On February 4, 2021, Biden gave his first foreign policy speech, “America’s Place in the World
,” during his first visit to the State Department. He announced three decisions with regard to his administration’s policy toward the war in Yemen: the end of all support for offensive operations including arms sales, U.S. support for the UN-led peace initiative, and the appointment of veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as a special envoy to Yemen. Effectively, these decisions mean the United States has moved from the position of supporting one party in the conflict to assuming the role of a peace broker. Yet, these decisions do not constitute a departure from the policies adopted by Biden’s two predecessor administrations. Instead, it marks a continuation of a slow transformation process, a process that began in the final months of the Obama administration, progressed under the Trump administration, and is now culminating as Biden’s current policies toward Yemen.
By closely tracing the most pivotal moments of U.S. support in the war, this article will show that most elements of this support had ceased to exist before Biden stepped into office. It will also show that Washington’s gradual move away from supporting the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen was caused by two main factors. Intense advocacy campaigns and lobbying efforts by humanitarian and human rights groups in reaction to increased civilian deaths and worsened humanitarian conditions in Yemen have significantly impacted U.S. polices. Furthermore, growing levels of political partisanship and institutional polarization in Washington, particularly between the Congress and the President but also between the two parties, have contributed to the transformation of the war in Yemen, and Saudi-U.S. relations in general, into one of the primary arenas of contestation.
From its start, the war in Yemen has been entrenched in complex dynamics relating to U.S.-Saudi relations and domestic developments in Saudi Arabia. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi government decided to lead the Arab coalition military campaign in response to a request
by the Yemeni president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was ousted in a coup staged by the Ansar Allah movement (the Houthis). This decision was announced in Washington by the then-Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir
, declaring the beginning of the Arab coalition’s first operation: Decisive Storm. A few hours after the announcement, the White House released a statement
stressing the Obama administration’s support to the Arab coalition and pledging to provide logistical and intelligence aid, in addition to establishing a Joint Combined Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia. Two weeks later, Obama’s administration voted in favor of the Security Council Resolution 2216
, calling on the Houthis to withdraw, disarm, and return to the Gulf Initiative
and its implementation mechanism
and national dialogue outputs
. A week after the Security Council resolution passed, Saudi Arabia announced
the end of the Decisive Storm operation—declaring it had achieved its goals—and replaced it with the Restoring Hope operation. A few days later, King Salman issued a series of royal decrees
that replaced the then-Crown Prince Muqrin with Mohammed bin Nayef, and appointed the Minister of Defense Mohammed Bin Salman as a deputy Crown Prince.
However, the war did not end with the Security Council resolution and a renamed operation. As the war continued, the number of civilian deaths grew and humanitarian crises in the form of famines, poverty, and diseases compounded. Starting in October 2015, this worsening situation led to mounting criticism from humanitarian
and human rights organizations
as well as the UN
. Discussions on the unfolding crisis in Yemen even found their way into the chambers of Congress, with some of its members
criticizing the Obama administration after it notified Congress about its intent to sell a new batch of arms to assist Saudi Arabia.
With each passing month, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen intensified—and with it the opposition to the war in Washington, too. The Saudi government did not stand by while this phenomenon grew. To assert its own narrative and secure support in both Washington and the international community, the Saudis adopted a multi-dimensional approach to include a public relations campaign
, the release of humanitarian and developmental programs under the umbrella of King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid
(which was formed a few weeks after the beginning of the war), and increasing military collaboration
with the United States to avoid civilian causalities.
The Saudis saw limited success in implementing this approach. For example, the United Nations included
the Arab coalition in its 2015 “Children and Armed Conflict” blacklist. The report considered the coalition responsible for targeting around half of the schools and hospitals effected by the war, as well as the death of sixty percent of the 2,000 children killed in the conflict. The Saudi government rejected the report, considering it based on inaccurate information. The saga continued with the UN removing
the coalition from the report, in the face of a massive wave of condemnations from humanitarian organizations. Only two days later, then secretary general Ban Ki-moon admitted
that the kingdom was removed due to Saudi threats of withdrawing its financial support to various UN programs—a claim that was then denied by the Saudi ambassador to the UN.
The incident that initiated the process of scaling down the U.S. support to the Arab coalition in Yemen was the two Sanaa funeral airstrikes on October 8, 2016, which killed over 150 people and injured 500 more. At initial aftermath, the then Arab coalition spokesperson, Ahmad Asiri, denied
that the attack was launched by the coalition. However, two days later, the coalition opened
an investigation. The investigation concluded after a week, announcing that the strikes
targeted false information provided by Yemeni officials, which was then acted upon without approval from coalition leadership. This incident unleashed a storm of criticism from human rights organizations
, the UN
, and other Saudi allies. The Obama administration condemned
the strikes and initiated a review of its role in the war. Two months later, it announced
that it would stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, restrict intelligence sharing, and increase training of the Saudi air force to improve their future targeting practices. However, it also stated that it would continue refueling the Arab coalition aircrafts, intelligence sharing on the Saudi-Yemeni border, and the selling of specific types of arms.
Trump’s election may have slowed momentum of this process, but it did not stop it. His presidency transformed the war in Yemen into a major arena of partisan contestation, institutional polarization, and a key indicator of U.S.-Saudi relations. The rapprochement between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia increased as the latter was Trump’s first foreign destination as president. During his visit, Trump gave
a speech where he vowed to open “a new chapter” in the relationship between the two countries, and that he would not impose the American way of life on others. To be clear, this rapprochement did not alter the U.S. disengagement policy in the Middle East that began in the final year of the G.W. Bush administration, the growing number of U.S.-Saudi arms deals, nor the two countries’ convergence on considering Iran, its proxies, and Islamist Jihadist movements as common threats to their countries’ national interests and security. Instead, this rapprochement caused a modification of the enduring disengagement policy, to make it more aligned with Saudi interests and ensure non-interference in Saudi domestic affairs—especially those related to human rights issues. Simultaneously, it also created cracks in the traditional bipartisan support to U.S.-Saudi relations.
This rapprochement, alongside other factors, correlated with significant transformations in Saudi Arabia. Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman replaced
Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince. The government introduced several initiatives toward more social openings in areas related to women
, and restricted religious social control of institutions
, in addition to the continuation of the economic transformations and mega-projects of Vision 2030
. At the same time, this period witnessed several waves of crackdowns on preachers, intellectuals
, activists, and feminists.
With regard to Saudi foreign policy, changes included deepening
the relationship with the United Arab Emirates, reconciliation
with Iraq, and cutting off relations with Iran
And on the war in Yemen, the Trump administration conducted a comprehensive reevaluation of the Obama administration’s involvement. But before the end of the reevaluation, Trump approved the sale of arms
to Saudi Arabia that Obama had suspended in the last months of his presidency. When the reevaluation ended, the Trump Administration announced that it would continue the Obama policy in Yemen, adding the following goals
: “ending the war and avoiding a regional conflict, mitigating the humanitarian crisis, and defending Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and commerce in the Red Sea.” However, this policy decision coincided with an increase in criticism of the war in Washington—as civilian death tolls increased and the humanitarian situation continued to devolve. By the end of 2017, the Arab coalition blocked
all terminals to Yemen in retaliation for a ballistic missile launched by the Houthis
at the international airport in Riyadh. Pressure from media and human rights groups
led the Trump administration to call on
Saudi Arabia to retract its decision and ultimately the blockade was lifted
Two incidents during the midterm election season in 2018 pushed opposition to the war to its highest level, leading to a further downgrade of U.S. support for the war and driving Washington to begin shifting its engagement from that of a supporter to a peace broker. The first incident was an air strike on August 9, 2018, that hit a school bus in Dahian of the Sa’dah province, killing dozens of children. The second was the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. By the end of October, the war opposition resulting from these incidents had mushroomed, compelling the Trump Administration to call on
all war parties to ceasefire. Two weeks later, it announced
a halt to aerial refueling.
However, this was not enough for Congress. In February 2019, the Republican-majority Senate passed legislation that forced the Trump administration to completely withdraw from the war. The legislation passed the Democrat-controlled House, but Trump refused to sign it into law. It then failed to win the necessary 67 votes in the Senate to override Trump’s veto, but the size of bipartisan convergence in both chambers and in both parties reflects a different level of agreement in Congress from the beginning of the war in 2015.
As this tracing shows, Biden’s Yemen decisions do not constitute a rupture with his predecessors, but rather represent another step further in the gradual shift of the U.S. position from supporting the Arab coalition in the war to merely brokering a peace initiative. Almost two months after these decisions were announced, their results, thus far, have been limited, if not counterproductive. Although these decisions were in large part a response to pressures in Washington, the opposition bloc in Washington does not yet seem satisfied. It has started demanding
Biden’s administration to clarify how it differentiates between offensive and defensive operations. This pressure from Washington does not seem to be going away especially with the declassification of the Khashoggi’s murder report and Biden’s policy toward the nuclear deal with Iran.
In the Arabian Peninsula, where the war is actually taking place, the immediate Houthi response to Biden’s decisions was a combination of intensified drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and attempts at territorial expansion inside Yemen. The Saudis welcomed these decisions, and, after the Houthi attacks, offered a peace initiative to end the war—an offer that was met by eighteen drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure sites. It is unclear whether the Houthi response is an attempt to increase their bargaining power in peace talks or is it because they perceived Biden’s decisions to have weakened the Arab coalition and opened a window of opportunity for them to complete their coup. Whatever the rationale may be, the immediate result of the United States withdrawing its support to the coalition has not resulted in peace.
Sultan Alamer is a Saudi writer and a political science PhD candidate at The George Washington University.