In his Washington Post op-ed justifying his visit to Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Joe Biden mentioned Yemen several times, as he touted as his administration's "serious diplomatic outreach to bring about a more stable region." It echoed what he had said at a press conference in Madrid in late June, in an attempt to frame his upcoming trip around wider regional issues, rather than just fraught U.S.-Saudi ties: "The overall piece here is we're also going to try to reduce the deaths in the war that's occurring in Yemen."
The war in Yemen has claimed the lives of some 377,000 people since 2015, according to the United Nations—more than 150,000 of those deaths a direct result of armed conflict, including about 24,000 people killed in the air war waged by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The rest of the death toll in Yemen is a result of the staggering humanitarian crisis created by the war, including unprecedented levels of hunger and disease. More than 4 million people have also been displaced.
These figures are horrendous, and as a presidential candidate, Biden repeatedly expressed his utter objection to the war. His famous promise on a primary debate stage to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi also included a pledge, regarding the war in Yemen, to "end the sale of material to the Saudis where they're going in and murdering children." It was outspoken and in sharp contrast to both Donald Trump and Barack Obama, under whose presidency the Saudi-led war in Yemen began with direct American support.
As president, Biden has not fully lived up to his campaign promises on Yemen. Despite his administration announcing an end to "offensive" weapon sales to Saudi Arabia last year, it is reportedly now considering lifting that ban—which also didn't prevent the State Department from approving the sale of $650 million in air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia in late 2021, claiming they were only "defensive" in nature.
The Biden administration's direct diplomatic involvement has had tangible outcomes in Yemen, and the ongoing truce is proof.
- Karim al-Yemani
Yet Biden has increased U.S. diplomatic efforts to end this destructive war, which has led to tentative progress between the warring parties in Yemen. Although the strife has hardly been settled, there are glimmers of hope about a peace breakthrough in Yemen after seven years of stalemate.
In February 2021, Biden appointed Timothy Lenderking, a veteran diplomat in the Gulf region, as the first U.S. envoy to Yemen, demonstrating the new administration's interest in ending the conflict. Lenderking has since been leading extensive shuttle diplomacy between Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Yemen, in an effort to diminish the schisms between the Houthis and their Yemeni rivals who are backed by the Saudi-led coalition.
Biden's administration also revoked the Trump-era designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, a move that had severely limited aid access to Yemenis. "The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time. If the terrorist designation had continued, political dialogue with the Houthis would not have been viable. Military escalation in Yemen and even more humanitarian misery could have followed—just what Biden seemingly did not want to see. His administration has since reportedly resisted pressure from the Emiratis to reinstate the terrorist designation, following Houthi missiles strikes against the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration's direct diplomatic involvement has had tangible outcomes in Yemen, and the ongoing truce is proof. The initial two-month pause in hostilities was brokered by the United Nations and took effect on April 1. The first truce to hold in more than seven years of fighting, it was extended for another two months just before it was set to expire in June—an agreement between the warring parties that would not have happened without U.S. support.
It remains to be seen if Biden can still use the full political, economic and military clout of the United States to finally stop this ruinous war and man-made calamity.
- Karim al-Yemani
"The parties to the conflict have now extended this truce for another two months, and it's important that we work from here to make it permanent," Biden said in a White House statement on June 2, reiterating his administration's priority of "ending the war in Yemen." Biden commended every country involved in the truce talks, even praising Saudi Arabia's "courageous leadership." Those words showed Biden's broader aim to help transform the truce into a lasting peace—and how, to get there, his administration would need to work closely with Saudi Arabia, which helps explain why Biden went from condemning the Saudis for murdering children in Yemen to praising them for agreeing to the U.N-brokered truce.
Of course, reducing U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition cannot put out the flames of war in Yemen alone. However, it could push Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the leading members of the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen (despite Emirati claims of a withdrawal), to rethink their approach and seek other political solutions. The truce and political shakeup in Yemen's U.N.-recognized government, with a Saudi-backed presidential council taking power in April, are the kinds of developments that showcase the coalition's changing strategy. After years of fruitless military operations, the coalition's growing desire to exit the Yemen quagmire is undeniable. Biden's criticisms of Saudi military involvement in Yemen, though since toned down, have still put pressure on the kingdom and increased its desire to extract itself from its disastrous war of choice, as administration officials have touted U.S. engagement with Saudi Arabia to get its diplomatic "buy-in."
After seven years of diplomatic failures and rising atrocities that dwarfed any chance for a peaceful solution, there is finally some hope for ending Yemen's war, with the truce holding thanks in part to active American diplomacy. Yet multiple attempts at peace have failed before in Yemen, given the diversity of local armed groups, the fragility of the state and the role of outside powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. Biden can point to diplomatic progress in Yemen so far, but it remains to be seen if he can still use the full political, economic and military clout of the United States to finally stop this ruinous war and man-made calamity.