President Joe Biden has paused billions of dollars in weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, U.S. wealthy partners in the Persian Gulf whose human rights abuses have caused growing alarm in Washington, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press reported on Wednesday, citing U.S. officials.
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly pushed through major arms deals with the Saudis and Emiratis over objections from Congress. Now, Biden could entirely block two of Trump’s parting gifts to the two autocratic Arab regimes: a $500 million package of bombs for the Saudis and a $23 billion package for the Emiratis that included the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet.
The news came soon after HuffPost reported that Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives were pushing Biden to take steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its excesses.
HuffPost obtained a draft of a letter that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and other prominent lawmakers addressed to Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Co-led by former State Department human rights official Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), the group requested “a meaningful adjustment in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
The combined revelations show a striking consensus on U.S. policy toward autocratic Gulf Arab states in the new Democratic-controlled Washington.
A State Department spokesperson declined to specifically comment on the Saudi and Emirati sales but told HuffPost via email that the action “demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring U.S. arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partners.”
Biden administration officials, congressional staffers and outside national security experts will publicly and privately debate the president’s final call on the weapons sales in the months ahead. The Saudis, the Emiratis and their proponents in Washington — including well-connected lobbyists — will try hard to prevent a full shutdown of the transfers.
The congressional letter shows how that argument could play out politically — and why it’s an uphill battle for the Arab regimes.
In the message, the legislators note Biden’s campaign trail promise to reassess America’s links to the Saudis.
“President Biden will undoubtedly face pressure ... to forget this pledge,” they write. “We hope you will nonetheless make it clear that ... the Saudi government must show greater respect for American concerns about the treatment of our citizens and residents, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and fundamental human rights.”
The lawmakers cite several ways in which Biden could address worrying Saudi behavior.
They asked him to pause the shipment of bombs over the brutal and ongoing Saudi military intervention in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians since it launched in 2015. For years, a bipartisan majority of members of Congress has tried to end American assistance for that campaign ― while Trump blocked legislation to do so.
The lawmakers also say Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines should release an unclassified report on Saudi officials’ role in killing Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had been living in the U.S., in 2018, and the U.S. should sanction all Saudis it believes to be responsible. That would likely affect de facto Saudi ruler crown prince Muhammed bin Salman, who the CIA privately believes ordered for the murder, and dramatically downgrade ties between Washington and Riyadh.
They urge Biden to reverse Trump’s decision to list the forces the Saudis are fighting in Yemen, a militia known as the Houthis, as a terror group. That policy, which went into effect the day before Biden’s inauguration, would likely slash aid to millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation. Biden quickly prevented its full implementation with a special State Department license for international operations in the country, but many humanitarian experts say a full turnaround is vital.
And they ask Biden to push Saudi authorities to release Americans who have been detained as part of the crown prince’s unprecedented crackdown on his citizens’ freedoms.
“American support for the Kingdom is not a blank check,” the letter reads.
The statement shows how weak the historically cozy bond between the two countries has become. Additionally, the letter offers clues about Biden’s broader policy toward the Middle East. The president has pledged to reenter the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear development, which President Barack Obama completed in 2015 but Trump withdrew from in 2018.
The Saudis and other U.S. partners in the region like Israel see Iran as their top rival and were wary of the nuclear deal, saying the sanctions relief it involved would lead to a dangerous increase in Iranian power. As it was being negotiated, they pressured Obama to assuage their concerns by increasing support to them ― creating a pressure campaign that, among other things, drove Obama to help the Saudis, the UAE and their allies devastate Yemen, already the poorest country in the Arab world.
The message from Congress and the news about the holds on transfers show that those arguments will not have as much sway in Washington this time around, despite abiding concerns about Iran among many Democrats and nearly all Republicans. For Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a staunch Iran skeptic who chairs a crucial subcommittee, to sign on is especially significant.
Beyond the signal to the Saudis, the developments also represent a major warning sign for the UAE, which secured approvals to buy more than $23 billion in new weaponry in the last year of the Trump administration and enjoys a better reputation stateside than its friends in Riyadh.
Many lawmakers and Biden officials are also frustrated with the Emirates over its involvement in the civil wars in Yemen and Libya.
Anti-war advocates and some analysts immediately celebrated Wednesday’s news, describing it as a move in the right direction by Biden.
“The Biden administration’s decision to temporarily freeze and review arms sales to the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia is a prudent first step towards reorienting U.S. arms transfer policy after the reckless policy of promoting weapons exports at all costs pursued by the Trump administration,” William Hartung of the Center for International Policy said in a statement. “The administration should ultimately cut off sales based on their joint role in the brutal war in Yemen, their records of internal repression, and the UAE’s military adventurism in Libya and beyond.”
“It’s time to put human rights and long-term security above narrow economic concerns in deciding which countries should receive U.S. weaponry,” continued Hartung, whose research has debunked claims that arms deals are vital to American economic growth.