US takes a U-turn, approves $650 million weapons sales to Saudi Arabia 

The sale of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia will mark a U-turn in US president Joe Biden’s foreign policy declared in the first week of February. At that point, he had promised to end the US role in the war in Yemen and the sale of all offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia

November 05, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
US weapons sale to Saudi Arabia
(Photo: Military and Aerospace Electronics)

In an about-turn from its stated policy, the Joe Biden administration on Thursday, November 4, approved USD 650 million worth of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The deal marks the first major arms sales deal with Saudi Arabia since Biden announced the end of US involvement in the war in Yemen and the sale of “offensive” weapons to Riyadh in February. 

In a statement, the Pentagon said the sale was approved to improve the security of a friendly country “that is an important force for political and economic progress in the Middle East,” and to “counter current and future threats.” 

As per the deal, Raytheon, a private weapons manufacturer in the US, will provide 280 advanced medium range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM) to Saudi Arabia, along with necessary support equipment. 

In September, the US had approved a USD 500 million deal with Saudi Arabia to repair military helicopters. However, this is the first major deal involving fresh sales. 

The clearance from the US department of defense has been notified to the US Congress for approval. Though highly unlikely, Congress could still stall the deal. 

Biden’s U-Turn

Thursday’s decision to sell air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia is contrary to the promises made earlier to end US support to the war in Yemen. After years of campaigns by activists, Biden had promised during his election campaign to end all US involvement. Within weeks of assuming office, during his first major speech on foreign policy in February, he announced the end of all “offensive” weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and ending the US role in the war in Yemen, which he described as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” The announcement was widely welcomed by global civil society. 

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who openly supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, Biden was considered more critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights records. He had even called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Human rights activists and experts condemned the move on Thursday, despite the US state department trying to defend the deal by claiming that the missiles are not used in ground offensives. Hinting at Houthi drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia, the state department said the move will also protect US forces and around 70,000 US citizens in Yemen from rising “cross-border attacks.”

Talking to Iranian Press TV, Sara Flounders, co-director of International Action Center, called the move a violation of Biden’s promises to “leading with diplomacy and ending the US role in the Yemen wars.” The missiles “are offensive weapons” and will benefit the weapons manufacturers in the US and no one else, she asserted.  

Several other activists and anti-war groups condemned the Biden administration’s decision.

The Saudi coalition has been accused of carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes inside Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, which have led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure. These airstrikes are carried out with crucial help provided by the US and UK military.  

More than 230,000 Yemeni citizens have died in the war started by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, according to the UN. The UN estimates that millions of Yemenis are facing starvation and deaths because of lack of medicines due to the continued air, sea and land blockade of the country by the Saudi-led coalition.