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If Joe Biden keeps his word, he could end the Saudi war on Yemen

The incoming president has vowed to stop the flow of US arms and to end support for Saudi Arabia's five-year bombardment of Yemen
Smoke billows after an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa on 27 November (AFP)

The Saudi royal family owes a lot to US President Donald Trump. Not only did he “save the ass” of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he also provided uncritical political backing and billions of dollars worth of weaponry.

Trump is one of the few world leaders who has continued to back the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen. Only the UK has matched his degree of unconditional support for the Saudi regime. No matter how appalling the crisis has become, he has stood behind bin Salman and vetoed attempts by Congress to put a halt to US arms sales and support.

Halting the war would require a greater level of political commitment than we saw during Biden’s time as a senator or from the Obama administration in which he served 

One of those calling for a change in policy is Trump’s successor, Joe Biden. Accusing Trump of issuing “a dangerous blank cheque” to Saudi forces, Biden has repeatedly promised to stop the flow of arms and to end support for the five-year bombardment.

The ramifications could be huge for the Saudi-led coalition. Its bombing campaign is only possible because of political and military support from the US, the UK and other arms-dealing governments. Saudi Arabia does not have a particularly sophisticated domestic arms industry. It is the world’s largest importer of weaponry, with a majority of its imports coming from the US.

According to Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, if the US was to stop selling F-15 aircraft components to the Saudi air force, these aircraft would be grounded within two weeks. This is a view shared by Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank, who has said that Saudi forces “cannot operate” without US and British support. 

The consequences of the war have been devastating, with thousands of civilians killed, while US-made bombs and missiles have destroyed vital infrastructure across Yemen. The end of the bombing cannot come soon enough, with Doctors Without Borders warning that Yemen’s healthcare system has “collapsed” under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opposition from the war lobby

Such a move could also serve to fundamentally alter US relations with Saudi Arabia and the wider region, with Biden telling the Council on Foreign Relations that the US “will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons”. The implications of this will not be lost on Saudi royalty, which may explain why bin Salman took a full 24 hours to congratulate Biden on his victory.

Of course, any steps towards ending arms sales will be fought tooth and nail by the war lobby. Contracts with Saudi forces are worth billions of dollars to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the other companies which have made a killing from the war. The US government is by far the world’s biggest arms dealer, and the companies with which it works will no doubt oppose any such measures.

A malnutritioned child is carried by her father in northern Yemen on 23 September (AFP)
A malnutritioned child is carried by her father in northern Yemen on 23 September (AFP)

There are other reasons to be sceptical, especially considering that Biden was vice president when the war began, and yet the White House refused to take the necessary action to stop it.

Opposition to the war and the US role in it has increased across all branches of government since then, but halting it would require a greater level of political commitment than we saw during Biden’s time as a senator or from the Obama administration in which he served.

An end to US support for the war would also cause problems for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his colleagues. The UK is one of few other governments that have continued to arm and support the Saudi-led war. The US may be the world’s biggest seller of arms to Saudi Arabia, but the UK comes a keen second.

A powerful precedent

In 2019, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were approved illegally, causing the government to temporarily stop approving new sales while it conducted a review into their legality. This past July, arms sales were resumed, a decision that is subject to a further legal challenge

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If the US were to change course, would UK ministers continue to support such a disastrous war? It is hard to believe that their consciences would stop them, but - especially if they are trying to build a closer post-Brexit relationship with Biden and his colleagues - the issue could create problems.

With many European countries having reduced arms sales to Saudi forces, the UK could be increasingly isolated as the last defender of a brutal intervention that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

The reality is that this war has never been a war of necessity. It has always been a political choice, enabled and exacerbated by the complicity and support of powerful governments and companies that have looked the other way while atrocities were inflicted. 

Biden has spent decades at the heart of a system that has allowed these policies to flourish. Now, in the last act of his career, he could be the one who sets a powerful precedent by ending this support.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.