for by the Saudis, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“U.S. training and security support to Saudi Arabia remains overwhelmingly Saudi-funded via foreign military sales and other contracts,” the service said.

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