Tag: saudi arabia

Time for Diplomacy, Not War, in Yemen

On Wednesday June 13 the Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault to seize Hodeidah, the site of Yemen’s main port. The port, currently held by Houthi fighters, is the primary channel through which humanitarian aid reaches millions of at-risk Yemenis, who have suffered from four long years of civil war.

The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die.

The coalition had sought direct military assistance from the United States, which has provided weapons, intelligence, and logistical support throughout the war. The Trump administration declined, however, and encouraged the coalition to give the United Nations time for diplomacy. This remains the right approach. As tragic as the situation in Yemen is today, continued American support for military intervention is the wrong answer. Not only does the United States lack a compelling national security interest in Yemen, but by supporting the Saudi-led coalition the United States has contributed materially to the one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. Further military support won’t improve American security, but it risks making things worse for Yemen.

Transparency Casts Doubt on American Role in Yemen

On Tuesday, a vote in the Senate sought to curtail America’s participation in the destruction of Yemen. This vote was the culmination of months of dedicated work by those involved in this issue, and the resolution failed by only a few votes. It forced a debate on the topic and added to international momentum to resolve the conflict peacefully. 

On Thursday, the Trump administration notified Congress of three new arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the country that has repeatedly tossed aside the laws of armed conflict to indiscriminately target cities and civilian populations. Nevertheless it seems that America will remain the kingdom’s largest weapons supplier

This round includes 6,600 TOW missiles, $300 million worth of repairs to their Abrams tanks and other surface vehicles, and $106 million for helicopter maintenance. These deals are worth $630 million total. 

Restricting arms sales like these would lessen America’s involvement in the war and force Saudi Arabia to either find other suppliers or rethink the current course of action.

For more on this issue, check out our latest in DefenseOne on the events this week. Interested in American weapons exports and the intersection of foreign policy more generally? Read our latest Policy Analysis, “Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy.” 

The Two Faces of Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia’s prodigal son returns to Washington this week, beginning a tour through the United States apparently aimed at drumming up investment in the country. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is young with big ideas: he wants to reform Saudi society and wean the Saudi economy off oil. He also wants to build up Saudi as a foreign policy player – with or without the United States – and cement Saudi dominance in the Gulf.

It’s small wonder then that profiles and articles about the prince typically either laud him as a great reformer or simply criticize his foreign policy blunders. The truth is an accurate portrayal of Mohammed bin Salman must include both. And policymakers and businesses should be wary of the potential pitfalls of his proposed reforms, even as they hope for their success.  

The Crown Prince’s social reforms are a welcome step in the right direction, though they will be difficult to complete. Thus far, there has been a crackdown on the religious police, robbing them of much of their power over morality issues. Cinemas have been permitted to screen movies for the first time in decades. Women can now attend sporting events, and legal changes are in progress that will allow them to drive.

Likewise, the innovative economic reforms that MBS has proposed – notably using an IPO of Aramco stock to shift the government’s primary income source away from oil and towards investment gains, paired with an attempt to reform the domestic economy and attract inward investment – could potentially reshape and improve the state of the Saudi economy.

There is no doubt that U.S. policymakers should welcome these changes and encourage Saudi Arabia to continue down this path.

Unfortunately, on the flip side, the assertiveness shown by MBS at home has been matched by an extremely bellicose foreign policy. The young prince’s foreign policy overreach has already helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi blockade of Qatar has been spectacularly ineffectual and has hardened into stalemate.  

Intolerable Cruelty With No Security Rationale: U.S. Support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen

The United States is helping one of the most vicious authoritarian regimes in the world bomb and blockade one of the poorest and most defenseless countries in the world. Painful as it may be for Americans to hear, war crimes are being committed with America’s support.

Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen in 2015 on flimsy national security grounds and almost immediately garnered criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups for indiscriminate bombings, and in some cases deliberate targeting, of civilian areas. Saudi bombs have landed on residential homes, marketplaces, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and at least one funeral. In spite of these allegations and clear evidence of extreme human suffering, the United States has supported the Saudi campaign from the beginning by providing refueling assistance, logistical support, intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic cover (not to mention massive arms sales).

To date, conservative estimates put the number of Yemenis killed by Saudi bombs at more than 13,500 (including more than 5,000 confirmed civilians). What has made the situation an order of magnitude worse is Saudi Arabia’s de facto blockade of Yemen’s air, sea, and land ports, preventing the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid. The main sewage plant in Yemen’s capital Sana’a ran out of fuel, couldn’t import more, and hasn’t run for months at a time, helping intensify the spread of disease. More than 900,000 Yemenis are suffering from cholera, a disease that could be treated if the Saudis would permit entry of aid and medical supplies. But, according to the BBC, the Saudis have turned away up to 29 vessels with 300,000 tons of food and 192,000 tons of fuel, plus a UN ship transporting 1,300 tons of health, water, sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition supplies.

About 17 million Yemenis are in urgent need of food; 7 million of those are facing starvation. Roughly 400,000 children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition and, if Yemen doesn’t get relief soon, up to 150,000 of those children will likely die within a few months.

Journalists from CBS News, looking to shine a light on what the United Nations has called a “man-made catastrophe,” were recently denied entry into Yemen by Saudi authorities. Riyadh doesn’t want the world to know what it’s doing. CBS instead found Yemenis willing to film the horror, which aired on 60 Minutes this past weekend. The stomach-churning footage is not easy to watch. David Beasley, who runs the UN’s World Food Program, told 60 Minutes that, “the Saudi-led coalition” – a phrase he apparently used advisedly to include the United States – “are using food as a weapon of war. And it’s disgraceful.”

Let’s be clear: there is no credible strategic justification for US complicity in this abominable cruelty. The Saudis claim the war is necessary to crush the Houthi militants in Yemen, a group that has received backing from Iran. Incidentally, Iranian support for the Houthis was negligible until well into the Saudi air campaign, with Iran boosting support largely in response to Riyadh’s offensive. In any case, the war itself has done more to bolster the position of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen than to effectively push back against Iranian influence.

Trade-Offs in the Middle East

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump delighted in waving to packed crowds while the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want” played.  At the time, the song seemed like a repudiation of the Republican elites who had failed to support his campaign. Today, as his Middle East policy careens off the rails, it’s a concept the President himself should learn to grasp.

Mere hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that tensions between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other regional states were negatively impacting the fight against ISIS and calling for all sides to defuse tensions, the President contradicted him, publicly castigating Qatar for terrorist financing, and backing the Saudis in their campaign against Doha. In this, as in other things, Trump appears not to understand the trade-offs inherent in his own Middle East policies.

Certainly, the rift between Qatar and other Gulf states predates Donald Trump. Tensions have been high for years, particularly during the Arab Spring, when the Gulf states often backed different sides in the political struggles and wars that convulsed the region. As I described in a Cato Policy Analysis in 2014:

“As early as June 2012, media sources reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were arming anti-regime rebels [in Syria] with both light and heavy weapons… The vast quantities of money and arms they have provided during the past three years have driven competition among Syria’s rebel groups. This competition has increased the conflict’s duration and has reduced the likelihood that the rebels will eventually triumph.”

Trump’s No Good Very Bad Arms Deal

Tomorrow Congress will vote on resolutions of disapproval in response to Trump’s recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia. If passed, Senate Resolution 42 and House Resolution 102 would effectively block the sale of precision guided munitions kits, which the Saudis want in order to upgrade their “dumb bombs” to “smart bombs.” A similar effort was defeated last year in the Senate. How should we feel about this vote?
 
Before the ink was dry President Trump was busy bragging about his arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a deal that he claimed would reach $350 billion and would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” The sale bore all the hallmarks of Trump’s operating style. It was huge. It was a family deal—brokered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It was signed with pomp and circumstance during the president’s first international trip. But most importantly, as with so many of his deals, the deal was all sizzle and no Trump Steak.™
 
Trump’s arms deal with the Saudis is in fact a terrible deal for the United States. It might generate or sustain some jobs in the U.S. It will certainly help the bottom line of a handful of defense companies. But from a foreign policy and national security perspective, the case against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a powerful one for many reasons.

Trump of Arabia

Donald Trump will make his first foreign visit this week, eschewing more typical early presidential destinations like Canada in favor of a photo-op heavy swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, before attending next week’s NATO summit in Brussels. Of these, perhaps the most interesting will be his time in Riyadh, where he will conduct bilateral meetings and attend two summit gatherings: one a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, and the other a U.S.-Arab Islamic summit.

Despite Trump’s negative comments about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, he has been more supportive since his inauguration, and likely looks forward to a warm reception in Riyadh. For their part, the Saudis have invested heavily in lobbying the new administration, with whom they believe they can work on issues from counterterrorism to Iran. For a president under fire at home, and whom even foreign allies treat with extreme caution, the open embrace of Saudi leaders is undoubtedly welcome.

During the visit, Trump is expected to make two announcements. The first is a massive arms sale worth as much as $300 billion over a decade. The package includes a number of advanced systems, most notably a THAAD missile defense system, and is intended to improve Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. The second rumored announcement – the creation of an “Arab NATO” – is more unexpected. Though such an idea has been suggested before, regional realities have typically prevented it from advancing past the idea stage.

Indeed, though the U.S. has long sought to build up military cooperation and interoperability between regional states, policy differences and long-running disputes have torpedoed similar initiatives in the past. From military cooperation within the GCC to 2015’s Saudi-led announcement of an “Islamic coalition to fight terrorism“ these efforts have yielded few concrete results. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) was rendered ineffectual by regional disputes.

In reality, the likelihood of failure may not worry either Trump or the Saudi leadership, both of whom have shown a propensity for policy characterized by big, flashy announcements that are rarely followed through with concrete steps.

Of greater concern are other areas of likely discussion at the summit, particularly the prospect of greater U.S.-Saudi cooperation against Iran. Though Trump has thus far proven unwilling to “rip up” the Iranian nuclear deal, he has initiated new sanctions on Iran, and repeatedly promised a more assertive U.S. policy to deal with Iran’s “destabilizing” regional behaviors.  Unfortunately, this approach carries risks, including the prospect of undermining the nuclear deal or of creating a wider regional conflict.

And while the President and Saudi leaders may agree on many policy issues, the summit does present several areas of potential conflict. For one thing, the hosts have extended an invitation to Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the ICC for war crimes and genocide, a choice which has upset many in Washington, if not necessarily the President himself. Trump is likely to accidentally provide support to one side in the ongoing influence struggle between Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Crown Prince, and Mohammed bin Salman, the King’s son and second-in-line to the throne.

Trump’s scheduled speech on Islam also promises a variety of opportunities for misunderstanding and misstatements; in addition to the President’s habit of deviating from prepared remarks, the speech itself is reportedly being written by advisor Stephen Miller. Miller is not only the author of the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on various Muslim countries, but also waged a campaign during his college years to create awareness of the dangers of “Islamofascism.”

In short, though Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia offers little in the way of policy disagreements – and presents a valuable opportunity for the new administration to distance itself from turmoil at home – it also offers plenty of potential pitfalls for the new President and his staff. And that’s before he even makes it to stop number two. 

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