Exclusive: US plans to resume offensive arms sales to Saudis, sources say

WASHINGTON/RIYADH, July 11 (Reuters) – The Biden administration is discussing the possible lifting of its ban on the sale of offensive weapons by the United States to Saudi Arabia, but any final decision should depend on whether if Riyadh progresses towards ending the war in neighboring countries. Yemen, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Senior Saudi officials have urged their US counterparts to abandon a policy of selling only defensive weapons to its main Gulf partner in several meetings in Riyadh and Washington in recent months, three of the sources said ahead of the Saudi visit. President Joe Biden in the kingdom this week.

Internal U.S. deliberations are informal and at an early stage, with no decision imminent, two sources said, and a U.S. official told Reuters there were no ongoing offensive weapons talks with the Saudis “for the moment”.

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But as Biden prepares for a diplomatically sensitive trip, he has signaled he is seeking to mend strained relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when he wants increased oil supplies from the Gulf as well as Arab security ties. closer with Israel to counter Iran. Read more

At home, any move to roll back restrictions on offensive weapons is sure to draw opposition in Congress, including from Biden’s fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans who have been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia, according to reports. congressional aides.

Shortly after taking office early last year, Biden took a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, which has inflicted heavy civilian casualties, and on Riyadh’s human rights record, particularly the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist and politician. his opponent Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden, who as a presidential candidate denounced Saudi Arabia as an “outcast,” in February 2021 declared a halt to US support for offensive operations in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales.” “.

Saudi Arabia, the United States’ biggest arms customer, has suffered from those restrictions, which have frozen the kind of arms sales that previous U.S. administrations have provided for decades.

Biden’s approach has softened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, prompting the United States and other Western nations to call on Saudi Arabia, the world’s top exporter of oil, to pump more oil to compensate for the loss of Russian supplies.

Saudi Arabia also won praise from the White House for agreeing in early June to a two-month extension of a UN-brokered truce in Yemen, the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Read more

Washington would now like it to turn into a permanent ceasefire.

A person in Washington familiar with the matter said the administration had begun internal discussions about the possibility of removing Saudi restrictions on arms, but indicated that it had not reached the decision-making stage.

Among the times when Saudi officials raised the request was Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington in May, according to a second source.

Asked if the administration was considering ending the offensive arms freeze, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did not address the issue directly but told reporters on Monday: “At the moment, nothing is is on the table to lift this ban”.

“Right now, we are focused on strengthening and maintaining a fragile but real ceasefire” in Yemen, he added.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

CONFLICT IN YEMEN

The sources, however, stressed that no announcements are expected around Biden’s July 13-16 trip, which will include stops in Israel and the West Bank.

Any decision, they said, should hinge heavily on whether Riyadh is deemed to have done enough to find a political settlement to the conflict in Yemen.

Among the costliest items Saudis would likely seek out are precision-guided munitions (PGMs) such as those approved under former President Donald Trump over objections from members of Congress.

But the Biden administration should tread carefully as it discusses what systems might be proposed, two sources said. Amnesty International said US-made precision-guided bombs were used in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a detention center in Yemen in January that left dozens dead.

If Washington eases the ban, it may be easier to push through sales of less lethal equipment such as armored personnel carriers or replenish stocks of less sophisticated surface-to-surface and air-to-surface weapons. .

Even within existing restrictions, the United States began stepping up its military support for Saudi Arabia earlier this year following Houthi missile strikes on the kingdom. Read more

Washington has approved the sale of missiles and a ballistic defense system to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said in November, and the United States has also sent Patriot missiles this year – all considered by US officials as being defensive in nature.

The Biden administration has also maintained its support for the Saudis to receive a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system first approved in 2017 to counter ballistic missile threats.

While lawmakers have mostly agreed to such sales, Biden could face fallout on Capitol Hill if he decides to sell offensive weapons to Riyadh again.

Some have questioned Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, seeing it as legitimizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader who the US intelligence community believes was behind Khashoggi’s murder. .

Among the likely opponents would be Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a staunch Saudi campaign critic in Yemen who praised Biden when he froze offensive arms sales.

An aide said Murphy doesn’t think the time is right to resume those supplies.

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Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Mike Stone in Washington and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh; Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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