FIVE YEARS ago Barack Obama delivered a bracing message to Saudi Arabia. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians,” he warned, “has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen.” He offered a solution: “They need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Mr Obama’s vision of a new equilibrium in the Middle East sent ripples of anxiety through Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They might have felt a familiar pang listening to Joe Biden on February 4th.
In a wide-ranging speech at the State Department, America’s new president excoriated the “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” of the war in Yemen. Now in its seventh year, the war is being fought between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels with ties to Iran. Mr Biden said that although he would continue selling defensive arms to Saudi Arabia—the Houthis have lobbed scores of drones and missiles into the kingdom in recent years—he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
That could hobble the Saudi war machine. Between 2015 and 2019 the kingdom was the world’s largest arms importer, according to figures collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a think-tank. Around three-quarters of those imports came from America and another 13% from Britain (see chart). Though Saudi Arabia has all the tanks and warplanes it needs, Mr Biden’s ban could cut off the supply of munitions—including a last-minute mega-deal for bombs signed off by Donald Trump in December—and spare parts.
The details of Mr Biden’s policy change will be important. If America merely shuts off the flow of “smart” bombs, the Saudis would be forced to rely on dumber ones—offering little succour to Yemenis. But Mr Biden could go further: the issue is not just arms but the wherewithal to use them. Although the Trump administration stopped the practice of refuelling aircraft for the Saudi-led coalition, it continued to provide “military advice and limited information, logistics, and other support”, according to the White House. If America stops maintaining Saudi jets, 50% of the kingdom’s air force could be affected, estimates Tom Beckett of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think-tank.
Mr Biden’s move might also prod Saudi Arabia’s other partners into action. On January 29th Italy revoked $485m-worth of missile and bomb sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), citing their involvement in Yemen (an initial suspension was made last July). On February 4th Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and former minister for veterans who now chairs the House of Commons’ defence committee, said that Britain should follow suit. That would have grave implications for the Saudi air force. The kingdom’s main non-American warplane, the Eurofighter Typhoon, was built by a European consortium and must be serviced by Western technicians.
One thing it will not do, unfortunately, is end the chaos in Yemen. The Saudis are but one actor in a bewilderingly complicated war. The Houthis have been fighting the Yemeni state—and at times the Saudi armed forces—for decades. Emboldened by their takeover of the capital, Sana’a, they have shown little appetite for compromise. There also remain sharp divisions between the internationally recognised Yemeni government, led by Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist group. Both are nominal allies. Yet they have skirmished in the past, and Mr Hadi is propped up by the Saudis, while the STC has aligned itself with the UAE, a one-time coalition partner that largely exited the war in 2019.
Instead Mr Biden’s speech may hint at a broader shift in America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The two have been partners for 76 years, since Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz aboard an American cruiser in 1945. But the partnership has grown dysfunctional. The attacks of September 11th 2001 led many Americans to associate Saudi Arabia with extremism. Two years later America invaded Iraq, over the objections of some Saudi officials, who feared it would destabilise the region.
During Mr Obama’s tenure, the Saudis came to see him as naive. They were furious in 2011 when, amid a budding revolution in Egypt, he called on Hosni Mubarak, the 30-year dictator, to step down. It seemed to them a hasty betrayal of an old American partner—which left them worried about their own status. A bigger rupture came in 2015, when Mr Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran. For him it was a legacy-defining achievement; for the Saudis, it was an unconscionable boost to their arch-nemesis, one that offered Iran the prospect of legitimacy and economic growth.
No surprise, then, that the Saudis were happy to see the back of Mr Obama. They spared no effort to charm his successor. Unusually for an American president, Mr Trump made his first foreign trip to Riyadh, where his hosts feted him with a traditional sword dance and a bizarre glowing orb. He spent the next few years doggedly refusing to criticise the kingdom, even helping to shield it from consequences after the murder in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal was well received.
Yet Mr Trump was hardly a reliable partner. The Saudis (and other Gulf states) were shaken in 2019 when he did nothing to retaliate for an Iranian attack on oil facilities inside the kingdom. And his embrace turned Saudi Arabia into a partisan issue in Washington. Many Democrats, and even some Republicans, want to see it punished for the carnage in Yemen and Khashoggi’s murder. Mr Biden himself said in a presidential debate that he would treat Saudi Arabia like a “pariah”.
That is unlikely. Americans may be exasperated with Saudi Arabia, but it remains a mighty oil producer, a G20 member and an important partner for counter-terrorism. Mr Biden cannot simply break ties. Instead he will have to find a new approach, one that neither indulges the kingdom’s worst impulses nor reinforces its worst fears.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.