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US weighs possible resumption of offensive arms sales to Saudis, say sources

July 11, 2022 at 9:48 am

Demonstrators with CodePink protest weapon sales to Saudi Arabia outside the Hart Senate Office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 7, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration is discussing the possible lifting of its ban on US sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, but any final decision is expected to hinge on whether Riyadh makes progress toward ending the war in neighbouring Yemen, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Senior Saudi officials pressed their US counterparts to scrap a policy of selling only defensive arms to its top Gulf partner in several meetings in Riyadh and Washington in recent months, three of the sources said ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom this week.

The internal US deliberations are informal and at an early stage, with no decision imminent, two sources said, and a US official told Reuters there were no discussions on offensive weapons underway with the Saudis “at this time.”

But as Biden prepares for a diplomatically sensitive trip, he has signalled that he is looking to reset strained relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when he wants increased Gulf oil supplies along with closer Arab security ties with Israel to counter Iran.

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At home, any move to rescind restrictions on offensive weapons is sure to draw opposition in Congress, including from Biden’s fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans who have been vocal critics of Saudi Arabia, congressional aides say.

Soon after taking office early last year, Biden adopted a tougher stance over Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, which has inflicted heavy civilian casualties, and Riyadh’s human rights record, in particular the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden, who as a presidential candidate denounced Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” declared in February 2021 a halt to US support for offensive operations in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales.”

Saudi Arabia, the biggest US arms customer, has chafed under those restrictions, which froze the kind of weapons sales that previous US administrations had provided for decades.

Biden’s approach has softened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, which has prompted the United States and other Western countries to appeal to Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, to pump more oil to offset loss of Russian supplies.

Saudi Arabia also won White House praise for agreeing in early June on a two-month extension of a UN-brokered truce in Yemen, scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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Washington would now like to see it turned into a permanent ceasefire.

A person in Washington familiar with the matter said the administration had begun internal discussions about the possibility of removing Saudi weapons restrictions but indicated they had not reached a decision-making stage.

Among the times when Saudi officials raised the request was during Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington in May, according to a second source.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.