Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely seek alternative arms suppliers if the administration of US President Joe Biden follows through on canceling arms shipments to the Arab Gulf countries.
In Biden’s first major foreign policy speech on Feb. 4, he announced the end of American military support for Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen, while saying that Washington would terminate offensive arms sales that could be used to conduct their operations in Yemen. He did not, however, specify which systems would be blocked.
Biden also announced the appointment of a new envoy for Yemen, veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who will aid the U.N.-led diplomatic process to end the civil war between the Houthi movement and the internationally recognized President Mansoor Hadi. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department signaled that it is beginning the review of the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.
- In January, the State Department froze several arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia after the deals were approved in the final months of the Trump administration. Those arms sales include $478 million in precision-guided munitions, which have been used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as well as high-profile, advanced weapons systems for the United Arab Emirates.
- The Biden administration has not yet clarified what it meant by “offensive” weapons systems. But Raytheon, the producer of the precision-guided munitions, said it expects munitions to at least be blocked.
- Both the Biden administration and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that the United States would continue cooperating with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in counterterrorism operations in Yemen targeting the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Defensive intelligence, arms sales and cooperation, will also continue.
Despite the potential economic costs to U.S. firms, human rights and the end-use of U.S.-produced weapons platforms will remain key drivers in Washington’s calculus for both current and future arms deals to Arab Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ numerous human rights violations, as well as their conduct in regional proxy theaters like Yemen and Libya, have fueled bipartisan support in Congress for reviewing Washington’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
These dynamics will continue to hamper future arms deals between the United States and its Arab Gulf allies. However, the White House is likely balancing its emerging policy with the multi-billion-dollar value of the current deals and the impact of their loss on American defense jobs. Moreover, the new administration does not want to signal that it is scaling back its support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are both longstanding U.S. allies — particularly in the face of Iranian harassment in the region.
- The frozen arms sale to the United Arab Emirates is worth around $23 billion and includes advanced F-35 fighter jets. The deal reflects deepening U.S.-UAE defense ties and was granted by the Trump administration as a reward for Abu Dhabi normalizing its ties with Israel. The Biden White House supports normalization and still wants close ties with the United Arab Emirates, which serves as both a key base for U.S. military operations in the Arab Gulf, as well as a close counterterrorism partner in Yemen.
- In 2018, Congress voted to end U.S. military support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen amid the public uproar over the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Congress also attempted to block an $8 billion emergency arms transfer to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in May 2019, but was overridden by then-President Trump.
The United Kingdom and France could serve as alternative suppliers if the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia lose access to certain U.S. weapons systems. Both Paris and London have long-standing defense relationships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. They also have yet to signal a willingness to go as far as the United States in blocking arms transfers to the Arab Gulf countries for their conduct in Yemen.
- Riyadh and Abu Dhabi operate a number of U.K.- and French-built weapons systems. The Emirati and Saudi air forces, for example, have the French-made Mirage 2000 and the U.K.-built Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets, respectively. Both London and Paris were willing to continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi assassination, despite criticism from human rights groups and protests in both European countries.
- After Biden’s recent statement on ending offensive arms deals, the United Kingdom said it would continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia based on current British licensing requirements. U.K. weapon sales have recently survived British court challenges that briefly interrupted arms exports to Riyadh in 2019.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh may also build on their budding defense relationships with China and Russia, though doing so could strain their diplomatic relations with the United States, who will remain the paramount arms supplier for both Arab Gulf states.
- Both China and Russia are attempting to gain access to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s lucrative arms contracts. China has already sold unmanned aerial vehicles to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and is also reportedly developing a ballistic missile system with the former. Russia, meanwhile, has claimed the United Arab Emirates has shown interest in the Russian-built Su-57 stealth fighter in the past. Moscow has also offered its S-400 missile system to various Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
- However, Chinese and Russian arms sales could inspire U.S. pushback. The United States recently sanctioned Turkey for purchasing Russia’s S-400 system, though it has not signaled that Chinese drones or even the Saudi-Chinese ballistic missile program rise to the same level of concern as high-profile, advanced weapons systems like the S-400.
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