Report: US considering lifting ban on offensive weapon sales to Saudi Arabia

A potential shift in Biden’s approach toward Riyadh would likely require the Gulf state to take steps toward ending the war in Yemen, sources tell Reuters

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

US President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)
US President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

The US is considering lifting a ban on offensive weapon sales to Saudi Arabia that was introduced by US President Joe Biden in February last year, according to a Monday report by Reuters.

Saudi officials have been pressuring the Biden administration to scrap the policy ahead of Biden’s trip to the region this week and are eyeing a supply of precision-guided munitions that Biden had suspended.

Citing four people familiar with the talks between Washington and Riyadh, the report said such a change in US policy would likely require Saudi Arabia to make significant concessions of its own.

Primarily, it would require the Gulf state to begin the process of ending the war it has been waging against Iran-backed Houthis in neighboring Yemen. While former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump supported Saudi Arabia in its operation in Yemen, Biden scaled backed US support for the Saudi-led campaign and removed the Houthi group off the US terror list.

Biden’s overall approach to Saudi Arabia has been starkly more critical than that adopted by his predecessors, especially after the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.

While then-US president Trump defended the American embrace of Riyadh, Biden vowed to put human rights and “American values” first, a promise he began fulfilling shortly after entering office in January 2021.

After releasing an intelligence report that pointed to the direct involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) in Khashoggi’s killing, the Biden administration called its Middle East partner a “pariah” and announced “significant changes” in US-Saudi relations.

“We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and make sure that, in fact, if they want to deal with us, they have to do it in a way where human rights abuses are dealt with,” Biden said at the time.

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the two-year anniversary of his death, October 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

But it seems like Biden has softened his approach toward Riyadh recently, planning to visit the Gulf country after a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank.

In an opinion article published in the Washington Post on Saturday, Biden wrote that his trip marks “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”

And while commentators have indicated that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will likely not be possible while King Salman, 86, is still officially in control, Prime Minister Yair Lapid signaled Sunday that the Iranian threat might be enough to establish new regional partnerships.

“From Jerusalem, the [US] president’s plane will fly to Saudi Arabia, and he will carry with it a message of peace and hope from us,” Lapid said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“Israel reaches out to all the countries in the region and calls on them to build ties with us, to establish relations with us and to change history for the sake of our children,” he added.

A recent Israeli report claimed Jerusalem will ask Biden for US approval to provide its laser-powered air defense system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen during a test in southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

Biden’s altered approach toward the Gulf state could also be the result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has compromised supplies of Russian oil and has led many Western countries to pressure Saudi Arabia for a more stable supply, according to Reuters.

Still, according to two sources cited by the news agency, Biden is expected to maintain a cautious approach during his upcoming visit. And while lifting the ban on offensive weapon sales to Saudi Arabia seems to be on the table, it remains to be seen what Riyadh, for its part, is willing to do in order to rekindle its ties with Washington.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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