More than six years ago Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen. The goal was to reinstall a friendly president to do Riyadh’s bidding. The royal regime assumed the campaign would be over in six weeks.
Yet again the gods punished hubris and made the vainglorious pay a terrible price.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was merely the latest wealthy, technologically advanced nation to underestimate its adversary. Nader Hashemi, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, observed: "The Houthis have proven to be a formidable fighting force. Saudi Arabia does not have a comparable ground game that can match their adversaries."
The movement Ansar Allah, known as the Houthis, fought the Yemeni central government for years. In 2015 the group joined its old adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to oust his presidential successor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. This political game of musical chairs was unexceptional, reflecting the usual vagaries of Yemeni politics.
Then the KSA came to Hadi’s defense. However, Ansar Allah failed to fulfill Riyadh’s expectations and surrender after a few bombing raids. Saudi personnel, who have little reason to die on behalf of a dissolute dictatorial monarchy, proved most adept at bombing weddings, funerals, school buses, and other civilian targets. The resulting military stalemate gave Iran, which had had only a distant relationship with the Houthis, an unexpected opportunity to bleed the Kingdom at modest cost.
The KSA, joined by the United Arab Emirates and a "coalition" of Saudi client states, also blockaded Yemen, causing the humanitarian situation to deteriorate disastrously. Some 80 percent of the population currently is dependent on international assistance. The New York Times recently reported: "Six years into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, shattered the country and battered much of its infrastructure, Yemen faces rising rates of hunger that have created pockets of famine that aid groups warn are likely to grow, leaving even more malnourished Yemenis vulnerable to disease and starvation."
Riyadh cared nothing about Yemeni civilians, who were treated as unimportant collateral damage. But the Kingdom increasingly found itself the target of missiles and drones, leaving its spokesmen whining pitiably about the terrible unfairness of their victims shooting back. By last year the Saudis had tired of the costly campaign they started and wanted out.
They could have simply quit the war. However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who cemented his rule by jailing critics and shaking down relatives, refused to acknowledge his blunder – and the lives and money wasted in six years of fruitless combat. So the Saudi regime sought to salvage its pride and negotiate an exit that would still give the royal family de facto control over Yemen. The KSA proposed a nationwide ceasefire with talks on Yemen’s future.
However, Ansar Allah refused to yield its advantage. The Saudis, having bombed mercilessly, increasingly found themselves to be targets. Reported the Wall Street Journal: "Since January, there have been more than 80 such attacks, some involving multiple, simultaneous drone assaults, that have U.S., Saudi and other allies in the region on high alert." The Houthis insisted that Riyadh lift the blockade of Yemen’s airport and port cities first. In the meantime, Yemeni insurgents pressed toward Marib, an important city tied to the country’s energy resources. Its possession would give the movement powerful negotiating leverage in eventual talks.
Noted Hashemi, "Until now, the U.S.-Saudi peace plans have been predicated on Houthi surrender, which is a non-starter for peace in Yemen." Ansar Allah is no friend of America and shares responsibility for the disaster that Yemen has become. Nevertheless, Hashemi emphasized the Kingdom’s role in refusing to end the war: "In this context, Saudi Arabia is the recalcitrant party in blocking a genuine peace plan for Yemen."
For six years the Obama and Trump administration made Americans accomplices to war crimes – providing planes, maintenance, munitions, intelligence, and for a time refueling. The incoming Biden administration was filled with officials, from the president on down, who had become uncomfortable with the consequences of the Obama administration’s decision to back the Saudi offensive. The intent had been to assuage Riyadh’s concern over the nuclear deal with Iran. After Trump played the role of Saudi hireling and switched to a policy of "maximum pressure" against Tehran, however, US support for MbS’s bloody aggression lost its purpose.
Almost immediately President Joe Biden announced that that he was "ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales." However, the Biden administration – which demonstrated the limits of its commitment to human rights when it refused to sanction MbS for his slice and dice operation against journalist Jamal Khashoggi – insisted that Washington remained committed to the Kingdom’s defense.
However, the Saudis continue to participate in the war, attacking targets throughout Yemen. The KSA also maintains the starvation blockade. Rep. Debbie Dingel (D-MI) organized a letter from more than 70 Democratic congressmen urging the administration to press Riyadh to lift the siege. She explained: "Ending US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen alone isn’t enough if we allow the blockade to carry on. It’s projected that 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 could die from starvation this year if this blockade continues – it must be lifted now."
Yet the administration appears oblivious to Riyadh’s continuing responsibility. An unnamed but clueless Biden official told the Journal: "The bottom line is that the Houthis need to know that we are standing with the Saudis and we will continue to support their right to self-defense." Similarly, Washington’s special envoy Timothy Lenderking decried Yemeni retaliation as "not the actions of a group that claims it wants peace." But the KSA has refused to take the one step that would instantly de-escalate the conflict: quit.
Nor have the Saudis tempered their conduct anywhere else. With the Trump administration’s fulsome support, Saudi Arabia, especially after MbS took effective control, became the Middle East’s most reckless, irresponsible power. It attacked Yemen, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, underwrote Islamist insurgents in Syria, fueled Libya’s civil war, backed Bahrain’s brutal suppression of democracy protesters, launched economic war against Qatar, and subsidized al-Sisi’s coup and dictatorship in Egypt. No regime, even Iran, is a more malign influence in the region today. Yet Riyadh refuses to drop even one of its oppressive, destabilizing operations.
The Biden administration should toughen its stance toward Riyadh. The administration already is drawing down U.S. forces, including a Patriot anti-missile battery, which were added by the ever-solicitous Trump. (Why he catered to Riyadh’s every whim after having sharply criticized the royal regime during the campaign remains a matter of speculation.) Biden should complete that process, leaving the Kingdom’s defense to the royals. The KSA should stop looking to Washington to provide the equivalent of bodyguards.
The president also should suspend all US logistical and maintenance support and all arms sales as long as the KSA is involved in aggressive military operations against its neighbors. Currently "defense" against Yemen means protecting Riyadh from retaliation for its offensive operations. Until Saudi Arabia exits the war, the US should do nothing to shield the Kingdom from the natural consequences of its actions.
The history of modern Yemen was complicated, as two very difference states became one, and costly, as the land was consumed by conflict. This endless war is an enormous tragedy but of no security significance to America.
Of late Washington’s main concern with Yemen was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. However, the Saudi-Emirati attack disrupted Yemeni cooperation against the terrorist organization reaching back to Saleh’s presidency and diverted Houthi military efforts away from AQAP. Abu Dhabi also worked to promote secessionist groups against the Hadi government, to improve the UAE’s commercial position. Ending the war would be the best antidote to Yemeni radicalism and separatism.
Some observers advocated aiding Saudi Arabia out of fear that a Houthi-led government might obstruct traffic in the Red and Arabian Seas. However, Ansar Allah always focused inward, hostile to but little interested in America – or other Western states. It was Riyadh’s U.S.-backed attack, termed the Saudi-American War by Yemenis, which created the threat of retaliation. As had happened in Iraq and Libya, US intervention created far more problems than it solved.
Of course, Trump was fixated on Iran and prepared to allow Riyadh to kill as many Yemenis as necessary to put additional pressure on Tehran. However, the Houthis never were tools of Iran, which saw the conflict as a means to punish MbS for his folly and distract him from his anti-Iran campaign. With the Biden administration now moving toward compliance with the JCPOA, Tehran and Washington should begin a dialogue over other issues, including Yemen.
The last two presidents made the American people complicit with brutal aggression against one of the poorest nations on earth. Biden knows what is at stake, having recognized the "unendurable devastation" of the war before announcing the end of offensive aid and suspension of weapons sales. Iran and Ansar Allah share blame over what happened to Yemen, but the Kingdom and UAE greatly multiplied the harms for the crudest reasons of power politics.
Peace will not be possible until Saudi Arabia ends its unnecessary war. And that requires the US to finally stop coddling the royals. Washington should end all military support as long as the regime is conducting a murderous war of aggression against its poor neighbor. Americans no longer should be complicit in the murder and mayhem being daily visited upon the people of 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.