Yemen takes centre stage as Biden’s Middle East priority

US president uses his first foreign policy address to talk about Yemen but refrains from mentioning other regional hot spots

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a foreign policy address as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken listen during a visit to the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
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President Joe Biden used his first major foreign policy address in office to fulfil his campaign pledge to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Mr Biden's announcement on Thursday that the US would end all support for the coalition's operation is a stark turnaround in Washington's stance on the six-year civil war.

He was vice president when the Obama administration agreed to back the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign and bolster Yemen’s internationally recognised government against the Houthi rebels.

That support included logistical, intelligence, targeting and mid-air refuelling support for the Saudi-led campaign.

At the time, there was little opposition from Washington’s foreign policy establishment against US involvement in the war, and a vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the conflict failed by 71-27 in the Senate.

But under former president Donald Trump, opposition to US involvement in the war intensified, with anti-war advocacy groups lobbying Congress to force him to end US support for the conflict.

Several former Obama administration officials who first supported the coalition joined the anti-war advocacy efforts through a non-profit organisation called National Security Action.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sat on National Security Action's advisory board before joining the Biden White House.

The lobbying was fruitful. Under the Trump administration, Congress passed bipartisan bills to end US involvement in the Yemen war and blocked an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Mr Trump ultimately vetoed all four bills, but his administration did end mid-air refuelling to the Saudi coalition in 2018 amid a growing congressional backlash.

However, the logistical, targeting and intelligence support remained in place throughout the rest of his presidency.

And while the Biden administration initiated a review of US relations with Saudi Arabia, including a temporary freeze on the Trump administration's last-minute arms sales to Riyadh, the president said that the US was committed to defending the kingdom against threats from Iran and its regional proxies.

“Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries,” Mr Biden said.

“We’re going to continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

Saudi Arabia welcomed Mr Biden's "commitment to co-operate with the kingdom to defend its sovereignty and counter threats against it", in a statement released on the official Saudi Press Agency.

It also reiterated its commitment to finding a political solution to end the Yemen conflict.

Aside from Yemen, Mr Biden made no mention of other regional conflicts, such as that in Libya.

He also failed to touch on Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where US troops are stationed.

Mr Biden made no mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict, countering terrorism or the Iran nuclear deal.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessors. George W Bush made the war on Al Qaeda an early priority, as did Barack Obama on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iran nuclear negotiations, and Mr Trump made early moves to counter Iran.

For the Biden administration, ending US offensive support in Yemen is a goal that has bipartisan backing in Congress and fulfils a campaign promise.

It is low-hanging fruit in comparison with the Syrian conflict, Iran nuclear negotiations or talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The National  reported on Thursday that the administration is re-evaluating its Syria policy, although naming an envoy to the country, unlike Tim Lenderking's recent appointment as envoy to Yemen, will have to wait.

Mr Biden, without mentioning the Trump administration specifically, also tried to emphasise the sharp contrast with the previous approach to the Middle East.

He has not yet called any Middle East leader, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While he pledged to continue work on the Abraham Accord, Mr Biden is not giving priority to Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Instead, the speech confirmed the US focus and swing to global priorities such as the rising influence of China, confronting Russia and mending ties with Nato allies.

At the same time, the speech did not signal US abandonment of traditional commitments in the Middle East.

Mr Biden did not announce partial withdrawals of troops from the region, sought by Mr Trump, and is instead suspending those to Germany and Afghanistan pending a review.

The speech offered a preliminary view of US priorities in the Middle East but ones that fit an American audience and remain in synch with Mr Biden’s domestic policies.