After the initial announcement that the Democratic candidate Joe Biden has won the US presidential elections, a debate arose among observers and analysts about the contents of the approaches of the new administration in the White House towards the ongoing hot crises and conflicts in the Middle East, including the conflict that has been raging in Yemen for more than five years.

In this connection, the debate erupts specifically between two basic opinions: the first asserts that the Biden administration would bring about radical changes in the official US perspective towards the Yemeni conflict issue, and that it would exert great pressure for its quick settlement. The second assumes that the new US administration would not give this issue priority while dealing with the region’s affairs, due to the numerous internal and external restrictions and challenges it faces, especially in the first months of its mandate.

The assumption of "radical change" in tendencies

The logic of the supporters of the assumption that the Biden administration’s approaches towards the conflict in Yemen would change is based on foundations ranging from the "usual (or what they consider to be usual)" and the "apparent rhetoric". According to their opinion, every new US President usually seeks to make important shifts in the foreign policy of his administration, especially if the President belongs to a different party to the predecessor’s, which would also be done by Democratic President Biden. In this connection, they refer to what Biden himself had said during his election campaign, and his multiple references to his intention to adopt a different approach and work to bring about fundamental changes in the policies of the Trump administration that, in the words of Biden, “caused great damage to the image of the US in the world and to its national security”, and to work on this based on his experience in foreign policy issues, which he refined during his tenure as the Vice President to former President Barack Obama, and earlier during his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Accordingly, Biden's policy towards the Yemeni crisis would be affected by major changes, within a broader package of changes that would be undertaken by the new US administration towards Middle East issues, in light of Biden's pledge to reassess his country's support for the war led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in Yemen. He said that he would respond to the calls of the Congress to end US aid for the Saudi military operations in Yemen, regardless of the fact that those operations were carried out under the supervision (and support of) the Obama administration. Biden's election programme stated that "the priority will be to pressure all parties to stop the war in Yemen, provide humanitarian aid, and return to the negotiating table between the conflicting parties". Upon its arrival at the White House, his administration would begin work with regional and international partners to intensify diplomatic efforts with all parties to the conflict and pressure them to reach a political settlement mediated by the United Nations (UN).

The assumption of "continuation" in policies

On the other hand, another group believes that the Biden administration would not be able to effect fundamental changes in the current US policy approach to the conflict in Yemen, and that all it can do during its tenure would be to exert greater pressure on the two parties to the conflict with the aim of pushing them to join the path of a UN-sponsored political solution. However, those pressures would not necessarily include stopping US arms sales to the KSA, and abandoning Washington's long-standing commitment to strengthening the KSA's defence system.

Despite the sharpness of Biden's rhetoric during his election campaign and his criticism of the KSA against the backdrop of the war in Yemen and the escalation of the humanitarian crisis there, in addition to other issues (such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi), his administration, as argued by this viewpoint, cannot go far in the path of "complete break" with the policy of the Trump administration (and before it the Obama administration) towards the Yemeni conflict, for several reasons, the most important of which are the following:

  1. The bulk of the Biden administration’s energy, especially in the first months of its presidential term, would be preoccupied with managing many internal crises, such as the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic and efforts to combat it, the challenges of restoring economic recovery, and dealing with the dilemma of political and partisan division in the street as well as in the country’s institutions and agencies (especially the legislature), as well as addressing the problem of growing ethnic fissures in the country.
  2. The new Democratic administration may face an unbalanced combination against it in the Senate which is likely to continue to be dominated by the Republicans. The fact is that the Senate plays a decisive role in approving the external orientations of the White House regarding the most prominent global issues and developments, and it is not possible to enact any law that the US administration wants to enact without the approval of the Senate which also has the power to approve the presidential appointments (ministers, ambassadors, and judges). The decisions of the Biden administration and the determination of the form of its foreign orientation remain dependent on "deciding the battle for the majority in the Senate on 5 January 2021, with two runoff elections in the state of Georgia". If the Republicans win this election, which is expected, the Senate would limit Biden's capability to launch major foreign policy initiatives, despite the Democrats' control over the House of Representatives.
  3. The Biden administration may find it difficult to budge many of the frameworks that were imposed by the Trump administration for handling the Yemeni crisis, especially if, in its final days, it continues, for example, to classify the Houthis as a "terrorist group," as indicated by frequent reports. This matter is not new in US politics. Rather, it appears to be part of its recently established traditions. This was admitted, for example, by former President Obama in his recently issued memoirs, by asserting "that in foreign policy, [I] had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of previous administrations and the contingencies of the moment".
  4. While the Yemen crisis may not be included in the Biden administration’s foreign priorities in the first months of its mandate (as it may see it as a "marginal issue" compared to other hot international crises and issues), in any case, the Democratic administration is likely to continue to view a country like Yemen primarily as a "security issue", meaning that combating terrorism and extremism would be the focus of the US policy in this country, as was the case with previous administrations. Therefore, any assessment made by the Biden administration of the current and future trends of the situation in Yemen, and the content of its policy towards them, will constantly take this determinant/fact into account.
  5. The Biden administration, which does not conceal the possibility of re-recognising the nuclear agreement with Iran, which the Obama administration contributed to concluding in 2015, and which President Trump's administration later withdrew from, may not wish to further complicate the US relationship with the Gulf partners who are dissatisfied with such a possible orientation, by raising the issue of the conflict in Yemen and seeking to impose a specific settlement thereof that does not take into account the legitimate security concerns of the countries of the region, and using this issue as a tool to pressure the KSA in particular in order to accept the different approaches of Biden and his administration towards Tehran, in which the Biden administration may risk restoring some of the features of Obama's policy that contributed to fueling Iran’s ambitions and did little to counter its expansionist tendency in the region.

Conclusions and projections

While there are views and assumptions that continue to assert that the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden would adopt a different approach towards the conflict in Yemen than that of his Republican predecessor, by adopting a strategy of pressure towards stopping the war in that country and settling the conflict in a way that does not take into account the interests and security concerns of the Gulf neighbouring countries, those expectations actually ignore the numerous internal and external complexities and challenges that would be encountered by the Democratic administration once it arrives at the White House.

It is more likely that President Biden's administration would be slower in dealing with the protracted crises and conflicts of the Middle East, including the Yemeni conflict which has entered its sixth year, given that “the region would be a low priority for the new administration that would focus on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, with both its internal and external dimensions, and the US foreign policy towards Asia, Europe and the Americas". Consequently, the Biden administration would tend to be more patient in approving and deciding the form of its future policies towards the Yemeni crisis, and take into account the complications associated with it, especially in light of the frameworks and determinants previously adopted by President Trump's administration and the institutions of foreign policy-making in Washington, in dealing with this crisis in all its dimensions, especially if, for example, the Trump administration proceeds to place one of the main parties to the conflict (that is the Houthi Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) group) on the list of terrorist organisations, with what this step entails in terms of redefining the entire Yemeni conflict.

Nevertheless, it would be in the interest of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen to take into account any potential change in the new US administration’s approaches to this issue, and to develop its current approach to the conflict and the ways to settle it accordingly, in order to alleviate the pressures that Washington may exert on it, and to rethink the options through which it can deal with the complexities and challenges of the Yemeni crisis, in light of the slow pace of the political solution, the widening division between the local parties, the increasing manifestations of Iranian involvement in that country, as well as the other growing security threats related to this crisis.

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