Washington Sends the Saudis a Long-Overdue Bill
The Pentagon’s $331 million invoice to the Kingdom and the UAE was another blow after a difficult week.
Things are not going well for Saudi Arabia in Washington.
On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to blame Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and 56 members—a clear majority—-cast votes to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen. The rebuke was followed shortly afterward by a revelation about the Defense Department’s refueling of that bombing campaign: According to the Pentagon, the department had somehow failed to bill the Saudis and the Emiratis for at least $331 million in fuel and servicing costs. The Saudis, it appears, never directly paid the U.S. a penny.
The Pentagon’s admission, relayed to the Senate, came a week after The Atlantic revealed “errors in accounting” in how the U.S. had tracked and billed the Saudi-led coalition for refueling costs—a service that was among the most visible and controversial elements of support as civilian casualties grew. Washington’s support began in March 2015 under President Barack Obama, without explicit congressional authorization, and continued under the Trump administration, amid growing outrage in Congress over Saudi conduct. That changed last month when the Pentagon said it had ended aerial refueling at Riyadh’s request. The Pentagon’s acknowledgement puts a number to at least part of the expansive assistance that the U.S. provided to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen over the last few years.
For years, the Pentagon proved slow or altogether unable to accurately inform Congress of the extent of refueling for the Saudi-led campaign—or to fix any issues in its tabulation of assistance. Top military officials also said that the results of American refueling weren’t being monitored: U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel told senators that the U.S. military did not track Saudi or Emirati jets after they were refueled, to see if they carried out strikes that harmed civilians.
It now turns out that there was a lot else they weren’t tracking. It is no coincidence that the Pentagon’s admission came from pressure in the Senate, where legislators have agitated to punish the Saudi regime over Khashoggi’s killing. The sustained pressure signals that the Saudis may not continue to enjoy the level of support from Washington that they have received in years past. In parallel, the Pentagon may also expect further congressional oversight.
“This is good news for U.S. taxpayers and underscores the need for strong oversight of the Department of Defense,” Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “The Pentagon is taking action to reduce accounting errors of this nature and Congress must continue to be vigilant and fulfill its oversight mission.”
The Pentagon said that the $331 million shortfall was split between $36.8 million in fuel and $294.3 million in U.S. flight hours. It’s unclear how much the Saudis and Emiratis owe individually. In response to a question about whether either had reimbursed the U.S. at all, the Pentagon stated that the “UAE has provided some repayment for refueling services.” The Pentagon later confirmed that the Saudis have not made any payments —a stunning revelation given the amount of attention the campaign has received. The Saudi embassy did not respond to a request for comment. The Emirati ambassador, Yousef Otaiba, told The New York Times on Friday that “the U.A.E. will cover its bills.”
Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that for the first year of the campaign, the Saudis didn’t have a servicing arrangement, known as an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement , in place with Washington. Instead, it was funneled fuel— at least according to Pentagon ledgers—via a preexisting servicing agreement that Washington had with the UAE. As of the most recent defense-spending bill, such third-party transfers are now prohibited. In May 2016, a provisional agreement between the U.S. and the Saudis was put in place, but it was never formalized.
“Department of Defense is in the process of seeking reimbursement from KSA and UAE through their respective Acquisition and Cross-Servicing (ACSA) agreements,” said the Pentagon spokesperson Commander Rebecca Rebarich in a statement. “Our partners have been individually notified about our intent to seek reimbursement, and have been given estimates as to how much they owe.”
The Pentagon confirmed to The Atlantic on Friday that there was still no official ACSA in place with the Saudis, only the provisional one that has remained in use since 2016. The Pentagon said this month that the agreement remained incomplete—and therefore led to no congressional notification—-because Riyadh had failed to fulfill “all of its internal procedures necessary for an Agreement to enter into force.”
Even as pressure built on Capitol Hill against U.S. support for the Yemen war, members of Congress struggled to get basic details about the refueling. As late as last year, several congressional offices had been told informally that refueling had ceased; this had not been the case.
In March, Democratic senators made three important requests, formalized in a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The group, led by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senator Reed, asked for details of the servicing agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the statutorily required congressional notifications that are meant to accompany them. They also asked how Saudi Arabia was offered inflight refueling assistance in the year before it ultimately signed a provisional ACSA in May 2016. Finally, the group asked for “a full accounting of reimbursements by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia for inflight refueling provided since March 2015.”
In April, the military told the senators that it was still calculating the costs; it said the same last week, when The Atlantic reported that “errors in accounting” had led to undercharging. Forty-eight hours after the story was published, the Pentagon told The Atlantic that Centcom had finished recalculating the costs and was notifying the Saudis and Emiratis. That process was evidently complete by Thursday, when the Pentagon informed senators of the $331 million debt.
“The fact that DoD is just now realizing that it had failed to properly bill the Saudi-led coalition after all these years is quite troubling,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, who focuses on U.S. security assistance in the region.
“Congress must now continue to investigate how such an error could occur and force accountability upon the department as well as fix the loophole that could have allowed this to occur.”
It is far from clear whether the Pentagon has fixed the issues that led to its failures in tracking and accounting. ACSAs are not widely tracked, and their use to fuel the Yemen war made it more difficult for Congress to track American involvement. The Government Accountability Office is expected to release a report on their use this spring.
Meanwhile, the outcry against Saudi Arabia in Washington appears to only be building up steam. The Senate’s historic rebuke on Thursday of the Trump administration’s Saudi policy, while mostly symbolic, showed that Congress appears, at the very least, more willing to scrutinize military cooperation with America’s allies in the Gulf. That may surely mean more bad news for the Saudis.