WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Dispatches) -- The Biden administration is discussing the possible lifting of its ban on U.S. sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported on Monday.
Senior Saudi officials pressed their U.S. counterparts to scrap a policy of selling only defensive arms to its top Persian Gulf partner in several meetings in Riyadh and Washington in recent months, the news agency said ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom this week.
As Biden prepares for a diplomatically sensitive trip, he has signaled that he is looking to reset strained relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when he wants increased Persian Gulf oil supplies along with closer Arab security ties with the occupying regime of Israel to face Iran.
At home, any move to rescind restrictions on offensive weapons is sure to draw opposition in Congress, including from Biden’s fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans who have been vocal critics of Saudi Arabia, congressional aides say.
Soon after taking office early last year, Biden adopted a tougher stance over Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Yemen, which has inflicted heavy civilian casualties, and Riyadh’s human rights record, in particular the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist and political opponent Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden, who as a presidential candidate denounced Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” declared in February 2021 a halt to U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales.”
Saudi Arabia, the biggest U.S. arms customer, has chafed under those restrictions, which froze the kind of weapons sales that previous U.S. administrations had provided for decades.
Biden’s approach has softened since Russia’s military operation in Ukraine in March, which has prompted the United States and other Western countries to appeal to Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, to pump more oil to offset loss of Russian supplies.
A person in Washington familiar with the matter said the administration had begun internal discussions about the possibility of removing Saudi weapons restrictions but indicated they had not reached a decision-making stage.
Among the times when Saudi officials raised the request was during Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington in May, according to a second source.
The sources stressed, however, that no announcement was expected around Biden’s July 13-16 trip, which will include stops in Occupied Palestine and the West Bank.
Among the biggest-ticket data-x-items the Saudis would likely seek are precision-guided munitions (PGM) such as those approved under former President Donald Trump in the face of objections from members of Congress.
Amnesty International said U.S.-made precision-guided bombs were used in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a detention center in Yemen in January that killed scores.
Even under existing restrictions, the United States began stepping up its military support for Saudi Arabia earlier this year following Yemen’s retaliatory missile strikes on the kingdom.
Washington approved missiles and an anti-ballistic defense system sales to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said in November, and the United States sent Patriot missiles this year as well - all deemed by U.S. officials to be defensive in nature.
The Biden administration has also maintained backing for the Saudis to receive a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system first approved in 2017 to counter ballistic missile threats.
While lawmakers have mostly acquiesced to such sales, Biden could face fallout on Capitol Hill if he decides to sell Riyadh offensive weapons again, Reuters said.
Some have questioned Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, seeing it as lending legitimacy to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi de facto leader who the U.S. intelligence community concluded was behind Khashoggi’s murder.
Among the likely opponents would be Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a staunch critic of the Saudi campaign in Yemen who praised Biden when he froze offensive arms sales.
An aide said Murphy does not believe now is the time to resume such supplies.