With friends like the KSA America doesn’t need enemies.
Washington should draw a line at Yemen. So far, unfortunately, the administration remains committed to backing Riyadh in a murderous war against one of the world’s poorest nations, incompetently waged to restore a Saudi and Emirati puppet regime to power. The result has been a humanitarian catastrophe. The state‐orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi finally energized Congress to challenge President Donald Trump on the issue, though GOP congressional leaders worked to protect the bloody royal regime in Riyadh. The issue will heat up next year after Democrats take control of the House.
The United States should leave the Yemen War. American officials have pretended that Washington is not a combatant. However, the United States has provided targeting intelligence, sold munitions and refueled Saudi aircraft. (The latter recently was suspended.) Yemenis realize that the United States has provided essential combat support in a countrywide bombing campaign targeting weddings, funerals, and much in between, thereby killing tens of thousands of civilians. If angry Yemenis turn into terrorists, American officials will be primarily to blame.
The United States did all this despite Yemen’s minimal significance. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, predictably called the country a “vital interest,” suggesting that in his view nowhere on earth is not vital. In reality, Yemen, in turmoil for decades, is not even an important interest, other than having entangled Washington in a wholly unnecessary conflict.
Most important, the major factions competing for power have little ability and no incentive to halt oil shipments through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Otherwise the essentially permanent Yemeni crisis always has been internal.
From modern Yemen’s beginning six decades ago conflict has stalked its existence. Part independent kingdom, part British colony, nationalist revolutionaries eventually took control of both. At one point Egyptian and Saudi troops faced off. For years there were two Yemens, with strained relations. Even after the two became one in 1990, with Ali Abdullah Saleh as president, Yemen was enveloped in strife. In 2004 the Houthis, a movement dominated by Zaydi Shia, rose against Saleh. Along the way, Riyadh periodically intervened, including promoting Sunni Wahhabism in Yemen.
The 2011 Arab Spring led to Saleh’s ouster. However, four years later he was back, working with his former antagonists, the Houthis, against vice president‐turned‐president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The latter’s fragile government resigned in January 2015. Yemenis continued to battle one another: As Ecclesiastes in the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Two points that regional specialists agreed on: Iran had little to do with the latest political permutations in Sanaa and Houthis were interested in taking power in Yemen, not attacking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, the Saudis and Emiratis launched a campaign to reinstate Hadi. Riyadh predicted a short campaign. However, the “coalition,” backed by military contributions from friendly states, such as Sudan, among others—though not Egypt, which apparently had had enough during its earlier military misadventure—found itself locked in an interminable conflict which achieved little other than to cause mass civilian casualties and wreck the country’s primitive infrastructure.
After signing the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration sought to prove Washington’s friendship, demonstrating “our deep loyalty to our allies,” in the words of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dafna Rand. Unsurprisingly, the Houthis welcomed aid from Iran, which equally appreciated the opportunity to bleed the blundering royals. Hence the coalition and its chief backer turned Yemen’s endless internal conflict into an international sectarian proxy fight.
Nearly four years later Washington still has no security interest at stake. The arguments typically made for U.S. involvement are bootstrapped from responses to Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s initial aggression, which was entirely unnecessary since, historically, money and patronage had guaranteed Saudi interests. Houthi missile attacks on cities in Saudi Arabia and ships in the Gulf of Aden are retaliation for the coalition’s incessant attacks on Yemeni targets, many civilian. Tehran’s increased influence, such as it is, results from the Houthis’ need for assistance against rich combatants backed by America. AQAP and other radical groups are stronger—because the Saudi/Emirati attack diverted the Houthis, while Hadi and his Saudi benefactors turned radicals into allies.
Long‐term impacts of U.S. involvement are entirely ill. Washington has turned many Yemenis into enemies and potential terrorists while rewarding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s worst impulses. The Pentagon’s claim that aiding Riyadh’s war reduces civilian casualties is risible: Some sixty thousand civilians have been killed, most in coalition airstrikes. Nearly half the population needs aid; a million people have contracted cholera; famine stalks much of the land; civilian infrastructure, primitive to start, has been wrecked. The number of dead from malnutrition approaches one hundred thousand. Emirati and Saudi interests are diverging, with Abu Dhabi promoting separatism in the south, making a peaceful, stable settlement even more difficult.
Which has left the administration and its congressional servants, paraphrasing Secretary Pompeo, to caterwaul about Iran. The ever‐blinkered Wall Street Journal complained about a vote to “abandon an ally in a proxy war with Iran.” Yet Riyadh started the war without considering America’s interests.
Moreover, Tehran has never controlled the Houthis, did not start the present conflict, and has only limited influence even now. With its own economy is in crisis, Iran could not afford to underwrite even a victorious Houthi regime. Tehran also would have little reason to do so: Yemen will remain in desperate crisis for years, neither able nor willing to challenge Riyadh or Washington. Yemen is a problem for Riyadh primarily because of MbS’ hubris. He is likely to acknowledge his blunder only if the United States stops trying to protect the crown prince from his own folly.
The ongoing peace talks offer some hope. They have advanced further than previous attempts, and have reached some positive agreements, such as prisoner exchange, though implementation remains. The fact that Western nations have turned against the war encouraged the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to start making concessions, necessary to reach a more enduring peace. So long as Riyadh can count on a blank check from Washington—it turns out the United States wasn’t even charging enough for refueling Saudi aircraft—the kingdom has no reason to temper its policy. Which means the administration should take the next step and end all support for the war; MbS and his companions should bear the full burden of what amounts to imperial warmongering.
However, the administration continues to treat the KSA as the superpower, needed far more by America than Riyadh needs Washington. Indeed, the president, who asserts his divine negotiating skills, tossed away his leverage when he announced that the United States was lost without Saudi Arabia’s aid. So obsequious has he been in dealing with the Saudis that some critics presume he is protecting private business interests.
Yet the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to sell its oil; otherwise, the crown prince and his thousands of relations won’t be able to afford their palaces, yachts and vacations. Worse, without funds to spread at least a little largesse among the population, the royals would end up hanging from lamp posts. Riyadh could shift to other weapon suppliers, but its investment in American arms makes that difficult: requirements for training, spare parts and interoperability would continue to push the KSA toward the West.
China and especially Russia cannot fulfill ambitious economic development plans; Saudi Arabia requires American and European participation. Most importantly, who else would promise to protect the licentious princes and princesses as they mulct their people while treating Islam as a libertine license? With just one and two rudimentary aircraft carriers, respectively, Moscow and Beijing will not be sending their armadas, to use Trumpspeak, to the Persian Gulf.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not the first murderous dictatorship with which America has dealt. Doing so may be necessary, but always should be done reluctantly, without illusion. Policy should focus on achieving Washington’s objectives at the least cost.
The United States should seek a regional balance, not Saudi hegemony. The KSA has proved far more brutal and destabilizing than Iran: invading one neighbor; kidnapping the leader of another; launching a diplomatic offensive, backed by the threat of military action, against a third; and supporting radical insurgents against a fourth. Washington should end all support for the Yemen war and terminate further weapons sales until the kingdom draws down that conflict.
While remaining formally friendly toward Riyadh, the Trump administration should indicate that business as usual is impossible with a regime that has made ostentatious irresponsibility the bedrock of its foreign policy. In just four years MbS has directed multiple foreign disasters and humiliations. It would be wise for the king and other members of the royal family to ponder whether they should move forward with a leader who guarantees continued embarrassment for and estrangement from those nations once most friendly to the KSA.
Moreover, Washington should denounce Riyadh’s crimes. The United States lacks credibility when it criticizes Tehran but ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia remains a totalitarian state both politically and religiously—despite MbS’ presentation as the great reformer, not one church, synagogue or temple operates. Indeed, the country has become even more repressive under the crown prince. Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment simply highlighted a brutal policy already evident to Saudis at home. Secretary Pompeo, who falsely certified that Riyadh was acting to limit civilian casualties in Yemen, should attempt to keep his hypocrisy within more modest bounds.
It is, to coin a phrase, time for a change in policy toward Saudi Arabia. The U.S. administration should stop acting as the monarchy’s public relations agent and the U.S. military should stop acting as the royal family’s bodyguard. Most importantly, Washington should stop supporting a war it should never have backed. Only then will it be possible to reform America’s relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.