Biden Halts Arms Trade with Saudi

What does this mean for Yemen?

On Thursday, President Biden, outlining his vision of global leadership in an effort to reshape American foreign policy, declared that ‘America is back. Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy.’ After stating that Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen’s civil war had ‘created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe’, he announced an end to all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including arms sales.

In doing so, Biden is delivering on a major campaign promise in a stark contrast to Trump’s treatment of Saudi Arabia as a major ally in his campaign to cripple Iran. The Trump administration had previously approved major arms sales to Riyadh, and the US has also provided intelligence for the Saudi intervention (in the form of targeting data and logistical support). Biden has also stated that he will work to revive peace talks and has announced the appointment of a special envoy for Yemen (however, he has said that he will continue selling defensive arms to Saudi Arabia against missile and drone attacks from Iranian-backed forces).

The war has been fought for seven years between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels with ties to Iran. It has killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and displaced 8 million. Biden has also stated that he will restore the US refugee programme to rebuild American ‘moral leadership’, announcing an executive order that will raise the number of refugees accepted in the first year of the administration to 125,000.

This measure could hinder the Saudi war effort- it is the world’s largest arms importer, and around 75% of those imports come from America. Biden’s action may also prompt other countries to follow suit; on January 29th, Italy revoked $485m- worth of missile and bomb sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The US decision, if implemented fully, will increase pressure on the UK to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia- however, it will be reluctant to do so due to its licensing of at least £5.4bn worth of fighter jets since the air campaign began in 2015.

However, Saudi Arabia is not the only actor in this conflict, so even if Saudi troops withdraw, an end to the war is unlikely. The Houthis have been fighting the Yemeni state as well- there are sharp divisions between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (a separatist group).

During the 2020 election campaign, Biden issued scathing attacks against the crown prince, saying Saudi Arabia needed to be treated as ‘a pariah.’ According to Avril Haines, who has been nominated to serve as director of national intelligence, the Biden administration will declassify an intelligence report into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government- this means that the US could assign blame for the death onto the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

However, some people question whether the US ought to cut ties the Saudi Arabia completely- it produces vast amounts of oil, is a G20 member and an important partner for counterterrorism. This will be the next diplomatic question over the coming weeks.

Tanya VI