Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia is an opportunity to end the war in Yemen

When US President Joe Biden visits Saudi Arabia next month, he will have a chance to further his goal of ending the war in Yemen. Biden said early in his administration that ending the war is a top priority, an important and correct policy change from his predecessors. In Jeddah, he may urge Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to do more by lifting the rest of the blockade of North Yemen and making the ceasefire permanent.

Biden’s team has already been very active in bringing the war to a truce, the first since 2016. It went into effect in April and has been extended until August. It should now be extended with no time limit.

The ceasefire is most threatened by the ongoing siege of Taiz, the country’s third-largest city, by the Houthi rebels. The Houthis have offered to open back roads to the city, but not the main roads. The Zaydi Shia Houthis rejected a United Nations compromise proposal last week during talks in Amman, Jordan. Biden may encourage the Saudis to offer incentives to strike a deal to fully open Taiz.

The biggest incentive would be a further easing of the Saudi blockade of the Houthi-controlled north. More fuel should be allowed in Hodeida, the main port, as well as unlimited amounts of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies. The ceasefire has also opened the airport in Sana’a to commercial flights to Amman and Cairo, Egypt. It should be opened to other destinations and facilitate more flights for Yemenis seeking medical attention. Yemen’s own health infrastructure has been destroyed by the war.

The war is a humanitarian catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians die from malnutrition and related diseases. Yemen’s children were the most vulnerable. Ending the war will literally save tens of thousands of lives, a major human rights achievement. Yemen got much of its food from Russia and Ukraine, and their war has pushed up grain prices by as much as 35%.

Biden should also urge the Saudis and their Gulf partners to withdraw their troops from the parts of South Yemen they occupy. The Saudis are located in the Mahra Governorate next to Oman and the Emirates control the islands of Socotra and Perim. All this territory should come under the control of the Saudi-backed new Provisional Authority created in April to replace the weak government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Yemen is unlikely to be reunited in the near future, but it should at least restore its territorial integrity from foreign forces.

Biden will meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the kingdom. All – with the exception of Oman – took part in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen seven years ago. The president may encourage them to do more to rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure to undo the damage of the war. A major project should focus on upgrading the port in Aden, which is beyond Houthi’s control.

Iraq will also be represented in Jeddah. The Iraqis have held talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran to ease tensions in the region and restore diplomatic ties broken by the Saudis. Oman is part of the trial in Baghdad. This process is very much in America’s interest and should be encouraged by Biden.

The Houthis are a very difficult part of the problem. They are fiercely anti-American, dating back to the invasion of Iraq, closely associated with Iran and Hezbollah, and often inflexible in negotiations. But they are here to stay. Re-opening the Yemeni economy to the world will encourage a more flexible Houthi regime in the parts of Yemen that the rebels control, including 80% of Yemen’s population.

Biden has a huge influence on the Saudis, eager to restore their tarnished reputation damaged by the war and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As The Economist recently put it, the best way to improve your image is to improve your policies.

The United States is crucial to the Saudi war effort and will remain so for years to come. China cannot fulfill our role or replace US spare parts for F-15 fighter jets, and is not interested in confronting Iran’s doom in the region. So Biden should use the leverage of our security belts to get the Saudis out of Yemen.

The Saudis have realized late that the war in Yemen is an expensive quagmire for them that costs Iran next to nothing. It has tarnished their reputation in the Islamic world and in the West. Hence Biden’s chance to help them get out of the mess the Crown Prince had recklessly led them into seven years ago.

The World Food Program has just announced a significant cut in food aid to Yemen because global donations to the program are very low, so the need for aid from the Gulf is imperative.