Biden administration to withdraw U.S. funding from Saudi over Yemen 

Biden administration to withdraw U.S. funding from Saudi over Yemen 

By | Rachel Brooks

February 4, 2021 

Analysis 

Image credit: “File:Old Sanaa, Yemen (10035455156).jpg” by Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

On the streets of Old Sanaa…

As it was announced that the Biden administration would withdraw U.S. defense funding to Saudi over the Yemeni crisis, citing human rights abuses, Republic Underground news sought perspectives from analysts of various backgrounds. Below is a series of four interviews with a research director, a gepolitical analyst and human rigths lawyer, a Yemeni writer and researcher, and an Iranian activist.

Brandon Friedman, at the Moshe Dayan Center, shares his professional opinion

Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center, was a bit skeptical of the efficacy of Saudi Arabia’s role as a conflict mediator in the years post 2015. 

“Saudi previously held the chief role as the mediator in the Middle East,” said Friedman, noting that, since the 2015 intervention of the U.S. Saudi Arabia hasn’t been as much of a diplomatic mediator as it has been an active participant in the political struggle of the region’s conflict riddled region. 

This was the result of the Obama-era of American diplomacy, which enforced a “responsibility-doctrine” or the political doctrine that the Middle East should take responsibility for its regional conflicts, and not rely on the United States as its defense provider. Friedman noted that Saudi Arabia took the mentality of having to fend for itself in this era. At that time, Saudi Arabia, under the power shift within the monarchy, took a new approach toward pushing back against Iran. Under the leadership of the Crown Prince, the KSA took a much stronger stance against Iran, which Friedman noted has been a slight departure from previous diplomatic approaches. 

As the Biden administration’s policies toward the Gulf remain stiff, some question his future approach toward the Abraham Accords and the normalization process. Since the accords were signed, the world stage has looked on wondering how Saudi Arabia would approach a public rapprochement with Israel, taking the position as a tribal and spiritual leader of all the Arab States. While this rapprochement has continued behind the scenes for some time, a public acknowledgment and formal opening of normalization with Israel would require a catalyst. Friedman noted two possible catalysts of this. 

“The potential for Israel rapprochement is entirely up to the Saudi royal family. We are unlikely to see normalization with Israel at this time, but there are two caveats to that. If Biden picks a fight with Saudi, Saudi may normalize its relationship with Israel to blunt the force of that,” said Friedman, noting with confidence that the U.S. and Saudi relationship had not reached a place where this scenario was likely. 

“Secondly, Saudi might normalize with Israel if the Iran crisis were to escalate,” said Friedman

This situation may be the more likely of the two, as the normalization of ties between the Arab states and Israel was largely due to the escalation of tension within the Islamic Republic. 

Tensions within the fall-out of the return to the JCPOA may likewise prompt an escalation of Iran issues, in which case Friedman’s second scenario becomes more likely. He noted that the Biden administration appears to be deprioritizing its approach to the Middle East entirely. Friedman also stated that Biden’s administration sees a return to the JCPOA agreement as a means to this goal’s end. Friedman noted that Biden’s priority to return to the JCPOA will be even above any American intervention in the Syria conflict, which is a complex human rights issue that looms over Biden’s administration. 

When asked about the Biden administration’s tendency to reverse his predecessors’ policies toward the Syrian conflict and the Assad regime, Friedman noted an undercurrent of American incoherence in the region up until this point. 

“There wasn’t much coherence to the former policies. It was more like America was avoiding the crisis,” said Friedman, noting that Obama had put policies in place in Syria that reflected his responsibility-doctrine, and Trump was not swift to reverse them. 

“The Biden administration is signaling that it won’t devote more resources to MENA, which is not a great recipe for changing the outcome of the Syrian civil war. He has far greater priorities, so I don’t see a scenario where Biden reverses former policies in Syria,” said Friedman. 

Friedman also noted the Biden administration’s logic in returning to the JCPOA agreement. 

“I tend to see interest in returning to the JCPOA as the administration’s urgent priority here. The Biden administration thinks of the JCPOA as a way to put Iran back into the nuclear box, to deprioritize the Middle East, and to pivot the focus of the American attention toward the Indo-Pacific and other areas.” 

Irina Tsukerman, a national security analyst based in New York, shared a direct counter-opinion

While Friedman was a bit skeptical of Saudi in the current status of Middle East diplomacy, and saw Biden’s administration as going after a means-to-an-end sort of JCPOA agreement renewal, Tsukerman believed that the Biden motives were far more negatively complex.

“It is not so much that Biden necessarily deprioritizes the Middle East, as he is prioritizing the JCPOA. The implications of the return to negotiations may be profound not only for Saudi Arabia but for the U.S. interests. The freezing and the attempted discreditation of the Ansar Allah Foreign Terrorist Organization designation sends a signal both to Iran and to the Saudis and UAE. U.S. abandonment of Trump and even Obama policies invite China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s increased influence in the region, endangers international trade going through the Strait of Hormuz, and increases security risk for business and travel of any kind. Those who believe that the rapprochement by UAE and Bahrain with Israel is only about Iran are profoundly mistaken. 

The reorientation of U.S. policies towards Iran and the overall American disinterest in the region also means these countries may be looking for new trade partners. Israel is one of them, on many more issues than just defense. The U.S. is pushing these countries away from the potential to increase trade and other business with the U.S., not that it had ever fully taken advantage of those opportunities.

Still, while Israel is capable of defending itself and the region, even in league with GCC states it cannot alone take on Iran and all of its proxies. The hundreds of thousands of missiles saved up by Hezbullah alone are not to be discounted. The threats from the Houthis, the Iraqi militias, and the Iranian contingent in Syria means Israel is encircled by Iran on multiple fronts. Hamas can choose to reengage in active combat when it sees that Israel is weakened by internal political crises or distracted by other threats.

The UAE and Bahrain can add value as allies in a defense arrangement, and the Saudis will continue flying limited combat missions with Israel, but ultimately the idea that the Abraham Accords are in any way a full substitute for the U.S. presence are delusional. And everyone understands that. Whether Saudis normalize with Israel or not also has no bearings on the security and defense implications of Biden’s normalization with Iran, for the same reasons.

The September 2019 attack on ARAMCO demonstrated that the Saudi defense is not yet at a level that it can be a fully independent force ready to take on Iran and its proxies; an incoherent alliance that has only limited opportunities to train openly even when fully normalized will have limited impact on a well-integrated asymmetrical force that Iran is creating. It will be good for business, for creating a better culture of friendly relations in the region; normalization with Israel will be economically valuable, but if the only reason for that step is a defense against Iran, then this should have been done 20 years ago. Starting now would already be too late, because Iran is so far ahead of the game, even when weakened by sanctions.”

Regarding the Yemen crisis, Dr. Dashela, a Yemeni writer and academic researcher, remained hopeful 

Biden’s administration continued this “responsibility doctrine” mentality by withdrawing resources from Saudi’s mediation of the Yemen conflict. Tsukerman’s analysis showed a grimer reality for the region, as the U.S. initiates an ill-informed rapprochement with Iran. Yet,  Dr. Adel Dashela remained hopeful the U.S. would remain friendly with Saudi. Dashela described what the change in military funding would mean for the Yemen crisis. 

“What the implications are of the Biden administration’s decision to cut funds to Saudi, as we have heard is soon to be announced, over the Yemen crisis. This decision means that America will stop its military support. In the past, this military support did not succeed in ending the Houthi coup. Therefore, this decision won’t end the war in Yemen. This decision will cause Saudi Arabia to reconsider its military operations in Yemen,” said Dr. Dashela. 

He then noted how America needs to refocus on the Yemeni civil war crisis and see it beyond the lens of a proxy conflict between the KSA and Iran. 

 “We need Biden’s administration to see Yemen from the lens of Yemenis, not Saudi- Iran conflict. Since the beginning of the Yemeni conflict, the American intervention in Yemen has remained relatively limited, and the US has tried to be close to all the conflict parties. A strong American push is needed to end the military coup in Sana’a and launch political talks.” 

Dr. Dashela also voiced confidence in the strength of the Saudi-U.S. relationship, despite Biden’s negative rhetoric toward Saudi. 

“What will the Saudis response likely be if the Biden administration continues to take a negative approach to them during his administration? Firstly, we must know that Saudi Arabia will still be an important ally to the United States. I do not think that Biden’s administration will continue to take a negative approach to them during his administration. 

If Biden continues to take a negative approach that means Saudis will try to end the war in Yemen and try to get American support to protect its national security. In general, we hope this decision is the first step to end the war in our country Yemen. In my opinion, America can play an important role and push for a political solution. However, lasting peace in Yemen will only be achieved if the root causes of the conflict are addressed. Durable peace requires an end of the regional military support to such armed groups, criminalizing Houthi’s theocratic theory, disarming militias, and the return of state institutions to normal functioning. We do not want a political solution that harms Yemenis.” 

Iranian activist Potkin Azarmehr puts a light on the IRGC’s “trojan horse” 

While Dashela seemed optimistic, the Biden administration’s tendency to “deprioritize” the Middle East and to seek rapprochement with Iran, a known backer of the Houthi rebellion, may add complications to this process. Based upon Tsukerman’s analysis, the possible second outcome Dr. Dashela highlights, where Saudi must take matters into its own hands concerning Yemen, becomes more likely. 

The Biden administration’s left-leaning policy toward western tolerance may contribute to this shift away from American influence in the region. Likewise, a Biden-oriented negative response to Saudi-led follow up intervention is liable to have negative consequences.

American influence has been swayed and jeopardized through what Iran activist Potkin Azarmehr described as a politically naive approach to Iran. He detailed the Iranian regime’s tendency to exploit said tolerance to suit its agendas. 

“The Islamic Republic has learned how to exploit the loopholes provided by western democracy and tolerance. They have been cultivating on building and extending their network under the guise of religious freedoms for four decades now,” said Azarmehr. 

“This network is the trojan horse and the enemy within. It has to be stopped and dismantled asap. Once it builds its critical mass which it is very near to doing, it can not be stopped. Again there is no hope of any leadership in the West to dismantle this network, the only hope remains by the people in the West who value their freedoms and their way of life.”

A verdict reached by comparing the four analyses  

From all four analyses, one can conclude that the U.S. must take great measure with its approach and prioritization of the U.S.-MENA relationship. This relationship is perhaps more integral and relevant to the security of the U.S. and the Gulf states than at any other previous period in their shared history.