This is the first blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2021 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.
At present, there is not a clear indication from the incoming President on what he will do with these time-sensitive sales. Whether any of the necessary letters of offer and acceptance (LOAs) have been signed with the UAE that would put contracts in place is not clear, despite Trump administration efforts to move ahead. If not, Biden can delay concluding them. If some LOAs are signed, he can also hold off on delivery, especially for armed drones, precision-guided and other munitions that could be transferred most quickly. While the Abraham Accords offer great promise for improving regional relations in the Middle East, the reward for the accords should be peace and a lessening of prospects for conflict, not the influx of tens of billions in new weaponry.
How the U.S. approaches arming yet other countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Israel, Qatar, Bahrain and more, will be closely watched as the Biden team has indicated a desire to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal). Fueling regional arms races could make that more difficult.
Biden has also promised to reverse the Trump administration policy that transferred export oversight for semi-automatic and many other small arms to the Commerce Department, which ended Congressional transparency into such sales. Quick steps to return to the previous policy would also show his administration seeks a more responsible arms trade approach.
As the Obama presidency was nearing its end in late 2016 and early 2017, his administration held back on weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Nigeria that the Trump administration later moved forward. It will be promising if Biden renews concerns about arms sales to many regimes with highly problematic human rights records that Trump has supported, including to the Philippines (amongst a long list of countries).
Even more telling would be actions to again support the Arms Trade Treaty. An easy early first step would be for the Biden administration to retract the letter Trump sent to the United Nations in 2019 that denied legal obligations from the United States' 2013 signature. Further efforts to honor U.S. signature to the ATT, including to seek ratification of the treaty (as embedded in the 2020 Democratic party platform), may take longer but would also show U.S. dedication to again align itself with nearly all its allies in promoting global norms on responsible arms trade.
Jeff Abramson is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and manages the Forum on the Arms Trade