In his first week in office, President Biden moved to temporarily freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and scrutinize arms transactions with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the Biden Administration, the purpose of the freeze is to reexamine the 500 million dollars weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, negotiated under the Trump Administration. Through its negotiations with the United States, Saudi Arabia was set to spend about 478 million dollars on purchasing 7,500 “Paveway IV” precision guided bombs, known as “smart bombs,” and another 97 million dollars on internal security communications systems.
The arms deal with Saudi is a point of contention in Congress, as some lawmakers highlighted that the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in attempt to weaken Iranian linked Houthis militia in Yemen, resulted in a humanitarian crisis among innocent Yemeni civilians. In the past, the new Congress tried to block an American-Saudi weapons deal, but President Trump vetoed those efforts. The Trump Administration defended their transactions with the Saudis, stating that more precise bombs could be more accurate in targeting rebels and avoiding collateral civilian deaths. In reality, Saudi has already been using precision-guided bombs and there has not been a respective decrease in civilian deaths.
While the Biden Administration did not freeze munition sales to UAE, the new administration is making a concerted effort to study the arms package to the UAE negotiated during the signing of the Abraham Accords. By officially normalizing relations with Israel, the UAE was promised to receive a 23 billion dollars arms package, including jet fighters and drones, delivered over the course of several years. The Biden Administration holds similar concerns about Emirati intervention in Yemen. That is despite a confirmation, by UAE State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, that “the UAE ended its military involvement in Yemen in October of last year. Eager to see the war over, the UAE has supported UN efforts and multiple peace initiatives. Throughout the the UAE has remained one of the largest providers of humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people.”
It is not unusual for negotiations from a previous administration to be revised under a new administration, and as a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden had pledged to stop American assistance in the conflict if elected. As promised, the new president has already taken a much stronger stance against the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen than the Trump Administration ever did. In freezing arms transactions with Saudi and reexamining transactions with the UAE, the Biden Administration hopes to ensure no more American-made weapons are used to perpetuate the conflict in Yemen and is moving to withdraw all support for the Saudi military campaign. These actions are favored by Congress. Late on Tuesday the 26th, House Democrats sent a letter to new Secretary of State Blinken urging the Biden Administration to freeze weapon deliveries to Saudi and to take other steps, such as diplomatic means, to end Saudi’s military efforts in Yemen.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the Biden Administration treats relations with the two Gulf countries. Under the Trump Administration, the United States strengthened relations with Saudi despite the country’s record of human rights violations, including the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018. Relations with the UAE also flourished under the Trump Administration, and the Abraham Accords were arguably the greatest achievement of the Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. By reexamining arms deals, the Biden Administration has made a clear departure from the Trumpian Middle East strategy. Also, time will tell if the freezing and reexamination of weapons deals and blatant condemnation for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen will negatively affect relations between the Biden Administration and the two Gulf countries, in the long-term.
Could American alliances in the region start shifting? Israel will likely remain a close ally for the United States, but relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE could change, especially if the Biden Administration continues to condemn Saudi and Emirati actions.