Saudi Arabia is the top US weapons buyer – but it doesn't spend as much as Trump boasts

  • Last week Trump told reporters that he was disinterested in stopping a Saudi Arabian "investment of $110 billion into the United States," despite tensions over the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
  • While Washington has several arms agreements with Riyadh, it is unclear where the $110 billion figure comes from aside from a potential wish list of future deals.
  • Saudi Arabia remains America's No. 1 weapons buyer.
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has been hesitant to jeopardize U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia even as outrage grows over the disappearance of journalist and Saudi royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia is America's No. 1 weapons buyer. Between 2013 and 2017, Riyadh accounted for 18 percent of total U.S. arms sales or about $9 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But a closer look reveals that the sales aren't quite as big as Trump has boasted. The president recently praised Riyadh's ambitions to buy $110 billion worth of U.S.-made arms. But that money hasn't come through yet, according to State Department or Defense Security Cooperation Agency announcements.

Read more: Why the market is suddenly concerned Saudi Arabia will weaponize oil in Khashoggi dispute

The president has cited the importance of the nations' relationship, pushing back on potentially slapping retaliatory sanctions on Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi's fate. Saudi Arabia's oil-rich monarchy is one of America's most crucial strategic partners in the Middle East and a significant patron of U.S. defense companies.

"I tell you what I don't want to do," Trump said to CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday, when asked about blocking arms sales to Riyadh. "Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]. I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that's a pretty harsh word, but it's true."

'They're spending $110 billion on military equipment'

President Donald Trump shows off posters as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. 
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
President Donald Trump shows off posters as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. 

Last week, Trump told reporters that he was disinterested in stopping a Saudi Arabian "investment of $110 billion into the United States," despite tensions over Khashoggi's disappearance.

"I know [senators are] talking about different kinds of sanctions, but [Saudi Arabia is] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs," Trump said Thursday. "I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States."

While Washington has several arms agreements with Riyadh, it is unclear where the $110 billion figure comes from, aside from a potential wish list of future deals.

Presently, Saudi Arabia has put forward approximately $14.5 billion in purchases in the form of letters of offer and acceptance or LOAs, a Pentagon official told CNN.

What's more, the State Department has announced only six contracts worth a combined total of $4 billion since Trump's visit last year to Saudi Arabia.

In March, Trump praised Saudi Arabia's defense acquisitions as he met with the nation's wealthy and powerful young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, at the White House — and pushed for even more.

"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they're going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," Trump said at the time.

"There's nobody that even comes close to us in terms of technology and the quality of the equipment, and Saudi Arabia appreciates that," he added.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. offered more than $115 billion in weapons, equipment and training to Saudi Arabia, according to a Reuters report from September 2016. Most of it had yet to be delivered at the time, Reuters added.

During the Oval Office talks, Trump touted a creation of 40,000 U.S. jobs due to Saudi military sales. The president used several maps and charts of Saudi acquisitions to further make his point.

The crown prince, likewise, added that last year's Saudi pledge of $200 billion in investments will rise to approximately $400 billion and that a 10-year window to implement the deal was already under way.

Meanwhile, as the Khashoggi case unfolds, Trump threatened "severe punishment" if the journalist was in fact murdered.

A Saudi official said Sunday that Riyadh would retaliate if any steps were taken to punish the kingdom over the Khashoggi case, according to a state news agency.

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