To Stabilize Yemen, the United States Must Stop Selling Arms to Saudi Arabia

Two bills now before Congress would block a proposed $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. That won’t end the war in Yemen, but it’s a necessary start. Progressive lawmakers should join Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders in supporting the bills.

Yemeni children play in the rubble of a building destroyed by an air raid in 2019. (Peter Biro / European Union)

Earlier this month, US representative Ilhan Omar introduced a resolution that would bar the sale of $650 million of arms to Saudi Arabia. Days later, Senator Rand Paul, joined by senators Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders, followed suit. “As the Saudi government continues to wage its devastating war in Yemen and repress its own people, we should not be rewarding them with more arms sales,” said Sanders of the bipartisan bill.

Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi faction in Yemen has begun to grind to a halt, with the kingdom hunting for a way out. Nevertheless, the situation on the ground, one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, has only worsened. The proposed arms sales are consistent with the Joe Biden administration’s policy of publicly opposing Saudi actions while continuing to implicitly support the Saudi military. The two resolutions before Congress are a welcome shift and should be ardently supported by progressive lawmakers and indeed anyone on the Left.

The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

In 2015, responding to the takeover of Yemen’s capital Sana’a by the rebel Houthi group, Saudi Arabia’s fresh and untested crown prince Mohammed bin Salman launched what would become his centerpiece policy, Operation Decisive Storm, which rapidly transformed the Yemeni Civil War into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Seven years later, the military situation is approaching a potentially brutal stalemate, while conditions in Yemen remain what United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — an ongoing catastrophe of collapsed infrastructure, disease, and potential famine. The Houthis share culpability, having targeted civilians and blocked humanitarian aid, but the worst of the war’s devastation has resulted from the Saudi bombing campaign and naval blockade.

Saudi planes have flagrantly attacked soft targets like weddings, funerals, and schools — perhaps most notoriously bombing a school bus in 2018 in an attack that killed dozens of children. Civilian infrastructure ranging from hospitals and power plants to fisheries and even farms has also been bombed extensively, damaging not only medical and energy infrastructure but also Yemen’s sparse domestic food supply. As Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, the situation was worsened even further by the Saudi naval blockade of the country’s major ports, which prevented food, medicine, and construction material from entering the country for years.

The result has been a famine threatening nearly 20 million people and a cholera epidemic unprecedented in the modern era. Given the outsize role of the Saudi military in creating the situation, some scholars have even characterized the crisis as a genocide. For their part, the Saudis allege that they have ended the embargo, but major ports remain blockaded, and their commitment to improving the situation is dubious at best, especially now that the Houthis’ territorial gains directly threaten Saudi Arabia’s border regions.

No Arms, No Excuses

The Saudi intervention would have been largely impossible if they had not enjoyed extensive support from the United States every step of the way under the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. Until Biden finally reversed course in 2021, the United States provided the Saudis with vital logistical support: mid-air refueling of Saudi bombers, targeting information, repairs and maintenance for the Saudi air force, and perhaps most critically, billions of dollars of arms sales. Mid-air refueling ended in 2018, and Biden’s decision concluded the United States’ formal support for what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Saudi “offensive operations.”

Biden’s administration has rested on the distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons to justify continuing extensive arms sales. The president’s personal relationship with Mohammed bin Salman is rocky, but his staff have largely avoided taking any serious steps against Saudi Arabia’s worsening domestic repression and are floundering at finding a diplomatic solution to the Houthi-Saudi conflict, which may be metastasizing into an even worse new form. While Iran did not initially directly support the Houthis, they entered the war in response to the Saudi intervention — and what began as a civil war could now stretch to a decades-long proxy conflict if the Houthis take the country.

Unfortunately, Biden’s approach to the Yemen conflict is consistent with the rest of his governance on foreign policy. He has shown little inclination to seriously confront the abuses of US power abroad, preferring to loudly retreat from wars that were already lost while continuing to support the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. The United States’ secret and semi-secret bombing campaigns against jihadi militant groups in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa have continued largely uninterrupted. Like the Saudi war, these campaigns are of questionable strategic value and have worsened civil wars and exacerbated humanitarian crises; the Saudi war is only the most blatant example.

Biden’s foreign policy team at the State Department and Pentagon also face potential conflicts of interest when it comes to reducing or halting arms sales. Major figures across Biden’s foreign policy team have well-documented ties to military contractors and think tanks funded by the arms industry. His secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, was even seated on the board of Raytheon prior to accepting Biden’s appointment.

According to the dominant school of thought among Biden’s staff, accepting money from arms companies is not a fundamentally compromising position, because weapons are a necessary tool of statecraft. They clearly do not believe that adding more weapons to the Yemeni conflict is destabilizing, or that even being provided with “defensive” weapons to protect against Houthi attacks on Saudi soil may discourage Saudi Arabia from seeking a negotiated end to the conflict.

Continuing arms sales under these conditions sends the wrong message to all actors. It indicates that the United States is not serious about seeking an end to the war and is willing to continue to shovel money into what is potentially the deadliest ongoing conflict in the world.

Given the inadequacy of the actions taken by the administration, it falls to the public to push for a change in course — and an important tool at our disposal is the legislature. Paul’s and Omar’s joint resolutions will not end the war, but they are a positive and worthwhile attempt to introduce more congressional oversight over arms sales, which would at least hamper the Saudi war effort.

Even the Saudis are looking for a path out of Yemen. The United States must not provide them with a reason to remain.