President Biden’s first foreign policy actions will be some of the most consequential of the 21st century. Chief among those decisions is pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was long overdue: for years, those regimes have conducted ruinous campaigns throughout the Middle East; the halting of arms sales will prevent more weapons, including bombs and the US’s most advanced fighter jets, from getting into the hands of the Saudi and UAE military. Furthermore, pausing arms sends a clear message to those countries, that the US will no longer tacitly endorse their repressive governments. Beyond the immediate security and political implications, these measures represent a clear turning point in the US-Arab relationship. These steps begin the path to a relationship based on civil and social improvement, not simply security and economic exchange.
A direct result of the pause is that the numerous conflicts in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are involved will be more difficult for them to continue. The war in Yemen will be harder for Saudi Arabia to wage, as it relies in large part on US support to persecute. A years-long conflict resulting in hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced may now have an end in sight, as the Saudi government loses its primary enabler. Elsewhere, such as in Syria and Libya (in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are heavily involved), the absence of new arms flowing in will facilitate ceasefires and perhaps even sustainable resolutions. Furthermore, the suspension of arms will shift tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the Biden administration handles this aspect of the US-Saudi relationship well, it could diffuse tensions and result in eventual disarmament.
Beyond implications for the Middle East, this pause begins a new dynamic in the US-Arab relationship. By halting sales, the Biden Administration is sending a powerful message to the Saudi and UAE governments: the US will no longer endorse your governments’ repressive policies. This situation is not novel for the US. After the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Senate voted to end US assistance in the Yemen conflict. However, the Saudi government was protected by President Trump, who endeared himself to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Now, the Biden Administration’s actions will clearly demonstrate the US’s shift in stance: the priority is now the promotion of human and political rights, not simply the maintenance of a security relationship and the preservation of oppressive regimes. Decisive US action at this moment will not only better the lives of residents of Yemen, Libya, and Syria, but also residents of Saudi Arabia and the UAE who have fallen victim to their authoritarian governments.
Approaches that include limiting arms sales and trade to encourage reforms in the two countries are already working. Recently, Saudi Arabia imposed a moratorium on capital punishment for drug-related offenses, attempting to soften their image and attract foreign investment. Similarly, the UAE has made an effort to overhaul its legal system, including cracking down on honor killings and loosening restrictions on cohabitation. These efforts are motivated by a desire to improve the country’s standing and encourage investment. Just as the desire to maintain trade catalyzed major reforms in the two countries, so too will the pause of arms sales motivate enactment of more reforms. Because the US is the world’s biggest arms dealer, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the US’s two largest individual customers, the US has an outsized influence on human rights and defense policies. With militaries almost entirely dependent on US equipment, the pause will act as leverage over the two states, encouraging further reforms.
The Biden Administration’s pause of arms sales marks the beginnings of promising shifts in US foreign policy, away from security and military strength and towards the promotion of peace and human rights. These goals are more achievable as new arms are prevented from entering ongoing conflicts, for use against civilians and in furthering instability. This realignment of priorities is clearly demonstrated to the US’s Arab allies by this pause, and the message extends not only to their involvement in destructive conflict, but also their suppression of their own citizens’ rights. With the leverage that the US has over its allies in its capacity as their arsenal, meaningful reforms can be achieved that improve the lives of all people in the Middle East.