A former US official said that ending the Saudi coalition war in Yemen will be at the top of US President Joe Biden’s agenda in the Middle East region.
In an interview with Democracy for the Arab World Now(DAWN), Gary Sick, who served in the US National Security Council for three US administrations, discusses foreign policy challenges for the Biden administration’s incoming Middle East administration.
Gary Sick said resolving the Yemen crisis will be high on Biden’s agenda in the Middle East region.
Sick also said that he expects the first months of Biden’s term to be accompanied by the quiet release of prisoners who are human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.
However, he was pessimistic about the new administration’s prospects trying to hold Jamal Khashoggi’s killers accountable.
Gary Sick previously served on the US National Security Council under the Ford, Carter, and Clinton administrations.
He was the White House’s Principal Assistant for Persian Gulf Affairs in the Carter Administration during the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis.
He is now academic and expert in foreign policy and a Middle East analyst at Columbia University.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
(DAWN): Given the wave of normalization of relations with Israel, to what extent Biden can or is willing to change Trump’s subversive policy in the Middle East?
Gary Sick: It depends. First, it will depend on how Iran responds. Biden intends to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal) and propose a compliance agreement to get Iran to abide by the plan of action. The United States will do the same.
Gulf Arab states hope the United States will do the job on their behalf.
The danger that the Gulf states will do this on their own is that they have seen, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, what Iran can do through attacks on oil facilities [in Saudi Arabia]. These countries realize how vulnerable they are despite all their weapons.
It also realizes that Iran has many impressive tools at its disposal, such as cruise missiles, which are very difficult to stop. You can intercept some of them, but it’s hard to drop them all. For example, if you look at Dubai, it is not protected at all.
The distance is very short from Iran, and a cruise missile flight coming to Dubai from several different directions, or to Abu Dhabi, can cause serious damage.
This would undermine all efforts the UAE has made to become an international hub.
DAWN: How will the Biden administration’s policies differ from what we witnessed during the Trump administration regarding the Yemen crisis?
Gary Sick: If my reading is correct, Biden was vehemently against the idea of war in Yemen. I think this will be the first sticking point. The Trump administration has used all of its influence to keep arms sales to Saudi Arabia and not fully retreat from the Yemen war.
However, it took a lot of work because Congress became dissatisfied with that war because they did not want any American role.
So if Biden intervenes, I think he will have a very serious conversation with King Salman, and possibly Mohammed bin Salman, about how willing the United States is to support Yemen’s efforts.
The king will encourage a diplomatic solution to the war that would restore Yemen to its normal state.
The Saudis will not withdraw from Yemen. They invested a lot, but I don’t think they would be surprised if that conversation happened.
It is late, and they see that the moment will come. That is why they are looking more actively than in the past to activate peace negotiations.
It is quite clear that the Houthis see themselves in the same position as the Taliban in Afghanistan.
(DAWN): American weapons are killing Yemenis in Yemen. Is that enough for the United States to rethink its policy toward arming Saudi Arabia and providing it with diplomatic support?
Gary Sick: Well, I’m sure from the inside it looks more complicated, but the bottom line is: If the US, UK and France stop providing logistical support, Saudi Arabia will not be able to maintain the aircraft and replace military equipment.
The situation will be difficult for the Saudis, as they cannot do it themselves for long. The United States will have some very important leverage.
They can say: Look, “We are ready to support you in your negotiations, but if you don’t negotiate in good faith, then we really can’t be with you with all the things that we have to offer you.”
In terms of a regular supply of spare parts, many things are crucial in war: replacing parts, ammunition and new weapons. The logistical support, as well as the hundreds of technical staff who are there to maintain and take care of all matters, are provided by foreigners. Therefore, the United States has an enormous amount of leverage if it is to use it.
(DAWN): In response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, President-elect Biden said, “They [Saudi Arabia] will be punished” and that he will make it very clear that “we will not sell them more weapons.” With the continuing human rights violations that we see in the Kingdom and the Yemeni crisis, will the United States stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and show Washington’s annoyance and dissatisfaction with Saudi policies?
Gary Sick: What I expect is that the Americans will not say, “Fix it, release all your prisoners, otherwise we’ll stop providing military equipment.” I don’t think this will happen. I think it will start in Yemen.
The Saudis have read the same reports that they have read, and they are keenly aware that Biden will come with a different set of interests that they will have to take into account.
I expect it in the first month or two from the Biden administration. The Saudis will quietly release many political prisoners.
Lots of things will happen that never happened before. Will all matters be resolved? Probably not, but I think they will see the danger, and take some precautions to prevent the United States from putting pressure on it too hard. Then there will be a negotiation period.
Some arms orders to Saudi Arabia will be suspended, pending further actions from Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman has been assured that Trump supports him. He would definitely fear that this will change. His stance will be drastically different from what it is now.
(DAWN): Will the Biden administration change course and limit the support provided by the United States to countries such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and lean more towards human rights principles and the principle of “do no harm” better than Trump or even the Obama administration?
Gary Sick: Yeah. It is a matter of levels. By observing American policies in the Middle East region for more than half a century, it will be hard for me to get excited.
Obama has come up with a very clear set of ideas about democracy. And George Bush has fought in the entire field of building democracy. Both were overly ambitious, or at least they both failed to change circumstances drastically.
Obama tried to work by persuasion, which had some success, but let’s be frank, he didn’t get the job done. Biden will be somewhere in between.
(DAWN): Joe Biden can quickly declassify US government documents related to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Will he do this simple act to help hold Mohammed bin Salman accountable for his role in the murder?
Gary Sick: Biden will likely use this intelligence as a pressure point to convince the crown prince that it would be very wise to cooperate.
Also, there are things that you cannot change in the Jamal Khashoggi case, and this does not mean that we have forgotten them, but it does mean that history cannot be reversed.
I don’t think Biden will come up with the idea of expelling the crown prince and interfering in the royal family’s inner aspects.
This would surprise me a lot, it’s not Biden’s style, and it’s a losing game in the end, because whatever you think of MBS, he will not go quietly.
Biden will come with a set of goals. I think Yemen would be at the top of that list, and political prisoners might be at the top of that list regarding Saudi Arabia.
It might be advisable not to try to interfere and play the role of kingmakers in Saudi Arabia. Biden would be wise.
I think the relationship will be cooler. Trump’s position was very dependent on trade-offs, Saudi Arabia just spent huge sums of money in the United States to create jobs and buy weapons … and that’s our deal. I don’t think Biden will totally reject this model, but he will claim a much higher price.