The Biden administration’s new $500 million military contract with Saudi Arabia, critics claim, goes against the spirit of the White House’s public policy of prohibiting all “offensive” weapons sales to the kingdom for use against the Houthis in Yemen.
The military contract will allow Saudi Arabia to keep its fleet of attack helicopters in service, despite their previous use in Yemeni operations.
One of Joe Biden’s first foreign policy objectives was to end the sale of so-called “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia, which reflected the US president’s commitment to “ending all support” for a war that had resulted in a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
The State Department has granted Saudi Arabia permission to enter into a contract to support the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command’s fleet of Apache helicopters, Blackhawk helicopters, and a future fleet of Chinook helicopters. It includes the training and service of 350 US contractors, as well as two US government employees, over the next two years. The agreement was initially announced in September.
The approval of the military maintenance contract comes at a time when the Biden administration appears to be softening its stance toward the kingdom, with several high-level meetings between senior administration officials and their Saudi counterparts. Experts who have studied the Yemen conflict and the use of weapons by Saudi Arabia and its allies believe that Apache attack helicopters have mostly been deployed along the Saudi-Yemen border. They also claim that it is difficult to pinpoint specific violations of international humanitarian law that occurred as a result of the Saudis’ use of Apaches, owing to the scarcity and difficulty in verifying such detailed data.
The internal investigative body of the Saudi-led coalition, known as the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, absolves member governments of legal responsibility in the vast majority of incidents.
The coalition’s only countries with Apache fleets are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. In March 2017, 42 Somali refugees fleeing Yemen for Port Sudan, as well as one Yemeni civilian, were killed after their boat was hit by a missile from a coalition warship, followed by gunfire from an Apache helicopter.
According to a September 2017 report in AirForces Monthly magazine, five Saudi-operated Apache helicopters were lost in Yemen, implying that they were used in offensive operations. Tony Wilson, the founder and director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute’s Security Force Monitor project, said it was difficult to see how the military helicopter maintenance agreement would not support Saudi military operations in Yemen.
According to Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Apaches were used in “defensive missions” along the Yemen border, and thus the sale of the maintenance contract did not contradict the White House’s public position. He believes the move reflected the Biden administration’s recognition that a Saudi defeat of the Houthis, who had received support from Iran, would send a “negative message”.
When asked if the administration had reviewed the use of Apache helicopters by Saudis before the contract was signed, a state department spokesperson stated that the administration had “closely reviewed all allegations of human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law,” including those associated with the Saudi-led coalition.
According to the department, the “overwhelming majority” of incidents were caused by air-to-ground munitions from fixed-wing aircraft, prompting the administration to halt two previously scheduled air-to-ground munitions deliveries. Other experts, however, believe that the $500 million contract represents a significant shift by the White House and that Biden has largely abandoned a campaign promise to make Prince Mohammed’s regime a “pariah.”
Experts are also concerned about the lack of accountability for human rights violations, following the decision by Bahrain, Russia, and other members of the UN Human Rights Council to halt the body’s war crimes investigations into Yemen.
The investigators have previously stated that all sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes. One person close to the matter said it became clear about a week before the vote that the resolution extending the work of the so-called Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), as the investigators are known, was in trouble.