Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced what is likely to be just the first reversal of many Trump administration policies, in this case Washington’s slavish subservience to the Saudi royal family. Indeed, Blinken’s immediate predecessor, Mike Pompeo, ended his disreputable tenure with a final, and highly dishonest, gift to Riyadh: designating Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni opponents as "terrorists."
The label was meant to further impede the operation of Yemen’s government, dominated by a religious and political faction known as Ansar Allah or the Houthis. They had committed no terrorist acts, nor even provided money and personnel for terrorist attacks, as had the Saudis for 9/11. However, for years the legal designation has been applied for political purposes, as in this case.
Humanitarian groups warned Pompeo that the legal ramifications of the declaration would make it impossible for them to work, but that mattered little to him. After all, he spent his entire time as secretary helping the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia commit multiple war crimes and create a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Indeed, Pompeo’s posture in office was a permanent genuflect toward Riyadh and the palace of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. For unknown, and perhaps unknowable, reasons – cynics suggested hope for future investment opportunities – the Trump administration’s policy simply was Saudi Arabia uber alles.
The Biden administration’s good news goes further, however.
The Obama and Trump administrations made Americans active accomplices to Saudi (and Emirati) war crimes by supporting the aggressive war against Yemen. That nation, one of the poorest on earth, had been racked by internal conflict for most of its relatively short life. (In fact, there were two Yemens to start, but that is another story.) The Houthis fought the central government for years. Arab Spring protests resulted in the ouster of Yemen’s long-serving president in 2012, but he soon joined with the Houthis and together they defenestrated his successor. At which point the KSA and United Arab Emirates joined in a "coalition," aided by mercenary states paid to join the conflict (for instance, Sudan) to reinstate the "legitimate" but unpopular former president, then living in exile in Riyadh.
This was Yemeni politics at its worst, with no moral significance (every participant in the saga was vile, brutal, corrupt, self-serving, callous, and more). Nor was American security implicated – previous governments had worked with the U.S. against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Houthis were, if anything, even more anti-AQAP. America got involved because the Obama administration, including Biden and at least seven of his current top aides, sought to assuage Saudi concerns over the nuclear deal with Iran by helping the royals slaughter Yemeni civilians. Such is how Washington has always shamelessly sucked up to the pampered royals.
True, that’s not how MbS and his criminal gang explained it, but it turns out that the Saudi military does little well, other than bomb weddings, funerals, school buses, markets, and the like. Thousands of civilians have been killed directly, the vast majority by Saudi and Emirati airstrikes. (The Houthis also are none-too-gentle, but their worst weapon against civilians, undifferentiated artillery bombardments, has killed far fewer civilians.) Even deadlier have been the indirect impacts of the war, particularly the "coalition" blockade, bolstered by multiple air attacks on commercial sites.
This all occurred in a land that was poor and underdeveloped to start. The UN’s Comprehensive Report of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen cited "the suffering of millions caught in its grip. … Yemen remains a tortured land, with its people ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity."
An estimated quarter of a million people have died. Some 4.3 million have been displaced. Malnutrition and disease stalk the land, as the civilian infrastructure to meet health and other social needs, never good, has been ravaged. The United Nations declared that "humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world." In late 2019 the UN explained: "An estimated 24 million people – close to 80 per cent of the population – need assistance and protection in Yemen … . With famine threatening hundreds of thousands of lives, humanitarian aid is increasingly becoming the only lifeline for millions across the country."
Yet the Obama and Trump administrations provided generous support for the forces most responsible for this hardship. The US sold both the KSA and UAE warplanes, serviced by US personnel, refueled (initially) by US tankers, guided by US intelligence, and armed by US manufacturers. If a country wanted to kill someone, it knew who to call: Washington. The US was an accomplice to mass murder in Yemen every step of the way.
On and on this went, as the Trump administration spared no expense or principle in subordinating US values and interests to the one of the few remaining absolute monarchies on earth. Indeed, President Donald Trump essentially subcontracted US Mideast policy to Riyadh. Nothing was too much to do for the Saudi Royals, even carrying out a counterproductive economic war against Iran, which nearly set the Middle East ablaze. Critics wondered what hold MbS had over Trump to win such unthinking fealty.
However, last week the new president, who appears to believe that basic decency should infuse policy formation, announced in his speech at the State Department: "We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe. … Diplomacy will be bolstered by US AID working to ensure that humanitarian aid is reaching the Yemeni people who are suffering an unendurable devastation. This war has to end, and to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales."
The latter is particularly important. The UN’s Group of Experts explained: "the parties to the conflict continue to show no regard for international law or the lives, dignity, and rights of people in Yemen, while third states have helped to perpetuate the conflict by continuing to supply the parties with weapons." America is the most important third state, not Iran. Indeed, Washington’s complaints about Iranian involvement in Yemen are risible, given US backing for the aggressors who are responsible for most of the attacks on civilians. Support which, warned the State Department, could make American officials liable for prosecution for war crimes.
It is critical that the US not be misled by calls to essentially turn Yemen into another endless war. For instance, Varsha Koduvayur, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that the "US must not abandon Yemen to Iran" and "must take into account the very real threat posed by Iran’s co-optation of the Houthis."
However, the administration should not be fooled by such tropes pedaled by Riyadh. Ansar Allah, though malign, is no threat to America. And it has never been a tool of Tehran. Indeed, the group (unfortunately) ignored Iran’s advice not to seize Sanaa. Theologically the Houthis are more moderate than the intolerant Wahhabism promoted by the Saudis around the world, including in Yemen (and America!). And the movement relies heavily on Tehran for weapons because it has no other choice, facing a wealthy aggressor amply supplied by the world’s greatest arms merchant, America.
Ending US participation in the war is not enough. Observed Farea al-Muslimi of Chatham House: "The Gulf countries already have a lot of weapons, so the decision is symbolic in a lot of ways." Having essentially subsidized the conflict for six years, Washington should actively push for peace. Helpful is the fact that Timothy Lenderking, tapped by Biden to be a special envoy for the conflict, admitted last year that the Houthi movement "had a legitimate role to play in Yemen." However, the country is Humpty Dumpty after falling off the wall; the fractures go well beyond the Houthis and the government they ousted. Indeed, it isn’t clear that it is possible to revive a united Yemen, especially after the Emiratis encouraged separatist factions in the south.
The administration should urge allied powers to halt weapons sales to Riyadh and press the UN Security Council to ban Yemen-related sales to the Saudis and Emiratis (who have backed away from active participation in the conflict). Washington also should talk with Iran on the issue – separate from but building on America’s planned return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the nuclear issue.
Moreover, the US and Europeans should press for a larger dialog involving Riyadh and Tehran. Realizing that Washington is willing to press the KSA should attract Iran; realizing that the administration will not shill for the royals as did President Donald Trump should give an extra push to the Kingdom. De-escalating hostilities will not be easy but would dramatically reduce pressure for American military involvement in the region.
Indeed, it is vital that the administration not leave the rest of the U.S.-Saudi relationship unchanged, as Biden appears ready to do. Immediately after promising to end American participation in the Yemeni war, the president added: "Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian supplied forces in multiple countries We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people." Moreover, on Friday Blinken called the Saudi foreign minister. State Department spokesman Ned Price said reported that they "discussed regional security, counterterrorism, and cooperation to deter and defend against attacks on the Kingdom."
However, the attacks cited by the president came only after the KSA fomented U.S. sanctions against Iran, invaded Yemen, and targeted civilians. The Saudi royals expected a short campaign and apparently were shocked when the Yemenis had the bad manners to shoot back. The Saudis thought being an al-Saud means never having to be accountable. The other mentioned threats respond to Saudi threats. There is no chance of Iran becoming a pacific power without a corresponding end to the Kingdom’s belligerence.
Moreover, defense is what tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales, separate from the Yemen conflict, were supposedly for. With the KSA allied with UAE and well-armed Egypt, as well as increasingly with Israel, the royals should be able to organize their own defense. Of course, in the past the royal regime appeared to assume that weapons payments were actually the informal price of American personnel being sent to act as bodyguards, but Biden should inform the royals that US service men and women will not be hired out as de facto mercenaries.
Doing so is especially inappropriate for a regime so antithetical to American values and principles. Saudi Arabia long was the closest example of a totalitarian state, even more so than North Korea: not the slightest political liberty, not the slightest religious toleration, and extensive and arbitrary social controls. Under MbS the last finally has loosened, but he tightened the first while delivering only rhetoric on relaxing the second. Indeed, the crown prince ostentatiously imprisoned women who had protested the ban on women driving as he lifted the prohibition. His most ostentatious crime was turning the Istanbul consulate into an abattoir in which Jamal Khashoggi, a critical journalist and US resident, was murdered and dismembered.
Saudis contributed generously to al-Qaeda with both money and volunteers – 15 of 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. The government largely looked the other way until the group was foolish enough to strike at the monarchy. Then the royals’ survival instincts kicked in and they destroyed the organization.
Since then the Saudis have been an effective if still untrustworthy ally against terrorism. That is one reason to retain a civil relationship with the Kingdom, along with its still abundant oil reserves. However, the US no longer should treat the regime with special gentleness while ignoring its crimes at home and abroad. And America certainly should no longer underwrite the Kingdom’s terrible war crimes against a people who have done nothing against America.
Radhiya al-Mutawakkil, head of the human rights group Mwatana, observed: "Yemen was never good. But the situation was never bad like this." Washington has an obligation to do what it can to atone for its murderous sin of making the Saudi/Emirati war its own. To his credit Biden has taken the critical first steps. However, much more is necessary to bring some measure of justice and peace to Yemen.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.