U.S. may resume offensive arms sales to Saudis - sources

STORY: The White House is weighing lifting a ban on U.S. sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia ahead of a visit to the region by President Joe Biden.

According to sources, Senior Saudi officials have pressed their U.S. counterparts to scrap a policy of selling only defensive arms to its top Gulf partner in recent months.

Washington and Riyadh have long been close military allies in confronting Iran.

But the scenes of devastation in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has pressed a campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthis, often inflicting heavy civilian casualties, prompted a human-rights outcry that strained the alliance.

Matt Spetalnick covers foreign policy for Reuters.

"At the height of this war in Yemen, the Saudi-led campaign was considered to be quite brutal and very much behind some of the worst civilian casualties that were caused. This led U.S. critics, especially in the U.S. Congress and human rights groups, to call for an end to the sale of U.S. offensive weapons to the Saudis. That would include precision-guided bombs, and other items that could be used on mass attacks. What's happened now, is that the Saudis have been praised for helping to bring about a truce in Yemen since March. They actually extended it in June for two months until early August. What the U.S. would like now is for that to become a permanent cease-fire."

Sources told Reuters the internal U.S. deliberations are informal and at an early stage, with no decision imminent.

But as Biden prepares for a diplomatically sensitive trip, he has signaled that he is looking to reset strained relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when he wants increased Gulf oil supplies along with closer Arab security ties with Israel to counter Iran.

Among the most delicate matters facing Biden is how to greet Saudi Arabia's crown prince: Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS.

Once praised as a reformer in the deeply-conservative kingdom, MbS has seen been accused of a widespread crackdown on domestic political opponents.

U.S. intelligence believes MbS ordered the kidnapping and murder of a U.S.-based Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But it's unclear whether Biden can visit Saudi Arabia without meeting MbS.

"This is the most awkward part of his trip, without a doubt. He has been so critical of MbS, who is the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, over the Khashoggi killing. He has insisted as a presidential candidate in 2020, that Saudi Arabia should be treated as a pariah. He's now backing away from that to some extent. He will be having a bilateral meeting with King Salman, with MbS as part of the king's leadership team. There is the question of whether there will be some sort of handshake or greeting, and there's no knowledge yet of exactly how that will transpire or take place."

Biden departs later this week for Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, and then flies to Saudi Arabia.

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