The Biden administration is preparing to relax restrictions on some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said on Thursday, crediting the kingdom’s peace talks with a militia in Yemen for hastening an easing of the constraints.
President Biden imposed the ban two years ago amid concerns that U.S. weapons were being used against civilians in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of people have died from airstrikes, fighting, disease and hunger as a Saudi-led military coalition waged war against an Iran-backed militia called the Houthis.
The expected loosening of the limits — which blocked sales of major offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia — comes as the kingdom attempts to finalize a U.S.-backed peace accord with the Houthis.
A representative for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.
The U.S. officials did not say when the easing of the ban on sales might occur. And such a move could be reversed if Mr. Biden decides it is not in U.S. interests to allow the offensive weapons to flow to Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest buyer of American arms.
Just south of Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s Houthi militia has embarked on a fiery assault that has disrupted global trade, launching missiles and drones at commercial ships in the Red Sea. The group has framed the attacks as a campaign to force Israel to end its siege on Gaza and have pushed the world’s largest shipping companies to reroute vessels away from Yemen, which sits beside a key maritime choke point.
Saudi Arabia — after eight years of fighting a grinding war in Yemen — has shown no interest in re-entering a conflict with the Houthis, particularly as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, seeks to reduce regional tensions and focus on the kingdom’s economy.
Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are working to cement a peace deal that would formalize a truce in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a coalition partner in the war, had carried out airstrikes with American-made munitions and American military assistance that resulted in mass civilian deaths and ignited international condemnation.
A U.N. investigation that examined whether the two countries may have committed war crimes found that coalition forces tortured detainees and used child soldiers, among other actions.
In recent weeks, Saudi officials have pressed U.S. lawmakers and presidential aides to ease the ban on sales of offensive weapons, according to U.S. and Saudi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. Their rationale, said both sets of officials: that Saudi Arabia needs to protect its southern border with Yemen in case of future clashes. In addition, the kingdom has argued that it must be prepared to handle escalating tensions in its region, the officials added, as the Israel-Gaza war rages.
Mr. Biden’s planned policy shift is likely to face opposition from some lawmakers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee imposed its own block on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in October 2022, after the country — along with Russia and other oil-producing nations — agreed to slash their oil production. Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a New York Democrat and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, also announced a hold on anything beyond sales of existing defensive systems, writing online that the ban would endure “until the kingdom reverses its position with respect to Russia & its Ukraine war.”
The Saudi move created anxieties in the White House ahead of midterm elections and stirred concerns about the country’s relationship with Russia as it waged war on Ukraine.
Before that, Senate committee members had tried blocking weapons sales because of the civilian casualties in Yemen.
“I would oppose any release of advanced arms as a kind of separate, one-off deal,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who is on the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview on Thursday. “I understand the exigencies and the challenges that have arisen in the wake of Oct. 7,” he added, “but I think there has to be a broader context and framework.”
Other legislators have expressed continued reservations, including Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, an unsparing critic of the war in Yemen who recently attempted to block the sale of intelligence and communications technologies to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s requests come as threats from militia groups are rising. Last month, the Houthis hijacked a British-owned commercial ship traveling in the Red Sea. This month, a Houthi missile struck a Norwegian tanker, starting a fire. The Houthis have framed the attacks — which have caused many vessels to avoid the Red Sea, traveling a far longer way around the coast of Africa instead — as a pressure campaign to force Israel to end the war.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have fired rockets or missiles at bases housing U.S. troops dozens of times this fall.
And Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon, has clashed violently with Israeli forces across their shared border in Israel’s north. Hezbollah is an Iran-backed ally of Hamas, the terrorist group that killed around 1,200 people in Israel in October and took more than 200 captive, according to Israeli authorities. Since then, Israeli counterattacks have resulted in the death of close to 20,000 Gazans, according to health ministry officials in the territory.
Early in his administration, Mr. Biden, who once referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” nation, expressed concerns about the kingdom’s human rights record.
Shortly after his inauguration in 2021, the State Department paused offensive weapons sales, vowing to review military deals struck under President Donald J. Trump to ensure that they were in line with Mr. Biden’s foreign-policy objectives. Among the deals that were held up by the ban was a planned $478 million sale of precision-guided munitions.
Mr. Biden was also concerned about the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, by Saudi operatives in 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. U.S. intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved a plan to kill Mr. Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident. Prince Mohammed has denied the allegation.
Saudi Arabia has sought a freer flow of American weapons for years. Most of its arsenal is American-made, but the kingdom has been diversifying its purchases — as well as trying to develop a domestic defense industry — as it hedges against worries about a decline in American interest and influence in the region.
And top Biden administration officials have been keen to court the kingdom’s favor over the past year as they tried to reach a deal in which Saudi Arabia would establish diplomatic ties with Israel — discussions that the Gaza war seems to have put on hold.