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The Biden-Saudi dilemma: To arm or not to arm?

Crowd, Person, Human Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Joe Biden has praised Saudi Arabia's ceasefire between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels

The Biden administration is reportedly discussing lifting its ban on US sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, but whether the decision is actioned remains to be seen.

The internal US deliberations are informal and “at an early stage”, with no decision imminent, four sources told Reuters.

But as US president Joe Biden prepares for a diplomatically sensitive trip to Israel, Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia this week, he will be looking to ramp up his own armoury of diplomatic incentives, with weapons access being one of the most powerful draws, according to experts.

As America’s most prolific arms customer, Saudi Arabia chafed in February 2021 when Biden declared a halt to US support for offensive operations in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales”.

But now the US president is looking to appease the kingdom at a time when he wants increased Gulf oil supplies along with closer Arab security ties with Israel to counter Iran.

“I’m not surprised this story is being released now,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab British Understanding (Caabu) told AGBI. “The arms ban is one of the largest grievances on the Saudi table.

“Even if this story was simply leaked to the press, it creates expectation and announces a purpose of intent.”

Doyle said the Biden administration could justify the about-turn by pointing to the recently extended ceasefire agreement between the Yemeni government and the country’s Houthi rebels – a long-running proxy battle for Saudi Arabia against arch rival Iran, resulting in what the UN deems “the worst humanitarian disaster of the century.”

Biden praised the two-month ceasefire’s continuation in June, saying: “The last two months in Yemen … have been among the most peaceful periods since this terrible war began seven years ago.

“Thousands of lives have been saved as fighting receded. It’s important that we work from here to make it permanent.”

According to Doyle, the rumours of a US-Saudi arms ban repeal could be effective as a “diplomatic carrot”, regardless of whether it is eventually actioned.

“The US might just be suggesting it could happen, but if the Saudis are difficult, the US may not go ahead with lifting the ban,” Doyle said. 

“It’s the biggest carrot Biden’s got. The move would also suggest that Biden is removing his much-reported ‘pariah’ label from the kingdom.”

However, Scott Lucas, professor emeritus of international politics at the University of Birmingham, cautioned that “a lot of people on [Capitol] Hill don’t want the arms ban lifted”.

“There is a lot of chatter in terms of the arms repeal negotiation but Biden will face resistance,” Lucas said. “There’s still large sections of Congress who are upset about the alleged Saudi killing of the journalist Khashoggi.”

Lucas is of the opinion that the Saudi government will face “no consequences” for the reported murder of the Washington Post journalist in 2018 in Turkey. 

“That period of being a pariah is over… and that reputational recovery is being accelerated because of the global Ukraine energy crisis,” he said.

The professor said it’s challenging to ascertain which parties are leaking the information, and why.

“No one can tell at this stage. All we know is that it’s one of the US’s biggest bargaining chips,” he added.

In a wider context, the upcoming negotiations of the Biden Middle Trip are set to reshape a new regional economic and political bloc, Lucas said.

“The Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis, will all want to take a firm united stance against Iran and take steps to align on energy supplies. 

“This trip will also set the agenda for opening up economic and geopolitical channels between the UAE, Saudi and Israel.”

Israeli finance minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday he hoped the regional visit by Biden will lead to a common Middle East market that includes Saudi Arabia.

Asked at an economic conference hosted by Calcalist newspaper what he expects to arise from Biden’s visit, he said: “The creation of a new, common market in the Middle East. That’s the big challenge.”

“It will change the reality here from end to end, in both the fields of security and of economics.”

Israel normalised relations with four Arab countries under a 2020 US diplomatic drive – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. 

But Saudi Arabia has stopped short of formally recognising Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals.