The Future of the United States-Saudi Arabia Partnership
Any new presidential administration feels pressure to reform the policies of their predecessor. In 2009, Barack Obama rescinded an abortion funding ban that was installed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which Bill Clinton reversed and George W. Bush subsequently reinstated. Eight years later, Donald Trump spearheaded the reversal of a number of Obama-era policies, including withdrawal from the United States from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Beginning an administration with a clean slate allows the president to cement power early and ensure an effective, productive first 100 days.
Joe Biden is no exception. Shortly after entering office, the Biden administration announced a pause on two large arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which were both approved at the end of the Trump administration. Specifically, the US had intended to sell F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia. While the Biden administration claimed that halting the deals comprised a “routine administrative action,” Biden had campaigned on ending the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, indicating that this pause could become a permanent action in the future. Ultimately, the implications of these actions will manifest themselves in the future of the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the US-Saudi relationship.
What began as a political uprising against an authoritarian president has developed into a civil war with international influence that has lasted over six years and three American presidential administrations. The Yemeni Civil War first began in 2014 during the Obama administration. The following year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries entered the conflict by launching a bombing campaign on the Houthi rebel forces that had invaded Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa; this was met with approval from the Obama administration.
The cost of the civil war has been devastating: 3.65 million people have been displaced from their homes and over 130,000 fatalities have been recorded, including more than 12,000 civilians killed in direct attacks. Additionally, the Save the Children charity estimates the deaths of 85,000 children due to severe acute malnutrition. About 80% of the population--24 million people-- are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
While the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has sparked outrage, it is not the sole source of opposition towards the Saudi arms deal formed during the Trump administration. In 2018, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey and never came out. Allegedly, the Saudi government targeted him for his criticism of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and opposition to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
In response to Khashoggi’s disappearance, a bipartisan group of Representatives and Senators, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah (R-UT), supported a successful bill that halted American assistance for the Saudi Arabian war effort in Yemen in 2019. Then-President Donald Trump vetoed the bill, calling it “flawed” legislation. His administration defended the veto under the pretext of supporting the American economy and decreasing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia did not begin with Donald Trump. In fact, the friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia dates back to 1945, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz. To protect this alliance, President Obama approved the war in 2015 and provided in-air refueling of planes, installed forty-five intelligence analysts to select targets, and increased weapons exports to the region. During the Trump administration, the sale of arms increased: between 2015 and 2020, the US agreed to sell over $64.1 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
President Biden campaigned on ending support for Saudi blockades in Yemen, but campaign promises do not necessarily lead to concrete policies. However, the appointment of several key players in the administration indicates that US support for the Saudi blockades on Yemen may waver. Most notably, Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin advised the US against supporting the Saudi campaign when he was the region’s military commander during the Obama administration. In addition, the Biden administration’s appointed envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has expressed his desire to see the US help end the conflict. During the Trump administration, Lenderking travelled to the region in an attempt to advance negotiations between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis.
When a Saudi warplane flies over Yemen to bomb the rebel forces, the plane, the bombs, the mechanics, the technicians, and, oftentimes, the pilot are all American. In 2016, a Saudi jet dropped American-made bombs on a funeral in the capital city of Sanaa, killing more than 140 people. Two years later, another Saudi jet used American-made bombs to kill 44 boys on a field trip. The arms sold to Saudi Arabia by the United States directly contribute to the humanitarian crisis within Yemen, especially towards civilians. Stopping the sale of arms to the region has the potential to reduce the resources that the Kingdom has in their arsenal thus limiting their ability to harm civilians. While ending the arms deal will not end the war overnight, it may play a role in mitigating the damage done in the time it takes for political grievances to be resolved.
Additionally, by eliminating the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. stands to act as a third-party in negotiations for resolving the Yemen War. Peace in Yemen remains unlikely when American materials, weapons, and intelligence play an active role in the inciting violence. The Biden administration's interest in diplomacy, evidenced by the appointment of Timothy Lenderking, may result in an eventual progression towards peace in the Middle East.
The U.S.-Saudi partnership, however tenuous it may become, will likely continue even if the arms deal is stopped. President Biden has expressed his desire to help the Saudi kingdom defend itself from threats in the region. Additionally, both countries have benefited from mutual cooperation when it comes to counterterrorism measures, energy policy, and Middle Eastern stability.
Saudi officials have also expressed their desire to work with the Biden administration. Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman, a deputy defense minister, recently tweeted about his desire to “continue working with [their] American partners to alleviate the humanitarian situation.” Officials in the kingdom have attempted to improve relations with President Biden and the administration by ending a feud with Qatar, where the US has significant military presence, and releasing Loujain al-Hathloul, a female activist.
Saudi Arabia has no substitute for the United States as a security partner. Countries such as China have no interest in Middle Eastern security contests, and Saudi Arabia may prefer American manufacturing to Russian products. The strength of mutual cooperation is far too valuable for either the US or the Saudi kingdom to abandon their partnership, even if tensions rise with the Biden administration’s intent to stop the arms deals. The operational benefits of the partnership will prove to be a powerful incentive for both the United States and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in the future, even amidst differing interests surrounding the conflict in Yemen.