Joe Biden might want to push hard for lasting peace in Yemen during his first official trip as U.S. president to Saudi Arabia this week—but he probably won’t. And that’s a missed opportunity for the beleaguered president, given that Riyadh is increasingly viewing the Saudi-led war—which began in 2015 and has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions more plunged into famine—as a quagmire that it would like to extricate itself from.
Unfortunately, Yemen doesn’t appear to be high on Biden’s agenda amid a backdrop of high oil prices and ongoing U.S.-Saudi tensions over the 2018 killing of Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi, columnist. (Biden had previously vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the world stage over Khashoggi’s death, which the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered.) However, Saudi officials tell the Wall Street Journal ahead of Biden’s visit that the kingdom is unlikely to offer any concessions on human rights. And limited spare oil production capacity means that the kingdom might not be able to help Biden rein in rising oil prices as much as the U.S. president would like—assuming the kingdom even wants to. These are just a few reasons why Biden might be better off putting Yemen first and foremost during his Riyadh visit.
Recent developments support Biden’s case to prioritize Yemen.
In April, the U.N. brokered talks that led to the first ceasefire between Saudi Arabian and Iran-aligned Houthis. Hans Grundberg, the U.N. Special Representative for Yemen has stated that the truce in Yemen has held largely and has resulted in significantly improved humanitarian conditions. It was extended by two more months in June and will expire on August 2.
Biden should take advantage of his trip to promote further dialogue among the warring sides in order to achieve a permanent solution, or to extend the truce. This would be more effective than the left-leaning faction of the Democratic Party’s efforts to push through a new, bipartisan Yemen War Powers Resolution to end any U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s campaign. Such action could derail Biden’s trip, further complicating U.S.-Saudi relations and the delicate truce already achieved.
Biden can lay the groundwork for a more lasting solution by trying to widen diplomatic and mediation backchannels and decrease the Houthis’ isolation by pushing for some sort of recognition of them as a formal authority in Yemen—in exchange for certain concessions such as easing the Houthis’ siege of Taiz. A continuing siege on the city of Taiz in southwest Yemen poses the largest threat to the fragile truce. For the Saudis’ part, Biden could work to secure further concessions from them include easing or lifting their blockade of northern Yemen, which would also allow for more food and medicine and alleviate the humanitarian crisis.
Continue reading: The Massive Cholera Epidemic in Yemen
Biden has the ability to do more than just address the misperception that his government isn’t actively engaging in Yemeni politics. Biden personally stated that ending war is the top priority in his office.
Biden already can highlight a few successes in Yemen that were based upon shifting U.S. policies away from supporting the Saudi-led conflict and towards mediation in the resolution of the conflict via dialogue. Biden made three key changes in U.S. policies that helped to facilitate the truce, which was a departure from the previous U.S. presidents Barack Obama (and Donald Trump) who didn’t prioritize Yemen. First, the Administration will no longer support major Saudi military offensives and any associated arms purchases. Second, the Administration will back U.N. efforts in resolving the conflict. Third, Tim Lenderking was appointed special envoy to Yemen for 2021. Lenderking, for Biden and other Yemeni observers, signaled that the Trump-era was over. Lenderking has played a key role in meeting Yemeni delegations as well as fostering backchannel negotiations with the Houthis from Oman.
The U.S. role in Yemen under Biden has been refreshingly coherent, but locals are largely not aware of these efforts—to the detriment of a more lasting solution. The U.S. should be able to show ordinary Yemenis what it has done in both policy and in aid to counter anti-Western rhetoric. U.S. have pushed for greater leverage on parties like the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized, government of Rashad Al-Alimi. They are based in Aden’s interim capital. In the northern Yemen, which is under Houthi rule, anti-American rhetoric continues to be an ideology pillar. However, the U.S. does not seem to do much to combat false claims and defend itself against them.
Biden’s upcoming trip is an opportunity for him to change that narrative, make further headway in negotiations, and come good on his election promises that can produce lasting peace in Yemen.
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