It’s an eye-catching statistic in an otherwise routine data dump.
Through the first ten months of 2018, sales of New Hampshire-made weapons to Saudi Arabia soared.
According to export data released by the U.S. Census Bureau and first reported by the New Hampshire Business Review, more than $61 million worth of firearms and accessories have been shipped by a New Hampshire company to Saudi Arabia this year, compared to less than $200,000 in 2017.
As those arms sales surged, Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has faced increasing scrutiny for its alleged role in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the country’s role in the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
A closer look at the export data shows that the arms sales were all for weapons of war, including rocket launchers, grenade launchers, flame-throwers, and torpedo tubes. The entire $61 million shipment, according to the Census Bureau, took place in August. After leaving New Hampshire, the weapons exited the country through the Baltimore port.
The sales shine a light on a little known, but significant, slice of New Hampshire's economy: frontline military-grade weapons, many of which end up on international battlefields, in the hands of soldiers from countries with questionable relations with the U.S.
But determining which company or companies in New Hampshire completed this transaction is nearly impossible, due to federal regulations that shield key information about international arms sales by private companies.
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who serves on the Committee on Foreign Relations, has been a critic on Capitol Hill of Saudi Arabia’s role in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. In November, she co-sponsored a bill that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, including those similar to the August sale from New Hampshire.
“Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights abuses cannot go unanswered, which is why Senator Shaheen continues to lead efforts in the Senate to hold Saudi leadership accountable,” said Ryan Nickel, a spokesperson for Shaheen.
New Hampshire is home to a range of arms manufacturers, from local gunsmiths to major brands including Sturm, Ruger, which operates a facility in Sullivan County, and Sig Sauer, one of the nation’s largest firearms makers, which operates manufacturing facilities around the Seacoast region.
A 2017 study found that New Hampshire has one of the nation’s highest rates of firearms manufacturing jobs per capita.
Sig Sauer has completed a number of publicly reported international transactions of weapons, including in 2015, when the company received federal permission to sell firearms to Mexico. Last year, a proposed arms sale by Sig Sauer to Turkey came under fire after Turkish security forces attacked protestors outside of the embassy in Washington D.C.
In October, Ron Cohen, the CEO of Newington-based Sig Sauer was briefly detained by law enforcement in Germany related to his company’s sale of weapons to Colombia, according to German media reports. In a statement to a firearms blog, Sig Sauer says the investigation is related to the transfer of handguns from a Sig Sauer affilitate in Germany to its U.S.-based counterpart, before being shipped to Colombia.
It isn’t clear if any of Sig Sauer’s New Hampshire factories manufacture any of the weapons included in the August sale to Saudi Arabia, though a Sig Sauer entity does appear to sell a grenade launcher attachment.
The company did not respond to a request for comment about possible sales to Saudi Arabia.
Another possible supplier is BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, which employs several thousand people in New Hampshire. In 2016, the company announced it won a $600 million contract with the U.S. Navy to manufacture laser guided rockets. According to a press release, BAE Systems says it was able to produce up to 20,000 units per year at its facilities in New Hampshire, and that the rockets were “currently available to international customers.”
It isn’t clear how the Census Bureau would classify this specific weapon for its export reports. BAE Systems did not respond to a request for comment about possible sales to Saudi Arabia.
German-based arms maker Heckler & Koch advertises a 40-mm grenade launcher that can be mounted to a rifle. Heckler & Koch operated a manufacturing facility in Newington, though the company announced in 2017 that it was shutting down the factory. A spokesperson says Heckler & Koch is not responsible for the August sale.
The N.H. Division of Economic Development, which tracks export data and works to promote international sales, says it doesn’t know which company or companies completed the transaction.
Analysts say it’s common for weapons makers to tout their multi-million dollar contracts with branches of the U.S. military or NATO allies, but that the same firms often don’t want their other international dealings to be made public.
“Since the Khashoggi murder, there has been much greater attention on the U.S. arms trade with Saudi Arabia, and I would say most companies that are wise no longer crow about those sales because they are so problematic” says Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan group. “In general, it is very hard for arms sales to reach a level of public scrutiny. So it is not surprising that this appears to be under the radar.”
While these foreign arms deals often don’t come to the public’s attention, they are subject to review by the U.S. government. Under the Arms Control Export Act, proposed foreign sales of weapons require approval by the federal government, including the State Department and Congress. Depending on the size and type of transaction, lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations can be given a window during which they can raise objections, though all members may not always receive notice.
In practice, the sheer volume of foreign arms shipments limits the amount of attention each sale receives, according to advocacy groups.
“Congress rarely ever scrutinizes these weapons sales,” says Kate Gould, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “These sales just rarely get attention.”
It isn’t clear when congressional leaders received notification concerning the $61 million New Hampshire arms sale, though public records show a requested transaction of grenade launchers and other materials to Saudi Arabia submitted in July.
Experts say the August shipment could have been part of this contract, or it could have been greenlighted in a previously published transaction notice.
In 2017, a bipartisan group of senators attempted to block a $510 million arms deal with Saudi Arabia over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war. But that effort fell short of the necessary majority. New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan joined Shaheen voting in favor of blocking the sale.
Following the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, sales to Saudi Arabia faced mounting criticism, culminating in a successful vote last week by the Senate ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The move was seen as a rebuke to the Trump Administration, which has downplayed the Saudi government’s role in the killing.
Human rights activists say blocking future arms sales could go a long way toward easing the suffering of civilians caught in the middle of Saudi-led bombing campaigns.
“Unfortunately, there are mountains of data showing that ‘Made in the USA’ bombs are being used to kill Yemeni men, women and children,” says Gould.