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America’s Saudi Partnership Is Now Killing Americans

We never needed them as an ally, and now they're more of a liability as a client, too

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. (By Matias Lynch/Shutterstock)

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been badly weakened over the last few years, and it seems as if there are new reasons for ending that relationship every week. Saudi war crimes in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi served to turn much of Washington against the kingdom, and their reckless foreign policy has given even some of their regular supporters cause for alarm. The Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has done a remarkable job of burning his bridges with even the most reliable pro-Saudi hawks in Washington.

The Saudis’ ill-advised oil price war this spring alienated many of their few remaining allies on Capitol Hill, and it prompted a rare threat from the Trump administration that the U.S. would cut off military support to the kingdom unless Saudi oil production was reduced. Three years of impunity and constant indulgence of his many other crimes probably made the crown prince believe that he could do whatever he wanted without suffering consequences, but once again he misjudged and overreached.

Other recent revelations have reminded us how dangerous the relationship with the Saudis has been for the U.S. Last week, the FBI announced that they had recovered evidence from the phone of Ahmed Mohammed Alshamrani, the Saudi military officer responsible for the Pensacola Naval Station shooting. The evidence showed that he had been in contact with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadist group affiliate based in Yemen. AQAP later claimed responsibility for the attack. Even if the Pensacola attack was not specifically directed by AQAP, it was certainly carried out by someone who had been communicating with them for years. According to the FBI, Alshamrani’s connection to AQAP dated back to 2015, the same year that the Saudi coalition bombing of Yemen began with U.S. assistance.

Part of the assistance that the U.S. provided to the Saudi coalition over the last five years has been the training of their pilots. This was done ostensibly to improve the pilots’ targeting, but in practice it has just put our government’s stamp of approval on a bombing campaign that has killed thousands of civilians through indiscriminate attacks on villages and cities across that devastated country. It now turns out that the training program also exposed the U.S. to infiltration by a terrorist who somehow managed to become an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force. If the Saudis vet their own pilots this badly and allow someone in league with an Al Qaeda affiliate to serve in their military for years, what possible value can they have as a security partner?

For the last five years, the U.S. has aided and abetted Saudi Arabia and its allies in the destruction of Yemen. That has involved providing the Saudi coalition with weapons that it uses to kill civilians, and it has also meant selling them weapons that they hand off to terrorists and other criminals. Saudi coalition forces have not only made tacit alliances with local Al Qaeda members, but have recruited and armed them as well. None of this has been a secret. This was reported in July 2015:

Meanwhile, Saudi-backed militias are spearheading efforts to roll back Houthi gains and reinstate the government that the rebels drove into exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. But they have turned to Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, for help, according to local residents and a senior Western diplomat. This puts the U.S.-allied Gulf kingdom on the same side as one of the world’s most notorious extremist groups.

There have been reports about Saudi coalition cooperation with local Al Qaeda members since the earliest months of the war, but it has changed nothing in U.S. policy. Washington simply ignores that the Saudis are in cahoots with an Al Qaeda affiliate because it is taken for granted that opposing so-called Iranian “expansionism” is supposed to be more important.

The Saudi Embassy responded to the news about Alshamrani by calling attention to the war on Yemen in a failed attempt to boost their counter-terrorism credentials:

The Saudi government and its U.S. boosters sometimes defend the relationship by emphasizing its importance for counter-terrorism, but the same government and its allies are responsible for fueling a war that has greatly strengthened AQAP and the Saudi coalition has funneled weapons and money to designated terrorists in Yemen. Far from preventing Yemen from becoming a haven for terrorist groups, the Saudi government has acted as their benefactor and enabler. Not only has their war destabilized Yemen and undermined U.S. counter-terrorism efforts there, but it has directly boosted the very groups that they claim to oppose.

The Saudi Embassy asserts that the kingdom has an “unbreakable commitment” to combat these groups, but they have been breaking that commitment on a daily basis for the last five years at least. They say that the training the U.S. provides has allowed their forces to fight against “our common foes,” but in truth they have been on the same side as some of those foes when it was expedient for waging their war. If the Pensacola shooting shows Saudi incompetence, their conduct of the war in Yemen proves their unreliability.

The embassy statement claims that the kingdom will use all means at their disposal to “counter the men, money and mindset of terrorism that enables AQAP,” but this is contradicted by years of Saudi enabling and arming of Al Qaeda members and likeminded groups in Yemen. CNN reported last year about the transfer of U.S.-weapons to Al Qaeda-linked fighters and other extremist groups:

Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States, a CNN investigation has found.

Saudi professions of solidarity are hollow. The U.S.-Saudi “partnership” is a sham, because their government is violating the agreements it made with ours on the use of U.S.-made weapons. We cannot trust them to have U.S.-made weapons without committing war crimes or handing them over to terrorists, so our government should no longer be selling them any more weapons.

This hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from pulling out all the stops to keep the arms flowing to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Last year, the administration made a bogus emergency declaration to expedite arms sales to both countries over the objections of Congress. The declaration was an obvious abuse of the law governing the exports of weapons, and Congress passed resolutions rejecting and condemning it. A State Department inspector general’s investigation into that emergency declaration appears to be one of the reasons why Secretary of State Pompeo pushed for the inspector general’s removal earlier this month. At the end of last week, the administration cleared the way for new sales to the UAE despite evidence that they violated their previous agreements.

U.S. training of Saudi military officers brought a jihadist into our country. That jihadist then killed three American sailors and wounded eight others at one of our naval bases. That happened because the U.S. was providing training that the Saudis would then use to attack Yemen as part of their indefensible war there, and that bombing campaign is made possible by the U.S. assistance and weapons that our government provides them. This is the noxious U.S.-Saudi relationship in microcosm: we train and supply their military to wage a horrible war that increases the threat to the U.S., and that ends up killing Americans on American soil.

Saudi Arabia has never been a U.S. ally, and we are getting regular reminders that we shouldn’t want them as a client, either.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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