Biden approves his first major arms sale to Saudi Arabia worth $650 million

Washington reaffirms alliance with Riyadh one year after Democrat's arrival in White House
Joe Biden

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   US President Joe Biden

The Pentagon on Friday notified Congress of a new $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. This was announced by State Department spokesman Ned Price. If given the green light by the lower house, it would be the first time Washington has supplied arms to Riyadh since Biden became president. This action is justified by the growing threat to Saudi national security.

"This proposed sale will support US foreign policy and national security by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that remains an important force for political and economic progress in the Middle East," the Pentagon said. With this move, Washington reaffirms its alliance with Saudi Arabia, which had become a question mark under Biden.

The current occupant of the White House rejected Saudi Arabia's first arms demand in January. At the time, Biden and his team did not share the Saudi roadmap in Yemen, whose contribution continues to be instrumental in the spiral of violence that has plunged the country into the world's largest humanitarian crisis. At the beginning of the year, the White House did not consider Saudi security to be at risk, but something seems to have changed for the Pentagon.

Ned Price
REUTERS/CARLOS BERRIA  -  US State Department Spokesman Ned Price

Biden pledged to end US support for Saudi Arabia's offensive operations in Yemen during his first foreign policy address. But defensive actions were not excluded, a weak argument given the US's limited ability to intervene in the Saudi military's actions.

The sale "is fully consistent with the administration's commitment to lead with diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen," Ned Price said in a statement. The State Department spokesman said the air-to-air missiles give Saudi Arabia "the means to defend against Iranian-backed Houthi airstrikes".

Houthi cross-border offensives against Saudi targets have intensified in recent months. These attacks have brought a forceful response from Riyadh's military. The bloody war in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Iranian-backed Shia insurgent militia since 2014, has become entrenched. And both sides assume it is an intractable conflict, at least in the short term.

AP/HANI MOHAMMED  -  Houthis raise their weapons during a rally against the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Sana'a, Yemen

The batch to be shipped by Washington includes 280 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, 596 LAU-128 rail-launched missile launchers (MRLs) along with containers and support equipment, spare parts, contractor engineering and technical support. The arms company in the transaction is Massachusetts-based Raytheon. 

Complex alliance dynamics in the Middle East have pushed the Biden Administration to approve the transaction. The US relies heavily on the backing of Israel and Saudi Arabia, two key allies in the region's Cold War with Iran. But their support for coalition forces in Yemen is not new. During Obama's tenure, the US militarily supported Saudi Arabia's indiscriminate bombing of Yemen, partly targeting civilians.

Congress has 30 days to approve the sale and Democratic profiles are likely to oppose it. A scenario that, if played out, would exacerbate the presidential crisis for Biden, who is at his lowest ebb since he arrived at the White House. His approval rating has plummeted, and the victory of Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia state elections was a further setback. The result is also seen as a thermometer of his first year in office.