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Cautiously Optimistic: The Biden Administration’s Options in Yemen

The Biden administration’s options on Yemen are limited and come at high political risk at home and in the region.
Fernando Carvajal, Yemen war, Biden administration Middle East policy, Biden administration Yemen, Biden administration Iran nuclear deal, Trump administration Middle East policy, Biden administration domestic pressure, how will Biden administration differ from Trump on Middle East, US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden foreign policy predictions

Joe Biden, New York City, New York, 1/7/2020 © Ron Adar / Shutterstock

November 16, 2020 12:28 EDT

As Joe Biden is declared US president-elect, expectations vary from pessimism on the left and among experts in the Middle East to optimism over lessons learned. In the US, the left has already sent the first warnings on expectations, focused on foreign policy and singling out Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen. The coalition that brought victory for the Democratic Party included major progressive members of Congress, a segment that opposes US support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, among other priorities.

For Yemen, No Consistent EU Policy in Sight


Yemeni-Americans have also raised expectations for the Biden administration, as part of the coalition that won the crucial state of Michigan. Mounting pressure at home will undoubtedly drive a number of opportunities to advance efforts to de-escalate the conflict and restart peace talks in Yemen soon after Inauguration Day in January next year.   

Unique Approach

The current administration’s policy in the Middle East has exonerated Arab regimes both at home and in the region. As reality sinks in on a Biden presidency, concern grows among both President Donald Trump’s supporters and American progressives over the potential for a Biden pivot toward more intrusive Obama-era policies and limited access to weapons purchases. Biden would shift from the Trump administration’s policy to a reciprocal relationship maintained with Gulf monarchies based on access to weapons in exchange for mutually beneficial public gestures of cooperation while balancing tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Observes highlight the pressure from some in Biden’s own camp demanding significant departure from Trump’s approach to relationships with the Arab regimes, in particular.

Critics of the current administration underline the manner in which Trump’s hands-off approach and business interests served to prolong the war in Yemen and turned a blind eye to possible international humanitarian law violations. Focus remains on the personal relationship between Trump family members and Arab officials, marginalizing the work by US diplomats and defense officials. This approach will definitely not continue under a Biden administration, raising concern among Arab leaders over access to the president and control over their own institutions. While observers acknowledge these concerns, they highlight the persistent reliance on US cooperation amid growing economic and security vulnerabilities in the region. Iran remains a top priority for both sides following an end of UN sanctions.     

While Biden’s potentially unique approach — a more pragmatic agenda than that employed during President Barack Obama’s second term — will rattle relations with the Gulf monarchies, his pivot could lead to substantial progress on Yemen’s peace process. There are three main reasons a Biden presidency encourages such positive expectations.

One, progressive members of Congress such as senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy, Representative Ro Khanna and even the Republican Senator Mike Lee are expected to pressure the Biden administration on weapons sales and on criticism of Saudi Arabia. This group will undoubtedly be joined by the so-called Squad — Democratic House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilham Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — all staunch critics of Gulf regimes.

Second, Biden will most likely prioritize a return to talks with Iran to rescue the nuclear deal abandoned by President Trump. Saudi Arabia and Israel will again aim to influence the Biden administration to limit concessions made to Tehran. Third, a Biden administration would prioritize reengagement with the European Union and the NATO alliance, addressing, among many other issues, relations with Turkey and the situation in Iraq and Syria at a highly volatile time and amid a growing threat from Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in Western Europe. These issues cannot ignore the role of Iran in the region as the one-year anniversary of the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani approaches.       

Under Pressure at Home

Joe Biden’s victory signaled an astounding rejection of President Donald Trump, delivered by a wide-ranging coalition of Democrats, progressives and moderate Republicans. Among these are the likes of Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all holding significant leverage over the incoming administration. This pressure is not confined to domestic issues, with foreign policy also featuring high on priorities for Sanders and Warren during their own presidential bids.

Relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, embroiled in the conflict with Qatar and the war in Yemen, will definitely face mounting challenges. Biden is not just seen as a repudiation of the Trump approach to the region, but also as an extension of the Obama legacy. When Biden served as President Obama’s vice president, he witnessed the change of the guard in Saudi Arabia from the late King Abdullah to King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, and will find a much different Saudi Arabia, now nearly five years now under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The crown prince now holds the defense portfolio, with his brother Khaled as his deputy, and in charge of the Yemen file. Both Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Khaled have visited the White House and maintained direct communications with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The personal relationships that granted Saudi Arabia reprieve following the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago and the mounting accusations of war crimes in Yemen will not exist in a Biden administration.

It is important to keep in mind that the Powers Act is among the issues carrying over from the Trump era. The most recent fight in Congress aimed at limiting Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran, but we must recall that Senator Sanders was among a number of members of Congress who criticized President Obama and Vice President Biden for supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the start of the Yemen conflict in March 2015. President Biden would have two options in the emerging political environment: either negotiate a deal with progressives in the Democratic Party, pledging to not go soft on Saudi Arabia and halt weapons sales or face an embarrassing scenario where members of his own party, joined by Republicans looking to obstruct his administration as much as possible, move to limit his powers and publicly undermine his foreign policy options.

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As opposed to Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which emboldened their roles in Libya and Yemen, a Biden presidency under pressure from the Democratic left would undercut leverage of Gulf monarchies vis-à-vis actors on the ground in Yemen, for example. In response to increasing unpredictability in recent months, Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government of Yemen resisted pressure to announce a new cabinet following the agreement in August between President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the pro-secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) until after the US presidential election. Saudi Arabia and President Hadi hedged their bets on a second Trump term, which would grant both leverage over the STC and advance a more favorable composition of the cabinet. It is still likely that a new cabinet is formed before the end of 2020, as the STC knows its relationship with the UAE could also change under a US administration that is more engaged and looking to de-escalate the conflict upon taking office.

Iran has not sat idly on the sidelines either and has perhaps positioned itself far better than its regional rivals. The arrival of a new ambassador to Sanaa in mid-October signaled a major escalation in diplomatic relations. Hassan Eyrlou, reportedly “an IRGC member tied to Lebanese Hizballah,” was smuggled into Sanaa from Oman during the latest prisoner exchange between Houthis and the government of Yemen that included two US nationals. This move aggravated relations between Saudi Arabia and the office of the UN special envoy to Yemen as local officials accused the current UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, of complicity in the violation of the embargo. Iran has grown bolder in publicly acknowledging its relations with Houthis since the signing of a defense cooperation agreement in December 2019 in Tehran.

No Straight Path

Iran has positioned itself within the Arabian Peninsula in a manner in which it can exploit substantial leverage on a Biden pivot away from the current US approach in the region. The regime in Tehran, more so than Houthis in Sanaa, has managed to prove to the international community that it can operate around Saudi and Emirati defense posture and expand its political and military spheres to advance its interests. Whether it is a military confrontation under Trump or a diplomatic test under Biden, Iran has secured enough leverage to negotiate under favorable terms.

Yemeni observers agree that Ambassador Eyrlou was not the only one smuggled from Muscat. The tactic used is fairly well known, as a number of Iranian officials and Houthi elements travel to and from Sanaa by air, bypassing the long road from Sanaa to Mareb, Sayyun and the Mahra-Oman border. While no one is yet suggesting flights serve to smuggle weapons, drones or missiles, observers don’t doubt smaller components such as batteries, computer chips or radar components are transported to Sanaa. The trend in both smuggling operations and attacks by Houthis on Saudi territory has involved the use of smaller drones, along with deployment of short-range ballistic missiles and weaponized over-the-counter drones on positions held by the Yemeni army and coalition troops along various battle fronts.

This complicates the circumstances for the Biden administration as well as the position held by progressives in Congress aiming to halt weapon sales to Gulf allies. The military threat posed by Iran, and now by the Houthis, has long been used by Israel and Saudi Arabia to justify their role in the war in Yemen and in the procurement of weapons systems, both defensive and offensive. In order to rally support from Gulf allies for reengagement with the Iran nuclear deal, Joe Biden will have to reassure allies of pressure on Iran to de-escalate and rein in the Houthis in Sanaa. Both demands will come at a very high price.

Tehran will insist on the UN expanding the table and include the Iranian regime as a power broker in peace negotiations under Griffiths. The aim is not just to act as a counterweight in negotiations but to ensure a role in organizing a final solution to the conflict in Yemen that advances its interests and maintains Houthis within its sphere of influence. This is problematic for Mohammed bin Salman, who aims to recreate Saudi influence in Yemen as his uncles did since the end of the revolution in North Yemen in 1967.

It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia provided monthly stipends to Yemeni officials, including members of the Al Houthi family, for decades until the start of the Youth Uprising in 2011. For instance, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a member of Yemen’s parliament, helped the Saleh regime fight secessionists in 1994 and was involved in the settlement of the Saudi-Yemeni border agreement of 2000, all while receiving financial assistance from Saudi Arabia.

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On the other hand, while Houthis greatly benefit from the international recognition granted by Iran, they don’t necessarily see eye to eye on Iran’s role beyond providing military assistance. Houthis continue to insist on their sovereignty and reject claims by Saudi Arabia and other rivals that they are Tehran’s puppets, while a number of Iranian officials have publicly announced that “Sana’a is the fourth Arab capital in [their] hands.” In order for the Houthis to accept any deal on a ceasefire, they will insist on direct talks with Saudi Arabia prior to the start of any comprehensive peace talks with President Hadi and the STC. This is not only a problem for Iran but mainly a non-starter for President Hadi and his government. Both Iran and Hadi fear a secret deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis will undermine their long-term interests in Yemen, and Hadi particularly fears being removed as president as part of the agreement.

It would be difficult to convince Iran to abandon Sanaa as part of the process to reengage with the nuclear deal, but it is not impossible. In partnership with European allies who hold deep economic interests in advancing relations with Iran, the Biden administration could ideally negotiate an Iranian exit from Sanaa, knowing the regime will maintain a low-level presence. Unilateral sanctions against Iranian entities remain an option for the US, and, under a more pragmatic Biden administration, European allies would be less reluctant to join in order to exert further pressure on Iran to comply. Joe Biden would hold on to Trump-era sanctions as a carrot, which would also serve to assure both Israel and Saudi Arabia that he is not willing to let Iran off the hook easily.

Other Options

The war in Yemen is now near its seventh year, and the Houthis continue to hold the upper hand on the ground. Yet even with gains against the coalition and Yemen’s National Army, Houthis also recognize there is no final solution through military victory. Houthis are suffering economically and know the limited support they receive can always be bargained away for greater interests. The economics of the war have also had a great impact on the UAE, forcing it to withdraw its troops from southern Yemen and the west coast in 2019 primarily as result of budget constraints, which have also affected relations with the STC and its affiliated security forces. Saudi Arabia has also felt the pinch from the financial support for President Hadi’s government, financing the war against the Houthis and weapons purchases from the US to strengthen its defense throughout the kingdom, all at a time of economic uncertainty.

There is no doubt the Biden administration will be pressured to end support for the war on Yemen on day one. Its options are limited and come at high political risk at home and in the region. European allies, who have proven limited in their influence since the signing of the Stockholm plan in December 2018, also want to see progress in the peace process. Ultimately, there is no doubt that if any of these efforts are to succeed, Yemenis must bear the bulk of the responsibility to secure progress and deter potential spoilers along the way. There is no way Joe Biden can secure progress through diplomacy alone if the parties on the ground do more to protect their individual interests than advancing peace and relief to millions of impoverished Yemenis facing famine and outbreaks of infectious disease throughout the country.

While a number of Yemeni actors have reached out to Russia, it is unlikely that President Vladimir Putin is willing to play a major role in the conflict. Russia is expected to continue playing a role at the UN Security Council, where the UK is the penholder on Yemen, primarily blocking the expansion of mandates or a new round of sanctions on individuals. On the UN track, Martin Griffiths is the third UN envoy to Yemen and is on his third year in the post, and he’s come under increasing criticism by all parties, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Under such conditions, a Biden administration could see an opportunity to reintroduce a plan drafted by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016 that could marginalize the UN in the process. Griffiths is close to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and both would fight to maintain the UN as the host of any peace talks, but it is unlikely the US would expend much political capital to hand over the process to the UN. It is difficult to predict if the UN can maintain its high-profile role in Yemen, or if it is time to introduce a new neutral broker who can better balance relations between actors to restart comprehensive dialogue toward a peace agreement.

*[This article was cross-posted on the author’s blog, Diwan.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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