WASHINGTON/RIYADH, July 11 (Reuters) – The Biden administration is discussing a possible lifting of its embargo on US offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but any final decision is expected to depend on whether Riyadh makes progress toward ending the war next door. Yemen, according to four people familiar with the matter.
Three sources said ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom this week that senior Saudi officials had pressured their American counterparts to cancel a policy of selling defense-only weapons to its largest Gulf partner in several meetings in Riyadh and Washington in recent months.
Two sources said the internal US deliberations were informal and at an early stage, with no decision imminent, and a US official told Reuters that there were no ongoing offensive weapons discussions with the Saudis “at this time”.
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But as Biden prepares for a sensitive diplomatic tour, he has indicated that he is looking to restore strained relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when he wants to increase Gulf oil supplies as well as closer Arab security ties with Israel to counter Iran. Read more
At home, any move to repeal assault weapons restrictions is sure to provoke opposition in Congress, including from fellow Democrats in Biden and opposition Republicans who have sharply criticized Saudi Arabia, congressional aides said.
Shortly after taking office early last year, Biden adopted a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, which has caused heavy civilian casualties and Riyadh’s human rights record, in particular the killing of a journalist and politician In The Washington Post 2018. Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden, denouncing Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” as a presidential candidate, announced in February 2021 the cessation of US support for offensive operations in Yemen, including “related arms sales.”
Saudi Arabia, the United States’ largest arms customer, has been troubled by those restrictions, which have frozen the type of arms sales offered by previous US administrations for decades.
Biden’s approach has waned since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, which prompted the United States and other Western countries to appeal to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, to pump more oil to make up for lost Russian supplies.
Saudi Arabia also won praise from the White House for agreeing in early June to extend a two-month UN-brokered truce in Yemen, which has been the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Read more
Washington would now like to see that turn into a permanent ceasefire.
A person familiar with the matter in Washington said the administration had begun internal discussions about the possibility of lifting Saudi arms restrictions, but indicated that it had not reached the decision stage.
Among the times Saudi officials raised the request was during Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington in May, according to a second source.
Asked if the administration was considering ending the offensive weapons freeze, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did not directly address the question but told reporters on Monday: “At the moment, there is nothing on the table to lift this embargo.”
“For now, we are focused on consolidating and sustaining a fragile but real ceasefire” in Yemen, he added.
The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.
The sources stressed, however, that an announcement of Biden’s trip from July 13-16, which will include stops in Israel and the West Bank, is not expected.
They said any decision is expected to depend heavily on whether Riyadh has done enough to reach a political settlement to the Yemen conflict.
Among the most lucrative items the Saudis will likely seek are precision-guided munitions (PGMs) such as those approved under former President Donald Trump in the face of objections from members of Congress.
But two sources said the Biden administration is expected to move cautiously as it discusses what regulations might be introduced. Amnesty International said US-made precision-guided bombs were used in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a detention center in Yemen in January that killed dozens.
If Washington relaxes the embargo, it may be easier to move forward with sales of less-lethal equipment such as armored personnel carriers or replenish stocks of less advanced ground-to-ground and air-to-ground weapons.
Even under current restrictions, the United States began ramping up its military support for Saudi Arabia earlier this year after Houthi missile strikes on the kingdom. Read more
The Pentagon said in November that Washington had approved the sale of missiles and anti-missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia, and the United States sent Patriot missiles this year as well — all of which American officials have deemed defensive in nature.
The Biden administration also maintained its support for the Saudis to receive a High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system first approved in 2017 to counter ballistic missile threats.
And while lawmakers have mostly approved such sales, Biden could face repercussions on Capitol Hill if he decides to sell Riyadh’s offensive weapons again.
Some have questioned Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, arguing that it legitimizes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader whom the US intelligence community concluded was behind the Khashoggi murder.
Among the potential opponents is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a vocal critic of the Saudi campaign in Yemen who praised Biden when he froze offensive arms sales.
One of his aides said Murphy did not think it was time to resume such supplies.
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(Matt Spitalnick and Mike Stone report in Washington and Aziz Al-Yaqoubi in Riyadh). Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller
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