The Biden administration has offered few concrete details on its plan to end the United States’ support for “offensive” operations by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen and “relevant” arms sales, telling Al Jazeera only that a review is continuing.
US President Joe Biden on February 4 announced an end to offensive support for Riyadh, a key ally in the region that intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the country’s Houthi rebels removed Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and seized large swathes of territory.
While Biden’s policy pivot was hailed by observers calling for an end to the continuing conflict, particularly after former President Donald Trump’s permissive approach to the Saudi government, many questions remain unanswered about what actual changes Biden intends to make.
“Frankly, I’m worried of the message this [lack of clarity] is sending to Saudi Arabia,” said Hassan el-Tayyab, Middle East lobbyist at Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker organisation in the US.
The entrenched fighting in Yemen, a blockade imposed by Riyadh, and Saudi air attacks have exacted a bloody toll on Yemenis, with thousands of civilians killed and a humanitarian disaster pushing 13.5 million people to the brink of starvation.
A quarter of the civilians killed during the fighting in the last three years have been children, according to Save the Children, with both sides – Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthi rebels – accused of committing war crimes.
“I’m hopeful that there’s time [for the Biden administration] to correct this and still make the right choices,” el-Tayyab told Al Jazeera. “But in a situation where a child may die every 75 seconds, hours matter, days matter, weeks matter and we just don’t have the time here to be sitting on our thumbs.”
Lawmakers call for clarity
Last month, dozens of US legislators – including Democratic members of Congress Peter DeFazio, Debbie Dingell, and Ro Khanna – sent an open letter to Biden asking for clarity on the administration’s promise to end offensive support for the coalition.
The US began offering “logistical and intelligence support” for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen – which also includes the United Arab Emirates – in March 2015 under then-President Barack Obama. Biden was US vice president at that time.
In 2018, under international pressure, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the US would no longer conduct in-flight refuelling for the Royal Saudi Air Force, whose attacks in Yemen have been blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitoring group.
In their letter on February 25, the US legislators asked what US support existed when the Biden administration took office; which “activities” the administration already ended, and whether the US would continue to provide “maintenance and spare parts” to the Saudi air force.
They also asked what US activities “contributed” to the continuing Saudi blockade on Yemen, which rights observers have long documented as one of the most significant drivers of the humanitarian crisis, and if any of those are continuing. Supporters of the blockade say it prevents arms from reaching the Houthis.
“For nearly six years, the US has aided and abetted the catastrophic Saudi/UAE-led military intervention in Yemen, despite the coalition’s unconscionable record of indiscriminately bombing tens of thousands of civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, refugee camps, sewage treatment plants, and markets,” the legislators wrote.
They asked for a response by March 25, but the White House has not yet provided answers to their questions, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Continued defensive support
Asked about its plan to end “offensive” support for the coalition and what that would entail, a White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman told Al Jazeera in an email that the US is still “reviewing our policies”.
The State Department, which oversees most US arms transfers and export licences, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the continuing review.
The NSC spokesman noted that the Biden administration is committed to its pledge to “help defend Saudi Arabia, especially in light of continued Houthi cross-border attacks that target Saudi Arabia’s civilian infrastructure”.
Throughout the six-year war in Yemen, Washington has remained the largest exporter of arms to Riyadh, with those exports increasing by 15 percent between 2016 and 2020, compared with the 2011-15 period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Between 2016 and 2020, Saudi Arabia got 79 percent of its arms imports from the US.
The Biden administration in late January paused pending Trump-era arms transfers to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, including deals for GBU-39 small diameter bombs and precision-guided missiles, as part of what US officials said was a standard review for any new administration.
In their letter, the US legislators asked for more clarity on how the administration will define offensive versus defensive weapons and whether some categories of weapons would be completely banned. They also asked whether naval equipment would be blocked due to its “potential role in supporting the de-facto blockade” on Yemen.
The NSC statement did not address those questions, but the spokesman said the Biden administration has “stepped up [its] diplomacy to end the war in Yemen”, led by US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking.
The administration recently hailed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s decision to allow four ships carrying fuel to dock in Hodeidah, a northern port controlled by the Houthis. Such UN-approved ships had reportedly been blocked from docking for weeks, starting at the beginning of the year, causing shortages in the population-dense, Houthi-controlled region that have threatened food and medicine deliveries and the ability to power hospitals.
Saudi Arabia also proposed a ceasefire in late March, which some hailed as early proof the new US approach was making a difference. The Houthis, however, quickly rejected the framework as one-sided.
Lenderking is “working closely with all parties in support of the United Nations-led initiative to fully open Sanaa airport and Hudaydah port to help parties negotiate a ceasefire, and restart long-dormant peace talks”, the NSC spokesman said, using an alternative spelling for Hodeidah.
Andreas Krieg, a professor in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, said the Biden administration is torn between “delivering on the campaign promise to be tougher on the [Saudi] kingdom and on the other hand maintaining a workable relationship with Saudi Arabia”.
He told Al Jazeera that it is “unrealistic” for Washington to be “sieving through” its current weapons contracts to assure “no military support ends up helping the offensive component of the war” in Yemen.
“The notion to ban the export of ‘offensive weapons’ that could be used in the war in Yemen must be seen as a compromise to this US tight-rope walk on the issue, but not actually realisable,” Krieg said.
Still, el-Tayyab said if the US clearly explains which arms will be affected by its end to offensive support for the coalition, the Biden administration’s policy shift can help increase international pressure to end the conflict – and encourage other Saudi allies to end their arms exports, too.
“I think [the Biden administration] can send a really strong message that US complicity and diplomatic cover for the Saudi-led war in Yemen is over,” he said. “Not just through rhetoric but with real, tangible action.”