Ideas
July 11, 2022 2:53 PM EDT
Raiman Al-Hamdani is a Yemeni analyst and researcher at ARK Group and the Yemen Policy Center.

Joe Biden might want to push hard for lasting peace in Yemen during his first official trip as U.S. president to Saudi Arabia this week—but he probably won’t. And that’s a missed opportunity for the beleaguered president, given that Riyadh is increasingly viewing the Saudi-led war—which began in 2015 and has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions more plunged into famine—as a quagmire that it would like to extricate itself from.

Unfortunately, Yemen doesn’t appear to be high on Biden’s agenda amid a backdrop of high oil prices and ongoing U.S.-Saudi tensions over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (Biden had previously vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the world stage over Khashoggi’s death, which the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered.) Yet Saudi officials have told the Wall Street Journal ahead of Biden’s visit that the kingdom is unlikely to offer any concessions on human rights. And limited spare oil production capacity means that the kingdom might not be able to help Biden rein in rising oil prices as much as the U.S. president would like—assuming the kingdom even wants to. These facts underscore why Biden would do better to put Yemen front and center during his trip to Riyadh.

The case for Biden prioritizing Yemen is also bolstered by recent developments.

U.N.-brokered talks led in April to the first truce between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-aligned Houthis since 2016. U.N. Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen Hans Grundberg has said that the truce has largely held in Yemen and resulted in markedly improved humanitarian conditions in the country. The truce was extended for another two months in June, and is set to expire on Aug. 2.

Biden should use the trip to facilitate further dialogue between the two warring sides to help achieve a more permanent settlement, or at the very least extend the truce. This would be more effective than the left-leaning faction of the Democratic Party’s efforts to push through a new, bipartisan Yemen War Powers Resolution to end any U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s campaign. Such action could derail Biden’s trip, further complicating U.S.-Saudi relations and the delicate truce already achieved.

Biden can lay the groundwork for a more lasting solution by trying to widen diplomatic and mediation backchannels and decrease the Houthis’ isolation by pushing for some sort of recognition of them as a formal authority in Yemen—in exchange for certain concessions such as easing the Houthis’ siege of Taiz. The ongoing siege of the southwestern Yemeni city poses one of the biggest risks to the fragile truce. For the Saudis’ part, Biden could work to secure further concessions from them include easing or lifting their blockade of northern Yemen, which would also allow for more food and medicine and alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

Read more: What to Know About the Massive Cholera Outbreak in Yemen

Whatever comes next, though, Biden can do more to address the false perception that his administration has not been actively engaged on Yemen. Biden has personally said that ending the war is a top priority while in office.

Already, Biden can point to a number of successes in Yemen based on shifting U.S. policy away from supporting the Saudi-led war and more towards a role as mediator in resolving the conflict through dialogue. Unlike former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, neither of which prioritized Yemen, Biden announced early on in his term three main changes to U.S. policy that has paved the way for the recent truce. The first is no longer support any major Saudi offensive military operations and associated arms purchases (which the Administration is considering reversing); backing U.N. efforts to resolve the war; and appointing Tim Lenderking, a seasoned diplomat in the region, as a special envoy for Yemen in 2021. For Biden and many Yemen observers, Lenderking signaled the return of U.S. diplomacy to the region following the Trump era. He has been key given his efforts in meeting Yemeni delegations and fostering backchannel talks with the Houthis in Oman and elsewhere.

The U.S. role in Yemen under Biden has been refreshingly coherent, but locals are largely not aware of these efforts—to the detriment of a more lasting solution. Ordinary Yemenis need to see what the U.S. has done, both in policy and aid, to help counter the anti-Western rhetoric commonly found in the country. The U.S. has pushed hard on the parties it has more leverage over, such as the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government of Rashad al-Alimi, based in the interim capital of Aden. But in the north of Yemen in territories under Houthi control, anti-American rhetoric remains an ideological pillar, and the U.S. seems to be doing little to counter false claims or defend against it.

Biden’s upcoming trip is an opportunity for him to change that narrative, make further headway in negotiations, and come good on his election promises that can produce lasting peace in Yemen.

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