It has been well-established that the Biden administration’s foreign policy has not changed much from its predecessor’s. In fact, I have written about this continuity before; however, even in that article, I acknowledged one major change between the Trump administration’s and Biden administration’s foreign policy — the alleged end of United States support for the Saudi Arabian war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Doing so would unequivocally be a step in the right direction. Since the war began in 2014, it has caused over a million people to be displaced, widespread cholera outbreak, massive medicine shortages and a nation-wide famine. All of this has led the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund to deem the situation in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. 

Along with supposedly ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, the Biden administration ostensibly made another big step toward ending the U.S.’s long-time policy of turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. A few weeks ago, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, released a report stating that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi monarchy. These moves are consistent with President Joe Biden’s 2019 declaration that Saudi Arabia is a “pariah state” that is “murdering innocent people and (has) to be held accountable” and are a natural step for an administration that claims to center human rights in its foreign policy.

You might have noticed by now that, in describing the Biden administration’s stated shift in policy toward Saudi Arabia, I have used a number of qualifiers such as “allegedly,” “supposedly” and “ostensibly.” This is because the Biden administration is not actually serious about changing U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and has no intention of making anything beyond cosmetic changes.

On ending the war in Yemen, Biden’s lack of commitment is evident in the words he chose to use in his speech announcing this supposed move. He stated that, “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” and that, “we’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” 

It’s already obvious that the Biden administration has no intention of ending support for the war in Yemen. What defines an “offensive operation”? Who gets to designate an operation as “offensive”? The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has indicated in speeches that he views Iran as the aggressor in Yemen, so by that standard, any number of actions in Yemen can be seen as defensive. Furthermore, what does “help(ing) Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty” mean? 

Again, if you accept the Saudi government’s view that the war in Yemen is about stopping Iranian aggression, many of the Saudi government’s abuses can be attributed to attempts to defend Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. An administration that was truly serious about ending support for Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen would have been far more direct in describing how it plans to end support for this invasion and would have qualified this shift far less than Biden did. Biden did not because he has no intention of ending support for the invasion.

This lack of actual commitment is even clearer when it comes to holding Saudi Arabia accountable for murdering Jamal Khashoggi so that, as Biden put it, “Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Here, the Biden administration makes it clear that it does not intend to even give Mohammed bin Salman a slap on the wrist for the brutal murder of a dissident journalist, fearing damage to American relations with Saudi Arabia. In particular, Biden administration officials cite “cooperation on counterterrorism and confronting Iran.” This is, simply, a joke. Saudi Arabia has, as part of the war in Yemen no less, allied itself with large terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda — groups that the U.S. has committed itself to eradicate. 

Even putting all of this aside and assuming that the only reason Biden wants to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia is for access to its oil, it is not a good reason to continue to aid and abet Saudi Arabia’s abuses. Saudi Arabia currently supplies only 6% of the U.S.’s petroleum imports and 7% of its crude oil imports. Even with the assumption that every other Persian Gulf country would stop supplying oil to the U.S. in solidarity with Saudi Arabia — something that should not be assumed given recent tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — the conflict would only cost the U.S. 7% of its crude oil imports. 

For comparison, during the 1973 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo, OPEC countries imported nearly 48% of oil imported to the U.S. While losing 7% of our crude oil imports — roughly 2% of our total oil consumption — would have some level of impact, it is not a reason to continue supporting a regime that murders journalists, especially when our government and government-funded media condemn other countries for doing the same. Nor do I see it as a reason to continue support for the immiseration of Yemen. 

If the Biden administration wants to show that it actually cares about Saudi Arabia’s crimes, it needs to genuinely end support for the war in Yemen, not just “offensive operations.” It also needs to punish those at the highest levels of its government for murdering journalists. Only then should talk of “recalibrating” a relationship with Saudi Arabia be taken seriously.

Brandon Cowit can be reached at cowitb@umich.edu.

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