yemen

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.

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.

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.

Takeaways from Trump’s First 100 Days

For foreign policy wonks, Trump’s first hundred days have been a bit like a roller coaster ride. In just over three months, the new administration has veered from one crisis to another, from Syria to North Korea, China to Canada. Sudden Trumpian reversals on various foreign policy issues have been sharp enough to produce whiplash. Meanwhile, a dizzying barrage of strange foreign policy choices and statements makes it difficult to guess what’s coming next.

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

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