US prepares to lift ban on offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration is preparing to ease restrictions on some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said Thursday, crediting the kingdom’s peace talks with a militia in Yemen for accelerating the easing of restrictions. constraints.

President Biden imposed the ban two years ago amid concerns that U.S. weapons would be used against civilians in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands have died from airstrikes, fighting, disease and violence. hunger as a Saudi-led military coalition waged war against Iran. supported militia called the Houthis.

The expected easing of limits – which blocked sales of major offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia – comes as the kingdom tries to finalize a US-backed peace deal with the Houthis.

A White House National Security Council representative declined to comment.

U.S. officials have not said when the easing of the sales ban might take place. And such a decision could be reversed if Mr. Biden decides that it is not in the United States’ interests to allow offensive weapons to flow to Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest buyer of American weapons.

Just south of Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s Houthi militia embarked on a violent attack that disrupted global trade, launching missiles and drones at commercial ships in the Red Sea. The group presented the attacks as a campaign to force Israel to end its siege on Gaza and pushed the world’s largest shipping companies to divert their ships from Yemen, which lies next to a choke point maritime key.

Saudi Arabia – after eight years of bitter war in Yemen – has shown no interest in entering into conflict with the Houthis, especially as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, seeks to reduce regional tensions and to focus on the kingdom’s economy.

Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are working to cement a peace deal that would formalize a truce in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a coalition partner in the war, have carried out airstrikes with manufactured munitions American and American weapons. military assistance which led to mass civilian deaths and sparked international condemnation.

An investigation into whether the two countries may have committed war crimes found that coalition forces tortured detainees and used child soldiers, among other actions.

In recent weeks, Saudi officials have pressured U.S. lawmakers and the president’s aides to relax a ban on the sale of offensive weapons, according to U.S. and Saudi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. Their rationale, according to both sets of officials: Saudi Arabia must protect its southern border with Yemen in the event of future clashes. Furthermore, the kingdom argued that it must be prepared to deal with escalating tensions in its region, the officials added, as the war between Israel and Gaza rages.

Mr. Biden’s planned policy shift will likely face opposition from some lawmakers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee imposed its own blockade on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in October 2022, after the country – along with Russia and other oil-producing countries – agreed to cut oil production. Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, also announced a suspension of anything beyond sales of existing defensive systems, writing online that the ban would be strengthened “until the kingdom reverses its position”. regarding Russia and its war in Ukraine.

The Saudi move has raised concerns in the White House ahead of the midterm elections and raised concerns about the country’s relationship with Russia as it wages war against Ukraine.

Before that, members of a Senate committee attempted to block arms sales because of civilian casualties in Yemen.

“I would oppose any release of advanced weapons as a sort of separate, one-off deal,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday. “I understand the demands and challenges that have arisen in the wake of October 7,” he added, “but I think there needs to be a broader context and framework.”

Other lawmakers have expressed lingering reservations, including Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, a ruthless criticism of the war in Yemen which recently tried to block the sale intelligence and communications technologies to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s demands come as threats from militias increase. Last month, the Houthis hijack British commercial ship traveling in the Red Sea. This month, a Houthi missile hits Norwegian tanker, lighting a fire. The Houthis presented these attacks – which caused many ships to avoid the Red Sea, instead traveling on a much longer route around the African coast – as a pressure campaign aimed at forcing Israel to end the war.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have fired rockets or missiles at bases housing U.S. troops dozens of times this fall.

And Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon, has clashed violently with Israeli forces across their shared border in northern Israel. Hezbollah is an ally of the Iranian-backed Hamas, the terrorist group that killed about 1,200 people in Israel in October and took more than 200 prisoners, according to Israeli authorities. Since then, Israeli counterattacks have led to the deaths of nearly 20,000 Gazans, according to officials at the territory’s health ministry.

Early in his term, Mr. Biden, who once called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” nation, expressed concerns about the kingdom’s human rights record.

Shortly after his inauguration in 2021, the State Department suspended offensive arms sales, pledging to review military agreements reached under President Donald J. Trump to ensure they were consistent with the objectives of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy. Among the deals that were delayed by the ban was a planned sale of precision-guided munitions for $478 million.

Mr. Biden was also concerned about the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post, by Saudi agents in 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. US intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed approved a plan to kill Mr Khashoggi, who resided in the United States. Prince Mohammed has denied the allegation.

Saudi Arabia has been seeking a freer flow of American weapons for years. Most of its arsenal is American-made, but the kingdom has diversified its purchases – while trying to develop a domestic defense industry – to guard against concerns about a decline in American interest and influence In the region.

And senior Biden administration officials have been keen to court the kingdom’s favor over the past year as they tried to reach a deal in which Saudi Arabia would establish diplomatic ties with Israel – discussions that the war in Gaza appears to have been suspended.