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Biden Freezes U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, U.A.E.

By Warren P. Strobel
Wednesday January 27, 2021

The administration of President Biden, pictured Wednesday, wants to ensure that U.S. weapons aren’t used in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. PHOTO: MANDEL NGAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Biden administration has imposed a temporary freeze on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it reviews billions of dollars in weapons transactions approved by former President Donald Trump, according to U.S. officials.

The review, the officials said, includes the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, as well as top-line F-35 fighters to Abu Dhabi, a deal that Washington approved as part of the Abraham Accords, in which the Emirates established diplomatic relations with Israel.

U.S. officials said it isn’t unusual for a new administration to review arms sales approved by a predecessor, and that despite the pause, many of the transactions are likely to ultimately go forward.

But in line with campaign pledges made by President Biden, Washington is seeking to ensure that American weapons aren’t used to further the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, where its conflict with the Iranian-aligned Houthis has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and widespread hunger.

Mr. Biden “has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his confirmation hearing last week. Washington will continue to help defend the Saudis against Houthi attacks, Mr. Blinken said.

In a Twitter post, the UAE embassy in Washington said, “As in previous administrations, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration.”

The embassy said the F-35s represent a deterrent to aggression in the region. “In parallel with new dialogue and security cooperation, it helps to reassure regional partners,” the embassy said.

Officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington didn’t comment on the developments.

Congress and the U.S. defense industry were informed of the review in recent days, one U.S. official said. It isn’t known how long the review will last.

Officials couldn’t offer a precise dollar figure for the weapons sales under review. But the review, they said, includes a $23 billion deal between Washington and the Emirates for the F-35 jet fighters, Reaper drones and various munitions that was finalized on Mr. Trump’s last full day in office, according to a statement on the website of the UAE’s Washington embassy.

It also includes billions in contracts with Riyadh, including a deal for $290 million in precision-guided munitions that the U.S. government approved in late December.

“The [State] Department is temporarily pausing the implementation of some pending U.S. defense transfers and sales under Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales to allow incoming leadership an opportunity to review,” a department spokesman said.

Calling it “a routine administrative action,” the spokesman said the review “demonstrates the administration’s commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring U.S. arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable and more capable security partners.”

Mr. Biden has come under pressure from fellow Democrats in Congress to follow through on his campaign promises of a blunter approach to Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In a letter to Mr. Blinken delivered late Tuesday, House Democrats urged the administration to freeze delivery of offensive weapons to the Saudis, and take other steps.

“We encourage the administration to take quick, corrective action to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and to intensify U.S. diplomacy in support of a political settlement,” said the letter, signed by four House committee chairmen and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D., N.J.), a former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.

Mr. Biden, however, may need Riyadh’s help in confronting Iran and its proxies in the Middle East. And Saudi Arabia has been attacked twice in recent days in strikes believed launched by Iranian-backed forces in the region.

During Mr. Trump’s tenure, Congress tried to block his administration from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, efforts that the president vetoed.

Write to Warren P. Strobel at [email protected]


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