Middle East

US poised to ease restrictions on sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia

By Natasha Bertrand, CNN

CNN  — 

The US is poised to ease restrictions on the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, officials told CNN, because the Biden administration believes the kingdom has abided by a US- and UN-brokered truce with Yemen for nearly two years.

In the early days of his administration, President Joe Biden froze the sale of US offensive weapons such as precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia amid a brutal war between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen that had killed over 100,000 people, according to activist groups, by the end of 2021.

In March 2022, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis entered into a US- and UN-brokered truce that has largely held up. A US official told CNN that the US made clear to Saudi Arabia that the freeze on certain classes of weapons would end when the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen ended.

“This period of quiet in Yemen, now going on nearly two years, is unprecedented and attributable to US diplomacy and Saudi Arabia’s constructive engagement with the Huthis, Omanis, and others,” the official said. “So the Saudis have met their end of the deal, and we are prepared to meet ours, returning these cases to regular order through appropriate congressional notification and consultation.”

Former President Barack Obama banned the sale of US precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia in 2016 following a Saudi strike on a funeral hall in Yemen that killed 155 people, but that ban was overturned by the Trump administration in March 2017.

A CNN investigation in 2018 found that a 500-pound bomb used by Saudi Arabia that killed dozens of children in Yemen was provided by the US, raising fresh questions about how the Saudis were using US-provided munitions at the time and renewing calls from US lawmakers for greater restrictions and oversight on US weapons sales to the kingdom.

It is not clear when the administration might formally change its policy and officials said a decision is not imminent. But Saudi officials have urged US lawmakers in recent weeks to approve the sale of offensive weapons to the kingdom once the administration’s freeze on sales is reversed, a congressional aide familiar with the matter told CNN.

The Saudi request comes amid heightened tensions in the region resulting from the war between Israel and Hamas, particularly from militia groups backed by Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s main regional enemy. The Houthis in Yemen have begun attacking commercial and merchant vessels in the Red Sea, prompting a multinational response, and Iran-backed militias have launched over 100 attacks on US and coalition military bases in Iraq and Syria since October 17.

The New York Times first reported that the US could soon ease the weapons restrictions.

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