In Search of a Saudi-Israel Deal, Biden doubles down on Support for Yemen War Crimes

Saudi troops loading mortar. Photo: US Navy/public domain
Saudi troops loading mortar. Photo: US Navy/public domain

by Brian Garvey

If, as the maxim goes, crisis is just another word for opportunity, then the coalition of advocacy groups working to end the war in Yemen picked a good time to gather in New York City at Manhattan’s People’s Forum. The US-Saudi war in Yemen, now in its 9th year and third presidential administration, may finally be near an end. As the coalition met in New York Sept 14-15, the leading political force in Yemen, Ansar-Allah (also known as the Houthis), traveled to Riyadh to meet with officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the first official meeting since the outbreak of war in 2015. A broader deal in the making, between the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, could have decades-long implications for the entire region. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was committing fresh horrors on its border with Yemen. For two days MAPA and our allies met to consider these facts and to create actionable steps to influence events and US policy, to push for a final peace in Yemen.

The coalition started by reflecting on progress made. Airstrikes from Saudi Arabia have stopped and a cease-fire has held since April of 2022. The introduction of War Powers Resolutions and other legislation targeting the Saudi war effort put the kingdom on notice. President Joe Biden initially signaled that he would change course from the full cooperation offered by his predecessors. He promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during his 2020 campaign and stated that his Administration would stop selling the kingdom “offensive weapons” in his first foreign policy speech. But since then, his position has softened. The blockade, perhaps the leading cause of death, especially among the civilian population of Yemen, continues. Only 3 flights per week are currently allowed to fly in and out of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen – three flights a week to the capital city of a country of roughly 28 million. Over 21 million of those people still require humanitarian assistance because food, fuel, and medicine aren’t getting into the country. Yet the Biden Administration continues to claim there is no blockade.  

The specter looming over both DC and Riyadh, and Jerusalem for that matter, is a major proposal from the Biden Administration to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and perhaps keep the kingdom from building a closer relationship with China. While the Saudis have maintained their ceasefire with the Houthis and have stopped the airstrikes, a recent report from Human Rights Watch revealed that they continue to commit war crimes in Yemen.

A Gruesome Development:

Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record has always been a focus for the coalition. On August 21st a Human Rights Watch released a report, “They Fired on us like Rain,” which illustrated the depth of these human rights violations in grisly detail. It featured accounts and descriptions of the systematic murder of migrants, mostly Ethiopians and Somalians fleeing conflict in East Africa, at Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen.  The report states that, “Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons and shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic.” It showed that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, have been killed in such attacks since May of 2021. The Biden Administration admitted having known about the killings since the Summer of 2022, though it initially claimed it found out in December of that year. According to Ed Wong of The New York Times, “US officials cannot say with certainty that no American training or US-made weapons were provided to any Saudi forces engaged in the reported killings.”

There was already ample evidence of Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights violations in Yemen, through airstrikes on civilians and civilian infrastructure and a crippling blockade of food, medicine, and fuel. Saudi Arabia claims the killings of civilians from the air were accidental and the blockade deaths are indirect. This direct killings of migrants, however, was committed close-up with explosives and gunfire. “I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined,” said Hamdiya, a 14-year-old girl who crossed the border in a group of 60 in February 2023 that was repeatedly fired upon. “I saw 30 killed people on the spot.” The report stated that multiple witnesses, “frequently referred to seeing Saudi border guards with “cars” with mortars or other explosive weapons on the back.” The specific description of the weapons is important because of what happened next.

Adding Insult to Injury and Death:

On September 21st, just a month after the HRW report was released, the Biden Administration announced that it plans to sell $500 million in new weapons to Saudi Arabia. That sale includes equipment and spare parts for mortars, mortar carriers, missiles, and armored vehicles. These appear to be the exact same weapons used by Saudi border guards to kill women and children seeking asylum, as reported in the Human Rights Watch report.

This means that the Biden Administration made the decision to go through with this weapons sale in spite of knowing:

  1. The killings of migrants trying to cross the border began at least as early as Summer 2021 and they continue
  2. The United States may have sold the weapons used
  3. The United States may have trained the killers
  4. The weapons they plan to help maintain are the same ones used to commit massacres of innocents

Three Administrations have ignored morality in Yemen since at least 2015, but this blatant violation is a new low. The decision is so brazen that it is openly courting action from Congress, courts, and international institutions. The US Senate, in particular, has the ability to block the sale of these weapons through a mechanism called the Joint Resolution of Disapproval.

Any US Senator can introduce a resolution within 30 days of the sale’s announcement and force a vote to the floor, requiring all of their colleagues to go on record. A majority of senators would essentially have to cosign the sale for it to go through.

This method has been tried before to stop arms sales to the Saudis. In November of 2021 Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced a Joint Resolution of Disapproval to block the sale of $650 million dollars in air-to-air missiles to the kingdom, weapons used to enforce an air blockade that has killed thousands. But these weapons were characterized as defensive by the White House, and the vote failed. But those missiles kill without ever being fired. The threat of their use does the damage. 

In the case of Thursday’s sale, the weapons in question have been used to kill unarmed women and children directly. The descriptions are horrifyingly visceral. Action could easily come from Congress, whether it originates with members of Biden’s Democratic Party, who are on record supporting asylum seekers at our own southern border and opposing Saudi war crimes, or from Republican opponents who are also skeptical of Saudi Arabia and have an added incentive to give the president a black eye before the 2024 elections. Pressure from new constituencies, outraged Ethiopian and Somali-Americans could rightfully embarrass Biden. So why take the risk?

A US brokered Saudi-Israel normalization deal:

For the past few months the Biden Administration has tried to cobble together a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, two of the United States’ oldest and most important allies in the region. Though both nations cooperate extensively with the US, Saudi Arabia does not officially acknowledge the existence of Israel because it is occupying the land the Palestinians need to form their state.. Skeptics worry that this deal will be very difficult, considering the players involved. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince MBS are both closer to Mr. Biden’s chief rival, former President Donald Trump. They’d likely prefer to see his return to the White House, giving them little incentive to put a diplomatic feather in Biden’s cap heading into an election year.

Both foreign leaders have constituencies at home to consider as well. Netanyahu is already facing widespread protests in the wake of judicial reforms designed to grant him more power and insulate him from investigations. His coalition government relies on ultra-nationalist religious groups to keep in majority in the Israeli Knesset. These parties are unwilling to support restrictions on Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, reportedly part of the proposed deal. They may also blanch at the concessions Saudi Arabia is asking for. It’s easy to see why. 

The Saudis appear to be seeking official security guarantees from the US, an agreement that would elevate them to the level of South Korea or Japan. If such a treaty were to go through, American servicemen and women would be pledged to risk life and limb for an authoritarian kingdom with an abysmal human rights record. As if this were not enough, Saudi Arabia is also asking for US cooperation in building civilian nuclear reactors. Sharing technology and materials for nuclear power plants would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. A second nuclear weapons state in the Middle East (Israel being the first) could potentially start a nuclear arms race in the region, a nightmare for nuclear non-proliferation advocates.

The deal seems like a long shot, but President Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken are putting great effort into sealing the deal. The 67 votes in the US Senate required to ratify an official treaty seems like a high bar on Capitol Hill, but it may be one Biden is planning to sidestep. In mid-September Blinken signed a deal with Bahrain, another Gulf monarchy with a long record of internal political repression. Bahrain is also the location of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, one of the largest naval bases in the world. According to an administration official the agreement “does not cross the threshold of a treaty” but is “legally binding.” Is this a precursor? Could the Biden Administration repeat the trick with Saudi Arabia and Israel, an agreement with a much higher profile?

This deal, like all of President Biden’s foreign policy, must be seen in the context of geopolitical rivalries, especially the rivalry between the US and China. Earlier this year China shocked the world by brokering a deal between longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. In March, just days after a meeting held in Beijing, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would resume diplomatic relations for the first time in 7 years. This announcement came on the heels of a high profile visit to the Kingdom by Chinese President Xi Jinping just 3 months earlier. Though State Department spokesman John Kirby stated clearly that, “This is not about China,” it clearly added tension to an already frayed relationship. If Washington sees the countries of the world positioning themselves in a geopolitical game against Beijing, the US has a motivation to keep allies like Saudi Arabia onside.

Next Steps:

It’s a critical moment for MAPA and our allies in the Yemen coalition. Peace talks continue, but so does the blockade. Yemenis are still starving but human rights legislation like a privileged initiative requesting an investigation into Saudi Arabian practices has stalled. Senator Chris Murphy’s bill S.Res.109 has only gained 4 cosponsors since its introduction in March. This year’s national defense bill may not even extend previous bans on midair refueling of Saudi jets, which were a win for the peace community. East African migrants are being slaughtered at the border, and Congress has less than 30 days to stop more weapons from potentially rearming their murderers. Security guarantees are being offered to a pariah and American troops may soon be pledged to back that pariah, and do so in perpetuity. But with these challenges come opportunities. They are opportunities to take stands against clear wrongs, to save lives, and to hold power accountable. Putting the spotlight on Saudi Arabia has curtailed their behavior before, and saved lives. It’s time to do it again. 

Brian Garvey is assistant director of MAPA and has worked to end the US-Saudi war in Yemen for four years.