WASHINGTON — America’s recent freeze on the sale of approved munitions to Saudi Arabia, along with a new policy curtailing U.S. involvement in the conflict in Yemen, is setting up an early test of the relationship between Riyadh and President Joe Biden.
The policy, announced Feb. 4, comes amid a wide-ranging review of the Trump administration’s arms sales, which is expected to focus particularly on sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” Biden said. “At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
While the broader arms sales review continues, two specific cases tied to Saudi operations in Yemen are frozen, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The first is a Foreign Military Sales case for 3,000 Boeing-made GBU-39 small diameter bombs, approved in late December, with an estimated price tag of $290 million. The second is a Direct Commercial Sale case for Raytheon Technologies munitions, likely the reported $478 million sale of 7,000 Paveway IV smart bombs.
Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes foreshadowed the move in a Jan. 26 investor call, when he said the company would back off an “offensive weapon system” sale to an unnamed Middle Eastern customer because it did not believe the new administration would approve it.
While more Saudi weapons sales may be paused or canceled in the future, even targeting the two munitions packages is a sharp reversal from the Trump administration, which had a publicly positive relationship with Riyadh on arms sales.
When Congress in 2019 slowed the sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia over concerns with the Yemen campaign, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bucked the congressional arms sale review process. Lawmakers failed to block the sale, but the episode increased ire toward Saudi Arabia among Democrats, including New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, now the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That relationship continued into the waning days of the Trump administration. Then 10 days before Biden took office, Anthony Tata, a close Trump supporter serving as acting undersecretary of defense for policy, traveled to Riyadh and signed what the Pentagon described as a “Defense Cooperation Plan that solidifies new and existing areas of cooperation.”
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to provide details of that plan, citing its classified nature, but confirmed the agreement remains in place. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a similar request for comment.
Under Biden, arms sales to Saudi Arabia will return to the traditional arms sale oversight process, a White House spokesperson said.
“All arms sales to Saudi Arabia will return to standard procedures and orders including with appropriate legal reviews at the State Department,” the spokesperson said. “We have reestablished an interagency process for working through the details of individual cases, led by the White House and with all relevant agencies at the table, bringing expertise, discipline, and inclusivity back to our policymaking on these issues.”
The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, downplayed any damage to the “long-term relationship” with Riyadh.
“Nothing that we did, nothing that has been said or done means we’re not going to continue to engage Saudi and our other coalition partners. Our focus there is going to be to do things that will help them defend themselves more effectively and efficiently,” McKenzie said Feb. 8.
The military officer cited Iran as a “common threat” to both the U.S. and the kingdom, highlighting a 2019 drone attack on a Saudi oil field, which the U.S. attributed to Iran, as proof that the Iranian “threat is very real, and anything we can do to assist the Saudis in getting better and more effective at defending against that attack is good for them and good for us as well.”
CENTCOM will “move out smartly to comply” with the Biden administration’s new direction, but the Yemen guidance allows for the U.S. to continue to support Saudi territorial defense, even if it curtails support for offensive operations, McKenzie emphasized.
“Over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks. What we will not do is help them strike and continue to conduct offensive operations into Yemen,” he said.
An exemption for defensive capabilities likely includes the Raytheon-made Patriot missile batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base, southeast of Riyadh, as well as the Lockheed Martin- and Raytheon-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, systems, said former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal, who served under President Barack Obama.
“Halting offensive weapons to the fighting in Yemen was predictable in the sense that Obama did it at the end of his administration,” Westphal said. “If anything, [Riyadh] may have been taken by surprise at [Biden’s] strong support for defending the sovereignty and the waters of Saudi Arabia.”
Westphal noted that the Obama administration brokered the deal to sell Saudi Arabia THAAD batteries, adding: “The ballistic missile threat from Iran is big and real, and that’s a system that I think we all felt was appropriate for them to have.”
Strategic partners with benefits
The joint focus on Iran is one of several reasons why a real decoupling between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is unlikely, said Becca Wasser, a regional expert with the Center for a New American Security. But that doesn’t mean Riyadh will quietly accept the White House’s policy.
“There’s going to be an uproar in Riyadh, and to folks in Saudi Arabia this is going to seem as though it’s a huge affront — but also an indicator that Washington cannot be trusted to fulfill its promises,” she predicted. “It’s going to be viewed as a degradation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but also the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabian security. And that is probably going to have knock-on effects for a variety of different priorities for the Biden administration” in the region, particularly as it considers reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
Despite the likelihood of public posturing from both sides to come, Wasser called the actual impact of the Yemen policy a “symbolic move,” given that U.S. assistance for the Yemen campaign has been largely restricted to intelligence sharing. However, it could drive Saudi Arabia to look to the U.S. less for munitions and more for defensive capabilities, such as increased missile defense assets, she said.
During previous periods of tension, Saudi Arabia restricted access to its bases or airspace, something vital to American operations in the region, Wasser noted. The kingdom could also respond to America’s cold shoulder by making public overtures toward China and Russia.
Proponents of U.S.-Saudi relations in the defense industry and elsewhere argue that removing the U.S. as a military industrial partner will simply pave the way for other nations to tighten ties through military trade. McKenzie echoed those concerns in his Feb. 8 comments, saying Russia seeks to “challenge” the U.S. in the region by selling arms without American restrictions, and that China wants to “continue to strengthen defense cooperation throughout the region.”
“We [the United States] were working with them [the Saudi military] to make sure they reduced their collateral damage. Is that training going to be cut off? The more you pull back, the more chances they’re going to make it worse,” according to a former senior U.S. military official with knowledge of the situation. “They’re either going to go to another country to buy [precision-guided munitions] or use the dumb bombs they have, which increases the chances of collateral damage in civilian casualties.”
Not everyone agrees that Saudi leaders will react negatively. Westphal said that because Saudi Arabia values its energy sector and economic ties with the U.S., it likely won’t turn to Russia and China for support in the Yemen war, instead accepting Biden’s entreaties to end it diplomatically.
“I don’t think it makes sense for them to buy all sorts of weapons to continue a war that’s going to further damage the relationship with us, and Europe. So I think their focus will be on finding a way out of this,” Westphal said. “In my conversations with [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, he always said we’ve got to end this war: It’s not only costing us a lot financially, but it’s costing us in public relations. Those are his words, not mine.”
Likewise, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a longtime critic of the U.S. and Saudi roles in the Yemen civil war, said at a Jan. 2 event that the U.S. should “de-securitize” its partnerships in the Mideast — and press Riyadh to both make peace in Yemen and improve human rights for Saudis. If Middle Eastern partners suggest they will buy arms elsewhere, “we should sort of call their bluff,” Murphy said.
“There’s still no substitute for the United States as a security partner,” the lawmaker added. “The Chinese really don’t want to get their hands that dirty in the security contests of the Middle East. The Russian stuff they sell is not comparable to the stuff we sell. We can draw a firmer line when it comes to what we expect from our partners in the region for a security partnership with the United States.”
Wasser agreed that the industrial arguments should be taken with a “grain of salt,” given how important the Saudis see the security relationship with the U.S. And ultimately, she said, both sides will likely get back to something resembling business as it was before the Trump era.
“There are longstanding operational benefits to maintaining a fairly robust security cooperation relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Wasser said, “and I think those operational needs will win out in the long run.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould is the Congress reporter for Defense News.