President Biden’s decision to direct the FBI to declassify key documents relating to Saudi Arabia’s connection to the 9/11 attacks is the latest example of his administration’s apparent desire to forge a different relationship with the Saudi regime from that of its predecessors.
The president also took the opportunity of his first foreign policy speech to call for an end to US support for “offensive operations” by the Saudi-led coalition in its brutal war in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales.” He also released US intelligence assessments documenting the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in ordering the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is all to the good.
Unfortunately, the administration hasn’t done nearly enough to follow up on these actions. President Biden has rebuffed Congressional efforts to define in detail what he means by “relevant arms sales” to Saudi Arabia that can be used in offensive operations, and the US has continued to provide maintenance and spare parts that are essential to Riyadh’s prosecution of the war, including an offer of $500 million in support of attack helicopters that have been used in the Yemen war, announced just last week.
The Saudis are highly unlikely to end the blockade without outside pressure, and the US is particularly well situated to apply it.
The biggest flaw in the Biden policy toward Saudi Arabia, however, has been its failure to use all the leverage at its disposal to get the regime to end its blockade of essential imports into Yemen. The blockade has been a major contributor to the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, which the UN notes has resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people since the start of the Yemen war in March 2015.
The blockade continues to do real damage. In August, imports of fuel allowed through the crucial Yemeni port of Hodeidah amounted to less than 3% of the nation’s total needs. This denial of entry for this vital import stems back to January of 2021; in February no fuel at all was allowed to get in through Hodeidah. In addition, the Saudi coalition continues to hinder flights into the major airport in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. As CARE and the Norwegian Refugee Council wrote in a joint statement last month, “Sana’a’s airport closure for the fifth consecutive year has left stranded at least 32,000 critically ill Yemeni patients in need of life-saving treatment abroad, since the first and last medical flights in February last year. A coalition of over 50 peace, human rights, and social justice organizations, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, MADRE, MoveOn, Win Without War, and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation has called upon Congress to “prohibit any further US assistance or support to the Saudi-UAE coalition’s war and blockade on Yemen, including intelligence sharing, logistics, spare parts, and maintenance activities.”
As World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council earlier this year, “It is hell on earth in many places in Yemen right now . . . The blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise, millions more will spiral into crisis.”
The Saudis are highly unlikely to end the blockade without outside pressure, and the US is particularly well situated to apply it. As noted by Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution, US maintenance and spare parts enable offensive Saudi operations in Yemen; as such these activities should be stopped if the Biden administration is to live up to its own rhetoric. Threatening to cut them off from military support would certainly get the attention of the Saudi leadership, and could well change their policy on the blockade. Back in May 2021, a group of 16 Democratic Senators led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter to President Biden calling for an end to all US arms and military support for the Saudi regime and asserted that, “Immediate and decisive action must be taken to end the ongoing blockade of fuel imports that is exacerbating the growing humanitarian crisis.” The Biden administration Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking has expressed disapproval of any action that would impede the import of crucial supplies to Yemen, but the Biden administration has failed to take forceful steps to back up his words.
If the Biden administration fails to do what it should to press Riyadh to end the blockade, Congress needs to act. Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) has proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would cut off all US military support for Saudi Arabia, including arms sales, spare parts, and maintenance. It is timely and essential if the US is to make a difference in ending the suffering in Yemen and help promote an inclusive peace agreement to end the war.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.