Yemen’s war is now in its sixth year and – once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20 – its third American administration. Donald Trump has largely viewed the country through the prism of Iran and the Gulf. His departure has widely been seen as an opportunity for a reset in the United States’ Yemen policy. Yet predictions that Biden’s administration could herald the end of fighting in the country are likely overoptimistic, owing in large part to wider structural issues on the ground, explains long-time Yemen expert and journalist, Adam Baron.
The tense November 2020 US presidential election and its aftermath provided a fitting end to a reality-TV president. Yemenis were as gripped as the rest of the world, but for most, it was about more than just the drama. The US’s enormous role in the region meant expectations were high regarding the potential effects of the election on Yemen – and not without reason. Biden’s win will undeniably lead to shifts in the substance and, arguably to an even greater degree, style, of the United States’ policy in Yemen.
In many regards, Biden is an archetypal Washington DC establishment figure. A member of the Senate since his late 20s, he comes pretty close to personifying the American political mainstream. This has been echoed in his cabinet choices so far, which include a number of technocrats long familiar in American policymaking circles and veterans of the administration of Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as Vice President from 2009-17. This centrist background is also expected to inform his approach to Yemen and the wider Gulf region.
One of the key changes expected to accompany the Biden administration is a renewed focus on many of the state institutions that Trump derided as arms of the “deep state”. This has two key implications for Yemen. First, it will make US policy more stable and predictable. Without the bombastic, sudden announcements via Twitter that have characterized the past four years, there will be far fewer surprises. Contacts familiar with the former senator and his team have frequently framed him as a careful deliberator – a marked difference to his mercurial predecessor.
Second, the re-empowering of institutional processes, particularly within the State Department, will provide an opportunity to strengthen American diplomatic engagement in Yemen and the broader region. This will also benefit multilateral talks such as the Yemen-backed peace process. Diplomatic sources have frequently cited the involvement of an engaged and cooperative US as key to previous negotiated successes in Yemen, most notably during the post-Arab Spring transitional period under Obama. Under Trump, there has been significant turnover in both regional and State Department diplomatic posts, making such engagement much more difficult.
Perhaps most importantly, however, we are likely to see a radical change in the US government’s attitude to foreign affairs that will profoundly affect how it functions abroad. Biden’s disposition towards multilateralism – epitomized by his support for the expansion of NATO – sharply contrasts with Trump’s somewhat chauvinistic conception of American interests and his personal and deeply transactional style of engaging in international relations.
For many Americans, Biden’s mainstream credentials are part of the appeal, a shift to business as usual following an unorthodox four years under Trump. However, they are also a source of frustration for elements of the increasingly vocal left flank of the Democratic party, the bulk of whom have long expressed hopes for more radical change.
Due to the broader regional implications, Yemen is likely to emerge as a significant sticking point with the left. Trump’s Republican party used the conflict as an opportunity to hit out at arch-enemy Iran and establish unprecedently cordial ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Some Democrats have other ideas, however. Key figures from the party’s left have criticized the Saudis for their human rights record and made it clear that pressuring Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen will be one of their primary foreign policy priorities in the coming four years. Biden himself referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” in a November 2019 primary debate, saying that he would seek to halt arm sales to the kingdom. His Secretary of State nominee, Anthony Blinken, has shifted from open support to open criticism of the ongoing Saudi military operation in Yemen.
That’s prompted concern in key Gulf capitals that Biden’s victory may leave them out in the cold. It remains unclear, however, to what extent – if at all – such sentiments will actually manifest themselves in the incoming president’s policy. The US’s longtime broader partnership with Saudi Arabia remains a staple of its policy in the region, making it difficult to imagine any president – let alone someone as mainstream as Biden – threatening that. This is particularly true given ongoing cross-border attacks targeting the kingdom, including missile attacks on targets as far as Riyadh.
That’s not to say there isn’t likely to be some sort of pushback against Saudi Arabia, particularly with regards to Yemen. Diplomatic sources have said there is a strong possibility of freezes being placed on arms sales early in Biden’s term, even if they are likely to fall short of the aims of the party’s more activist-minded left wing. At the very least, a review, if not reversal, of the Trump administration’s last minute designation of the Houthis’ as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is all but inevitable. Overall, however, his administration will likely seek to strike a balancing act between the Democratic party’s various factions, something that could well lead to a slower and more deliberate decision-making process, though bipartisan congressional activity on Yemen, epitomized by the cooperation of Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) will continue to have an effect on policy as well.
This will be bolstered by a likely shift towards reinvigorated American leadership in diplomacy, which will mean greater reliance on the US’s convening power and greater coordination with western and regional allies. This wider shift towards process rather than ideology further portends a likely pragmatism towards the Saudis’ role in Yemen. American policymakers – regardless of their assessment of the war at large – largely see the Gulf country as key to any post-war settlement or rebuilding process. This means that limits on Biden’s ability to end the conflict in Yemen – limits that also existed under both Trump and Obama – will continue.
It is also worth remembering that this conflict is not about the US, and therefore even a radical change in administration alone would be unlikely to bring about peace in Yemen. While foreign involvement has exacerbated the situation, it did not, with some exceptions, create it. Both the Stockholm agreement and efforts by former Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of Obama’s final term achieved some small (often fleeting) successes regarding de-escalation, but failed to move the needle decisively in terms of ending the fighting. The war will ultimately only be solved through some sort of agreement between Yemenis themselves.
Thus, the most constructive thing the US could do is use its diplomatic capacity and leverage to help – along with regional and international partners – to broker some sort of internal accord that could lead to an end or, perhaps more realistically, a calming of the conflict. As the war continues to grow more complicated, all the while exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the need for such sustained diplomacy is more important than ever. A return to institutionalism, paired with a shift towards multilateralism and away from Trump’s “America First” nationalism, would undeniably help enhance the diplomatic and humanitarian responses to the crisis in Yemen.
That said, as long as key factions in Yemen see maintaining the conflict as in their interest, as long as a multifaceted war economy provides ample financial impetus for actors across conflict lines, the fighting will likely continue regardless of who is in the White House.
Author bio: Adam Baron is a political advisor at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. Prior to this, he worked as a writer, consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East with an emphasis on Yemen and the Gulf. He reported from Yemen for The Economist, McClatchy Newspapers, and the Christian Science Monitor from 2011 to 2014. Previously a fellow in the International Security Program for the New America Foundation, Adam Baron was also a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, where he published several pieces analysing aspects of the current war in Yemen.
Editor: Mareike Transfeld,
Copy Editor: Venetia Rainey
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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