Morning Brief

Does Biden’s Temporary Pause on Gulf Arms Sales Signal a Permanent Shift?

U.S. weapons sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia are under scrutiny, but a full decoupling in relations is unlikely.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis on Wednesday, including one directing a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis on Wednesday, including one directing a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Biden administration plans to pause Gulf arms sales, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Scotland, and the U.S. calls for Eritrean forces to leave Ethiopia.

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Biden to Pause Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE

The Biden administration is to issue a temporary pause on planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of an effort to reexamine last-minute decisions made by the outgoing Trump administration.

First reported in the Wall Street Journal, the decision to review would affect the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and a fleet of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.  The latter sale was made as part of the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel.

Pariah or pause? Although it’s not clear to what extent U.S. President Joe Biden plans to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state as he promised on the campaign trail, the review seems targeted at preventing the arms being used in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen. The U.S. Congress had already attempted to pull the United States out of the conflict, only for then-President Trump to veto the bill.

The move comes as another late Trump administration decision to reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan is also coming under review. It’s not yet known whether U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who previously oversaw a troop withdrawal from Iraq during the Obama administration, would advocate for an increased presence once again.

In realpolitik terms, any long-term stoppage in U.S. arms sales to Gulf states would represent something of a Catch-22, as Russian or Chinese manufacturers would be eager to fill the gap. Those in favor of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy, like the Quincy Institute, have in the past accused Gulf states of using arms sales as “an insurance policy,” in order to keep their U.S. partnerships alive.

Comeback kingdom. Of course, Saudi Arabia can rely on more than arms sales to keep in Washington’s good graces. An army of U.S. lobbyists, who had previously cut ties with the kingdom following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are now back on the Saudi payroll. As Marcus Baram reports in Foreign Policy, the influence campaign now extends outside Washington to small town Iowa newspapers.

A write-off. Although the news of Biden’s freeze didn’t seem to damage the share price of any of the big five weapons manufacturers, it has led some to reassess their future sales. Speaking on a quarterly earnings call on Tuesday, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes, said the company had already removed from its revenue projections a projected $519 million weapons sale to an unnamed Middle Eastern customer—likely Saudi Arabia.

Still, Hayes remained upbeat about his company’s prospects in the region. “Look…peace is not going to break out in the Middle East anytime soon,” Hayes said. “I think it remains an area where we’ll continue to see solid growth.”

What We’re Following Today

Johnson goes north. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit Scotland today as he attempts to quell rising nationalist sentiment by touting the U.K. government’s success in providing COVID-19 tests and for establishing vaccine centers. Scottish government figures released on Tuesday show that almost all frontline workers and those in care homes have received their first vaccine dose, while over half of over 80s have also received their first jab.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has questioned whether Johnson’s visit is “really essential” and said it set a bad example to the public. Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party has already released its plans to hold a second independence referendum if the party wins a majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament in May elections.

Viva vite. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party could soon return to a governing coalition, one week after it withdrew its support for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government, prompting its collapse. Reuters quoted an anonymous lawmaker with the Five Star Movement—one of the biggest voting blocs—as saying they “can work together” with Italia Viva as no other likely support exists.

Eritrea in Tigray. The U.S. State Department has called on Eritrean forces to leave Ethiopia’s Tigray region “immediately,” citing “credible reports” of “looting, sexual violence, assaults in refugee camps, and other human rights abuses.” The U.S. statement comes after the Associated Press detailed the alleged abuses and violent acts perpetrated by Eritrean troops, citing a U.S. resident who escaped Tigray after traveling there to visit family only to become trapped in the civil conflict.

Keep an Eye On

Indian farmer protests. Indian farmers have postponed a planned march after Republic Day protests led to violent clashes with police. The march had been planned for Feb. 1, when the Indian government releases its annual budget. Indian police say that 394 of their members were injured in Tuesday’s protests, while farmers’ unions condemned the violence—blaming it on those who had diverted from the planned protest route.

Vietnam’s “new” leadership. Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong has been nominated to serve a rare third term, according to reports in state media that were later deleted. At 76, Trong would break party age limits on re-elected figures, however it was reported that a special exception would be made. The other primary leadership positions: president, prime minister, and the National Assembly chair are expected to be voted on next Monday.

Congo’s government. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has collapsed after lawmakers passed a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba. Ilunkamba’s supporters boycotted the vote on the basis that the speaker had no constitutional grounds to call it. The move likely strengthens the hand of President Felix Tshisekedi as his newly formed Sacred Union of the Nation grouping can now form a government.

Odds and Ends

The sudden rocket-like rise in the share price of the video game retailer GameStop has taken Wall Street by surprise and made a band of small investors a tidy sum. While the jump in share price has given at least two large hedge funds who had bet against the company a black eye, the upswing is good news for Norwegians.

According to filings made on Dec. 31, 2019, the Norwegian state pension fund owns 2.6 percent of shares in GameStop, a position that is now worth roughly $630 million—on paper at least.  Considering those shares were worth around $10.5 million in 2019, a 6,000 percent gain is not bad business.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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