Biden declares the end of US funding for a Saudi-led offensive in Yemen

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An elderly man walks past a damaged building in Aden, Yemen, in 2018.

Joe Biden has declared an end to US funding for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen as part of a large reshaping of US foreign policy.

In his first foreign policy speech as President, Biden indicated that the US would no longer be an unquestionable supporter of the Gulf monarchies, announced a more than eightfold rise in the number of refugees the nation would accept, and proclaimed that the days of the President of the United States were over for Vladimir Putin.

“America is back,” Biden said in a statement sent to the State Department, capturing a flurry of major foreign policy shifts since its inauguration on 20 January. “Diplomacy is back in the center of our foreign policy.”

Biden said that the war in Yemen, which killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and displaced 8 million people, “created a humanitarian and strategic disaster.”

“This war has to be over,” Biden said. “And to underscore our commitment, we are putting an end to all US support for war offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”

However, he said that the US will continue to provide Saudi Arabia with defensive support against rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed forces. US forces will also continue operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In order to regain American “moral leadership,” Biden said that he would also restore the US refugee program and announced an executive order that would increase the number of refugees admitted to the US in the first fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration to 125 000. That is higher than the 110,000 approved in the last year of the Obama administration, which had fallen to less than 15,000 in the Trump administration.

As Biden spoke, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) reported that it had canceled a deportation flight to Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while investigating reports of violations by Ice officers against deportees. The announcement marked a major shift in approach after the appointment by the Senate of the current Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas.

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“The moral leadership of the United States on refugee issues has been a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first came here,” Biden said. “We shine the torch, the lamp, the liberation of the oppressed. We give safe havens for those fleeing violence or persecution, and our example has driven other nations to open their doors wide as well.”

Distancing Washington from Riyadh is one of the most notable failures of Donald Trump’s agenda, but it also represents a break with the policies followed by Barack Obama, who backed the Saudi offensive in Yemen, even though he later attempted to place limits on his air war.

The bipartisan majority in Congress had previously voted to cut off funding for the Saudi initiative, citing the civilian death toll and the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But Trump was using his veto to block the change.

The US will also freeze weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and appoint a special envoy to Yemen to place further pressure on the Saudis and the Emirates and the Houthi forces they are battling to conclude a permanent peace agreement.

“We have spoken with both senior officials in the UAE and senior officials in Saudi Arabia,” said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. “We are pursuing a policy of no surprise when it comes to these types of actions.”

Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have viewed Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as a big ally in their effort to cripple Iran. To this end, Pompeo used the emergency powers of the Congress to keep weapons shipments flowing into the Gulf.

Pompeii’s successor, Tony Blinken, on the other hand, spoke bluntly about Saudi guilt in the war in Yemen. To date, more than 25 introduction calls have been made to counterparts around the world, and the Saudi Foreign Minister has not been one of them. Biden’s National Intelligence Chief, Avril Haines, vowed to provide a declassified account of the killing of Khashoggi, which is supposed to incriminate the prince of the Saudi Crown.

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William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, welcomed Biden’s change, but added, “The devil will be in the specifics.

“To be successful, the new policy should put an end to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both proposed and underway, including maintenance and logistical support; increase humanitarian aid to Yemen and reverse the classification of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which severely undermines the capacity of aid groups; and urge Saudi Arabia and the UAE to begin a ceasefire; and negotiate in good faith for an inclusive peace agreement,” Hartung said.

An elderly man walks past a damaged building in Aden, Yemen, in 2018.
An elderly man walks past a damaged building in Aden, Yemen, in 2018. Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Blinken said the terrorist designation of the Houthis, levied by Pompeo in the last days of the Trump administration, will be urgently checked.

If fully adopted, the US decision would raise pressure on the United Kingdom to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The weapons maker Raytheon has also withdrawn some of the orders from his books, as demonstrated by the British Arms Control Select Committee this week.

While the United Kingdom is not officially part of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, it is providing technical assistance to the Saudi Air Force, which the Ministry of Defense says is intended to help Saudi Arabia meet the requirements of humanitarian law.

Anna Stavrianakis, Professor of International Affairs at the University of Sussex, said: “The UK is now in danger of looking even more out of line with EU Member States and potentially with the US, making the UK very alone. In the case of a country that is heavily involved in being seen as at the frontline of the rule of law and multilateral treaties, I think that this is a very risky place for the UK Government to take on itself.”

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Although the United Kingdom would be deeply hesitant to pursue the example of the United States because the United Kingdom has licensed at least £5.4 billion worth of fighter jets, mostly typhoons and missiles, since the air war started in 2015.

The Biden administration has also declared its plan to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, something that Riyadh has vigorously resisted.

Biden authorities, however, have suggested that re-entry could be gradual and difficult, and the President did not discuss it in his address.

Biden suggested that he was going to take a harder stance against Moscow than Trump, who consistently avoided attacking Putin. Though the administration has worked swiftly to expand the New Start weapons control deal with Russia, the president has made it clear that it will not deter Washington from repressing Russian threats and human rights violations.

“I have made it clear to President Putin that I am very different from my predecessor, and the days of the United States are over in the face of Russia’s hostile acts – interference with our democracy, cyber threats, poisoning its people. We would not hesitate to increase the cost to Russia and protect the fundamental interests of our people,” said the President.

Biden’s first keynote address on international policy was delivered at the State Department, in a gesture of gratitude to US diplomats who were frequently described as a hostile “deep state” by Donald Trump.

“You are at the heart of everything I want to do. You’re at the heart of it,” Biden said to US diplomats and civil servants. “And in our administration, you will be trusted and empowered to do your job.”