For Saudi Arabia, last week’s announcement that the United States will cease support for the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen against Iranian-tied Houthi rebels didn’t come as a surprise.
Saudi leaders were prepared for it.
During the campaign for the White House, President Joe Biden’s team had criticized the Trump administration for handing Saudi Arabia “a blank check” in Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, where more than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in six years of conflict.
Riyadh was careful in its response to the Biden administration’s announcement, welcoming instead Washington’s emphasis on working with allies generally in the region. And the Saudis also didn’t protest when the Biden administration revoked the designation of the Houthis as terrorists, a move urged by relief organizations to help with aid distribution to civilians.
But America’s closest security partner in the Arab world, an ally in the effort to curb the expansion of Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, is still taking stock of where the new administration is heading in its effort to reverse the policy pursued by Biden’s immediate predecessor, Donald Trump.
Democrats faulted Trump for siding with authoritarian leaders abroad in the name of stability. Last week, Biden emphasized in a speech at the State Department that U.S. policy will refocus once again on human rights, diplomacy and democracy.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only Gulf country trying to adjust to the Biden administration and to understand where Washington will now head in its strategy in the Gulf. Gulf leaders want to avoid an early clash with the new administration, say analysts, but are anxious.
In Yemen, there was a response — and not the kind Biden aides had hoped for. The Houthis renewed an offensive to seize the oil-rich city of Marib, and they launched more cross-border drone attacks against Saudi Arabia.
The offensives prompted some Biden critics to warn that the administration’s “end the Yemen war” narrative risks rewarding the Houthis and their backers, Iran.
“Neither halting arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition nor reaching a power-sharing agreement between the Hadi government and the Houthis will end Yemen’s war or mitigate the humanitarian crisis,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research policy organization. Al-Dawsari was referring to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Al-Dawsari worries the administration might try to “push through a shaky deal that will likely be counterproductive.”
Biden’s revocation of the terrorist designation of the Houthis also has been criticized on the grounds the Houthis will perceive it as American weakness. Former Trump administration officials say the Biden administration risks strengthening Iran’s hand in the region.
“From the Houthi perspective, they didn’t have to negotiate to win a major American concession,” tweeted Dave Harden, a former assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “The Houthis thus believe they won the first round of negotiations, without dialogue, meeting, or any concession,” he added.
Other critics see the curtailment of support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as part of the Biden’s administration’s plan to revive the multinational 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was abandoned by Trump.
But Biden aides say they have sought to reassure Saudi Arabia, other Arab Gulf states and Israel that they still see Iran as a malign force in the region, and that the shift toward a more diplomatic approach to Iran — including in Yemen — shouldn’t heighten their concerns over security.
They want to adopt a more holistic strategy in the Gulf, if possible, one that offers incentives, both to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Trying to end the war in Yemen is the first step.
Writing last year before his appointment as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan noted in an article he co-authored in Foreign Affairs magazine that the U.S. should aim to try to reduce rivalry between arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, the source for proxy wars in the region including in Yemen, and to persuade them to share the neighborhood.
The U.S. should also push, Sullivan wrote, “for the establishment of a structured regional dialogue — with support from other members of the United Nations Security Council — that explores ways to reduce tensions, create pathways to de-escalation, and manage mistrust.”
That was the policy aim of Barack Obama’s administration in the Gulf, too. Biden’s foreign policy advisers say the effort to try again is worth it, although they say they are ready for plenty of setbacks.
Source: Voice of America