Biden’s $582 Million Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia. Can It Be Blocked?

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

On December 24, 2023, the Biden Administration announced a $582 million arms sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Three Congressional resolutions aim at blocking the sale.

S.Res. 109,[1] which Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT) introduced on March 15, 2023, invokes a little-used section of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.[2] Section 502B bars the US from providing “security assistance,” including arms sales, to any country with a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”[3] The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia certainly fits that requirement.

502B allows Congress to request that the White House produce a report on a foreign government’s human rights record. A 502B report on Saudi Arabia[4] would focus on (1) Saudi Arabia’s human rights record; and (2) Saudi conduct with respect to Yemen, particularly the Kingdom’s disproportionate killing of civilians (which the US has aided).[5] If the Executive fails to produce the report within 30 days all security assistance to the country in question stops automatically.[6]

There are exceptions. Even if the Executive does not produce a report within 30 days security assistance can continue if the Secretary of State determines that “extraordinary circumstances” exist;[7] or, if in the Secretary’s opinion, continuing the assistance is in the US “national interest”;[8] or, the if president determines that there has been a significant improvement in the country’s human rights practices.[9] These exceptions are big enough to drive a truck through and could allow the president to evade enforcing the law. Whether Congress approves S.Res. 109 or not may not make a difference.

Biden Promises to End US Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Even before he was elected, Biden promised to reevaluate the US-Saudi relationship. This was in part a reaction to the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been chopped up by a bone cutter at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Khashoggi’s murder was ordered by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During the November 20, 2019 Democratic presidential debate, Biden called Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” and vowed that the US would no longer sell weapons to the Saudis.

Biden condemned arms sales to Saudi Arabia in his first major foreign policy speech as president on February 4, 2021. Biden announced that he was “ending all support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” Pay close attention to that wording.

Biden’s Empty Promises

The Biden Administration has not treated Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” Biden even visited the crown prince on July 15, 2022, in hopes of persuading Bin Salman to boost oil production.

And the weapons continued to flow. For the first six months of Biden’s presidency there were no US arms sales to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. In January 2021, the administration announced a temporary freeze on the Trump Administration’s pending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. There was less to this move than met the eye. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “U.S. officials said it isn’t unusual for a new administration to review arms sales approved by a predecessor, and that despite the pause, many of the transactions are likely to ultimately go forward.”

Then on August 2, 2021 the Biden Administration announced $5 billion in arms contracts to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This was followed by a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia which was announced on November 21, 2021. On December 7, the US Senate voted 30-67 against a joint resolution (S.J. Res. 31) which would have blocked the sale.

Biden said during his February 4 speech that he was “ending all support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The key word here is “offensive.” Which weapons are “offensive” and which “defensive”? The Biden Administration won’t say and has rebuffed Congressional attempts to find out. Many weapons can be used for either defense or offense. Whenever the Biden White House sells arms to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates it simply asserts that they will be used for defense, such as defense against Iran or the Houthis.

This brings us to the $582 million sale announced by the Administration on December 24, 2023. S.Res. 109 would block this sale, along with all other arms sales and security assistance to Saudi Arabia. Two other resolutions target only the $582 million sale. The two resolutions are S.J. Res. 53 , introduced on Dec. 11, 2023 by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and H.J. Res. 106 , introduced on January 2, 2024 by Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN-5). Representative Omar has said: “It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to kill and torture dissidents and support modern-day slavery.” Omar has also excoriated Saudi Arabia’s “systematic murder, rape, and torture of [hundreds of Ethiopian refugees]” who were attempting to enter Saudi Arabia from Yemen.[10]

S.Res. 109 has been gathering dust since March 2023 without a vote. Let’s hope that these two new resolutions have more luck.


[1]  Full title: “A Resolution requesting information on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices pursuant to section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.”

[2]  According to the Center for Civilians in Conflict: “Congress has only used the process outlined in Section 502B once in nearly fifty years.” The process was used in 1976 to compel the Executive to issue a human rights report; it has never been used to block an arms sale.

[3]  Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 Section 502B(a)(2).

[4]  The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor already issues annual reports on “internationally recognized human rights” in other countries. The “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” were established in Section 502B(b). The latest report for 2022 includes a section on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

[5]  Saudi Arabia has been at war with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. There has been a truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis since April 2022.

The US has been complicit in the Saudi-UAE aggression since day one.   The US has provided the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, targeting assistance, logistics, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes.

The Houthis are currently in the news because of their attacks on Red Sea shipping. Since November 2023, the Houthis have been targeting Red Sea naval traffic connected to Israel, including US Navy vessels. The Houthis say the attacks are acts of solidarity with Gaza and will continue until Israel ends its killing in Gaza. The conflict in the Red Sea could escalate into a regional war, particularly following Iran’s dispatch of a warship to the Red Sea on January 1.

[6]  Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 Section 502B(c)(2)(B)(3).

[7]  Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 Section 502B(c)(1)(C)(i).

[8]  Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 Section 502B(c)(1)(C)(ii).

[9]  Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 Section 502B(a)(4)(C)(e).

[10]  See the August 21, 2023 report from Human Rights Watch: “’They Fired on Us Like Rain’: Saudi Arabian Mass Killings of Ethiopian Migrants Along the Yemen-Saudi Border.”

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at