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US should lift ban on offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia

US should lift ban on offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia

 


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The United States is expected to lift its ban on the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, potentially in the coming weeks, according to U.S. officials.

US President Joe Biden suspended the sale of these weapons to the kingdom three years ago, shortly after entering the White House, criticizing the conduct of the kingdom's war in Yemen, amid concerns over the use of US-made weapons in airstrikes that killed civilians.

But the decision is under review after the UN negotiated a truce in 2022, which has largely held as Riyadh seeks to extricate itself from Yemen's civil war, which it entered nine years ago.

Lifting the ban would be the latest sign of improving ties between the Biden administration and Riyadh.

Washington has already signaled to Saudi Arabia, traditionally one of the biggest buyers of US weapons, that it is prepared to lift the ban, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The White House declined to comment.

Biden came to power promising to make Saudi Arabia a pariah over concerns about human rights in the kingdom, notably after the brutal 2018 killing of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in his consulate in Istanbul.

During the 2019 election campaign, Biden also accused the Saudis of killing children, apparently referring to the war in Yemen, in which thousands of people have been killed.

But relations have improved significantly since then, particularly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine reinforced Washington's belief that it needed Saudi Arabia's cooperation on key issues, including l energy, and to support American policy in the Middle East.

Senior U.S. officials said this week that Washington and Riyadh were close to finalizing a series of bilateral agreements, including a defense pact and U.S. cooperation on the kingdom's nascent civilian nuclear program.

The agreements would be part of a broader U.S.-brokered deal that would lead Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, but it depends on the Jewish state agreeing to take steps toward creating of a Palestinian state.

The lifting of the ban on offensive arms sales was not directly related to those negotiations, U.S. officials said.

Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition that entered Yemen's civil war in 2015 to fight the Iran-backed Houthis after the rebels overthrew the government and took control of Sanaa, the capital, as well as most of the populated north of the country.

The kingdom, which shares a border with Yemen, has drawn widespread criticism for its conduct in the conflict. But in recent years, Riyadh has engaged in peace talks with the Houthis as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has focused on his ambitious domestic development plans and de-escalating tensions with regional foes, including Iran.

Progress in Yemen negotiations was stalled after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian militant group in Gaza. The Houthis, part of Iran's so-called axis of resistance, have launched missiles at Israel and attacked ships in the Red Sea, disrupting flows through one of the world's main maritime trade routes.

Washington designated the rebels a global terrorist group in January, reversing a 2021 decision to delist the movement.

But Saudi Arabia continued to engage in a UN-brokered Yemeni peace process. In a sign that it did not want to escalate tensions with the Houthis, Riyadh did not join a U.S.-led maritime task force designed to counter their attacks on shipping.

In Washington, regional hostilities sparked by the war between Israel and Hamas have reinforced the Biden administration's belief that it needs Saudi Arabia as a key regional partner.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator close to the royal court, said lifting the ban on offensive arms sales would be an important step in continuing to rebuild relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia .

And lifting the ban has become more important given the way the Houthis have behaved since October 7, he added.

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