In 2019, when asked about how he would address the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden said “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Now, as Biden has become the President of the United States, he seems to have taken the first steps towards realizing that vision. Biden recently announced that he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, and pausing billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while reviewing the conditions of the deals made by the previous administration.
This step is one of several taken by the Biden Administration, in recent weeks, to counteract the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda, including exacerbating the war in Yemen, which Biden described, in a recent speech, at the U.S. State Department, as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” In addition, the U.S. will reduce arms sales to the Saudi military, which is well-armed but poorly managed, as it has been responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Meanwhile, Biden called to remove the designation of Houthi rebels as terrorists; a designation which many human rights advocates have claimed that it hinders the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemeni civilians. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken announced that the removal of the Houthis from the terrorist designation list will be effective by February 16th.
It is hard to predict the effect of these decisions on the ongoing war in Yemen. While the Biden Administration places a premium on diplomacy and human rights protection, as core tenants of the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Iran-backed Houthis militia has not projected a desire to sit to negotiating table. Although the Saudi Arabia-led offensive in Yemen has, arguably, done more harm than good, only time shall tell how the administration’s decision, which received bipartisan support, serves Biden’s plan for a diplomatic solution, in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would, presumably, be essential participants.
However, this move tells that the days of the U.S. Administration giving Saudi Arabia a “free pass” for its human rights abuses are gone. Karen Young, from the Foreign Policy magazine, wrote that while the U.S. has “treated Saudi Arabia as a special case for decades, making excuses for its draconian domestic politics while trying to sustain a partnership centered on oil and security,” the Trump Administration specifically engaged in a “wholesale abandonment of U.S. principles over the killing of journalists, the shakedown of businesspeople, and the kidnapping of a prime minister.” The recent emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been a bit of a human rights anomaly. The Crown Prince opened the Saudi society on increased freedoms, especially for women, and put limitations on the powers given to religious clerics over citizens’ private life. But, at the same time, critiquing the government still puts activists and journalists under arrest and repression, such as the cases of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the alleged torture in prison of human rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul.
Despite support from both Republican and Democratic parties to Biden moves towards Saudi Arabia, some officials within the U.S. government are cautious of pushing back too quickly against Saudi Arabia. While the current Al-Saud regime has plenty of faults, Saudi Arabia is still a primary strategic partner in the region, whose support will likely be needed for the Biden Administration’s Middle East agenda to be successful. Frank Gardner from the BBC points out that states like Russia and China “would love to do more business with Riyadh and they don't raise ‘awkward’ questions about human rights.”
That being said, I find the steps taken by the Biden Administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights record, especially in Yemen, necessary and encouraging. First and foremost, the United States has for far too long contributed, even if indirectly, to the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, so anything that can be done to reduce that harm should be done. But the implications of this stance extend beyond Yemen. Observers have argued that under the Trump Administration, the U.S. gave up its role as the symbolic “leader of the free world” given Trump’s perceived preference for the company of authoritarian leaders, like Vladimir Putin, over that of fellow democratic leaders, like Angela Merkel.
Indeed, while there have been important progresses in the Middle East under Trump, most notably the normalization of relations between Israel and several Gulf countries, Trump’s Presidency has also done its fair share to damage the United States’ image in the world. Downplaying, or implicitly defending, the Saudi government after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building are just two examples of ways in which Trump’s decisions are now being used as anti-America propaganda in the Middle East. Such counter-Trump-policy moves by the Biden Administration are necessary to restore the image of the United States, among enemies and allies alike, and to reestablish the U.S. as a force for promoting democratic values, worldwide.
Ultimately, you cannot determine the result of a chess match from the initial sequence of moves by each player. Yet, you can get a sense of how aggressively each player intends to approach the game. Biden has been the President of the United States for less than a month. Judging from the few first decisions he made, it appears that Biden will challenge Saudi Arabia where his predecessor did not. Now it is Saudi Arabia’s turn to play the next move, based on the most viable strategy to handle Biden pressures.