FIVE YEARS ago Barack Obama delivered a bracing message to Saudi Arabia. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians,” he warned, “has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen.” He offered a solution: “They need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Mr Obama’s vision of a new equilibrium in the Middle East sent ripples of anxiety through Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They might have felt a familiar pang listening to Joe Biden on February 4th.
In a wide-ranging speech at the State Department, America’s new president excoriated the “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” of the war in Yemen. Now in its seventh year, the war is being fought between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels with ties to Iran. Mr Biden said that although he would continue selling defensive arms to Saudi Arabia—the Houthis have lobbed scores of drones and missiles into the kingdom in recent years—he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
That could hobble the Saudi war machine. Between 2015 and 2019 the kingdom was the world’s largest arms importer, according to figures collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a think-tank. Around three-quarters of those imports came from America and another 13% from Britain (see chart). Though Saudi Arabia has all the tanks and warplanes it needs, Mr Biden’s ban could cut off the supply of munitions—including a last-minute mega-deal for bombs signed off by Donald Trump in December—and spare parts.
Washington is seeking to ensure that American weapons aren’t used to further the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, where its conflict with the Iranian-aligned Houthis has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and widespread hunger.
Mr. Biden “has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his confirmation hearing last week. Washington will continue to help defend the Saudis against Houthi attacks, Mr. Blinken said.
In a letter to Mr. Blinken delivered late Tuesday, House Democrats urged the administration to freeze delivery of offensive weapons to the Saudis, and take other steps. “We encourage the administration to take quick, corrective action to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and to intensify U.S. diplomacy in support of a political settlement,” said the letter, signed by four House committee chairmen and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D., N.J.), a former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.
Biden said the conflict in Yemen, which has killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and displaced 8 million, had “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. “This war has to end,” Biden. “And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.”
The distancing of Washington from Riyadh is one of the most conspicuous reversals of Donald Trump’s agenda, but it also marks a break with the policies pursued by Barack Obama, who had backed the Saudi offensive in Yemen, although he later sought to impose constraints on its air war.
A bipartisan majority in Congress had previously voted to cut off support to the Saudi campaign, citing the civilian death toll and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But Trump used his veto to block the move. The US will also freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and name a special envoy to Yemen, to put more pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis and the Houthi forces they are fighting, to make a lasting peace agreement.
The Biden administration has formally notified Congress that it will remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, according to three congressional aides and a State Department official, reversing an 11th-hour Trump administration decision that aid groups said would worsen the dire humanitarian situation in the country.
The State Department added the rebel group to a list of official terrorist groups on the day before President Donald Trump left office despite an outcry from humanitarian organizations that said it would make it harder to get food, medical assistance and other basic good to people in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
The Trump administration defended the move as part of a broader pressure campaign against Iran, which backs the Houthis against Yemeni forces supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional powers. “We have formally notified Congress of the Secretary’s intent to revoke these designations,” a State Department official said in a statement. “This decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens.”