Regional focus

At the same time, there has also been growing anti- Saudi Arabian influence within Congress, due in part to the human rights abuses laid out against Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged involvement in the death of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. And with the US still entrenched in the war in Iraq and currently withdrawing from Afghanistan, the appetite for direct US involvement in foreign conflicts is at an all-time low. “President Biden is executing this shift to address his campaign promises,” says Vakil, “but really also to draw down US military commitments to what are perceived to be forever wars in the Middle East.”

A halt on arms sales Speaking on the US’s end to offensive arms sales in Yemen, Biden publicly stated that “this war has to end”, but his actions did not come without criticism. On one hand, they reversed a Trump-era sanction that had been heavily criticised by humanitarian organisations and theoretically reduced weapons for Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen. On the other, removing the designation without extracting a concession from the Houthis risked projecting weakness and disorder among the allies supporting the Hadi government. “It’s a bit of a feel-good gesture,” says Michael Knights, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who points out some of the issues with a blanket ban on offensive weapon sales. “For years, we’ve been telling the Saudis to discriminate in their campaign, and we just blocked their first-ever purchases of 250lb small-diameter bombs. Instead, they have to use their huge 1,000lb bombs to strike a target as small as a guy on a motorcycle.” At this point in the conflict, according to Knights, the only area that is still regularly experiencing Saudi air strikes is the oil hub of Marib, which has been under a steady stream of attacks from Houthi forces for the past few years. Given the decreasing scale of the strikes, previous munitions sales under the Trump and Obama administrations will most likely allow Saudi Arabia to continue its current level of support for the foreseeable future. However, far from being the invading force that

it’s commonly been perceived as, the Saudi military intervention began on 25 March 2015 in response to a request by the internationally recognised Hadi government. Restrictions like the US’s halt on arms sales, then, punish the side with the greater claim to legitimacy in the face of the global community. “It’s potentially stopping one side in the civil war, but not both – and not the side that is actually sanctioned by the UN,” Knights adds.

Since then, the conflict has very much developed into a theatre for the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leaving the Saudis reluctant to step away from the war effort. Sanctions have simply pushed them to buy weapons elsewhere.

While the US and several EU member states including Germany, Italy and Belgium have restricted sales of arms for use in Yemen, the UK exported £1.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia in the third quarter of 2020 alone.

Even if these countries did issue their own sales restrictions, this wouldn’t impede the Saudis too greatly. “They can move to more UK-made Paveway- type munitions that they can put onto the European platforms and use them,” Knights adds. “They can move to a guided bomb system from the UAE, they can buy old stocks like 1,000–2,000lb bombs and older kits from the Jordanians.”

And while some members of the US political sphere might suggest raising sanctions against countries continuing to sell weapons for use in Yemen, such action is unlikely to garner widespread support. Ultimately, the US’s decision was not made with the goal of ending the war in Yemen, Knights adds, but is more to do with keeping its hands clean. “It’s really about absolving the US of obvious direct responsibility,” he says. “What people don’t realise is that the Saudi campaign in Yemen is already at such a low level, that what we do to it will probably not alter it much at this point.”

The rebel front

If the halt on arms sales will not greatly interfere with the Saudi Arabian war effort, it is likely to increase the perception of delegitimisation over its involvement in the war. That, in turn, can only provide a boost to the Houthi forces, just as previous attempts to hinder foreign involvement in the war had before.

“The conflict dynamics are very much hot and on the rise,” says Vakil. “Despite the fact that they have received some positive signals from the Biden administration – removing, for example, the ‘foreign terrorist’ designation that was imposed by Trump – the Houthis have continued to march on Marib and are trying to expand their territorial control.”

Defence & Security Systems International /

Protesters take part in mass demonstrations in the city of Taiz in support of the legitimacy of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.


Value of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the third

quarter of 2020. The Guardian



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