Biden halts US support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen

·3-min read

US President Joe Biden has announced the United States will end its support for the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen. The war, aimed at Houthi rebels, started more than six years ago, and has led to what the UN called the world's "largest humanitarian crisis" – affecting some 24 million people, and leading to the deaths of more than 233,000.

Biden has described the withdrawal of US support for the war, which began in March 2015, as part of an effort to restore "a US emphasis on diplomacy, democracy and human rights".

The Saudi intervention, with the cynical title "Renewal of Hope," involves a coalition of Arab and Western countries, including the US and the United Kingdom. The United States is by far the largest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has spent 15,6 billion USD on weapons between 2014 and 2018.

According to the Arms Transfer Database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), America accounts for 11,5 billion, followed by the UK (2,7 billion), France (733 million), Spain (391 million), and Germany (298 million).

“This war has to end," Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as president, saying the conflict had created a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”.

The announcement on Yemen fulfils a campaign pledge. But it also shows Biden putting the spotlight on a major humanitarian crisis that the United States has helped aggravate. The reversal of policy also comes as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia.

Biden did say that the US is "going to continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people.” Focusing on just this remark, the Saudi press said Riyad "welcomes the US commitment," without commenting on Biden's determination to terminate support for the Yemen campaign.

On 19 January, the final day of the Trump administration, the Yemeni Houthi movement (under its official name "Ansrallah") was added to the terrorist list of the US State Department.

A spokesperson said on 23 January – just after Joe Biden's arrival in the White House - that the list would be "reviewed," leaving open the possibility that the Houthis will be taken off it and eliminating a pretext for the Saudis to ask for more military hardware.

'Political solution'

Riyadh seems to fear a decline of US support.

Shortly after Biden's statement, human rights campaigners announced the release of two Saudi-Americans, Salah al-Haider, the son of a leading women's rights activist, and Bader al-Ibrahim, a writer and doctor, who were detained in April 2019 and charged with terrorism-related crimes.

The same day, the official Saudi Press Agency - without referring to Biden's statement, said that "the kingdom has affirmed its position in support of a comprehensive political solution to the Yemeni crisis, and welcomes the US emphasis on the importance of diplomatic efforts to achieve that end."

It was the Obama administration that in 2015 gave its approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting Yemen's Houthi rebels, who were seizing ever more territory, including the capital Sanaa.

Trump dit not change overall US policy, but increased weapons sales to the Saudis.

French involvement

Other countries have also contributed to the Saudi war effort in Yemen. Despite broad public ignorance of the fact, France is the third most important arms exporter to Riyadh.

In December 2018, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French parliament nominated a fact-finding mission on arms export control, headed by MPs Michèle Tabarot and Jacques Maire, as a result of public opinion and NGO mobilisation against French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The weapons were considered “likely to be used illegally against civilians in Yemen”.

Based on leaked documents from French Military Intelligence (DRM), the NGO Disclose investigated the scale of French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the impact they had in the war in Yemen.

The report concluded that the extensive use of French-made Leclerc tanks and César howitzers had contributed to the deaths of dozens of civilians between 2016 and 2018.