Tensions with Iran might be rising, but American forces are already are at war in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. is backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their bloody conflict against Yemen, and the Trump administration is acting as PR agent and bodyguard for the two royal families.
The conflict violates American values and hurts U.S. interests. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed with Washington’s assistance. U.S. support for this murderous war of aggression may also be creating new terrorists who could target America in the future.
Modern Yemen was born in conflict some six decades ago. The territory included an independent kingdom and British colony. For a time, Egyptian and Saudi troops backed warring Yemeni regimes. The two Yemens became one in 1990 and Ali Abdullah Saleh was elected president. Yet Saudi Arabia continued to meddle, promoting intolerant Wahhabism, which further upset Yemen’s internal balance.
In 2004, Ansar Allah or Partisans of God, popularly known as the Houthis, rose against Saleh. The Houthis are dominated by Zaydi Shia (which differ theologically from Iranian Shia). When the Arab Spring washed over Yemen in 2011, Saleh was ousted. He then made common cause with his former enemies, the Houthis, and together they kicked out his successor, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, four years later.
None of this had anything to do with Iran, which area specialists affirm exercised little influence over any Yemeni faction. And the Houthis had no designs against Saudi Arabia or America. They were focused on consolidating power against their domestic enemies.
However, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened militarily in 2015 in hopes of returning Hadi to his presidential quarters in Sanaa. The war was expected to be a cakewalk, lasting just a few weeks.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi squeezed contributions from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan—that regime’s notorious Janjaweed militia—as well as Qatar, before they turned against the latter. The “coalition” also enlisted Yemeni factions, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Obama administration, hoping to reassure Riyadh after negotiating its nuclear agreement with Iran, provided Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with munitions, targeting assistance, and airborne refueling. The Trump administration continued this support, recently announcing “emergency” approval of more weapons sales to sidestep the requirement for congressional authorization.
Nevertheless, the war rages on inconclusively. Despite its many advantages, the coalition, and especially Saudi Arabia, is suffering blowback. Last week, a Yemeni missile hit Abha airport in the Saudi south, causing 26 casualties. The Kingdom responded with hypocritical shrieks of rage and threats of revenge.
Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, his hands drenched in the blood of dead Yemeni civilians, denounced Iran’s “reckless escalation, through the use of ballistic missiles and UAVs to directly target civilian installations and innocent civilians.” A Saudi spokesman criticized “the continuation of the Iranian regime’s support and practice of cross-border terrorism.”
Yemeni insurgents responded with the language of the Koran: “Whoever has assaulted you, assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you,” said spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam. He explained that airport attacks were intended to force the coalition to lift its starvation blockade on Yemen. And it was the invaders who had acted as the true “terrorists.” Lacking a U.S.-supplied air force, the Yeminis make do with whatever weapons they can find. Houthi insurgents have fired more than 185 missiles through last September, and have increasingly utilized drones against their better armed enemies.
The conflict highlights the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ pitiful state. Crown princes Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE are ostentatious “losers,” in Donald Trump’s parlance, as well as callous killers.
The U.S. never had any good reason to join this fight. Yemen has no intrinsic value to America. The Houthis have no reason to attack the U.S., Gulf shipping, or Saudi Arabia, except as retaliation. The most direct threat to American forces, an apparent missile launch in late 2016 targeting a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Aden, reflected Washington’s active belligerency against Yemen. Beyond that is self-parody: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that Washington had to back Riyadh’s aggression to protect Americans traveling through Saudi airports, who were in danger only because of Saudi Arabia’s continuing assault on Yemen.
Nor is Iran an issue. The Houthis have never been the Islamic Republic’s proxies. Indeed, the group seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa against Tehran’s advice. Only dire necessity forced the Yemenis to turn to Iran for aid, and the latter has taken advantage of its Gulf adversaries’ misadventure to bleed them. America’s support for the royals’ botched attempt at conquest plays to Iran’s strength.
AQAP has long been viewed as the most threatening al-Qaeda affiliate. The Houthis have opposed the terrorist group, while Hadi allied with it. The Saudis and Emiratis have variously armed, aided, or tolerated a variety of radical Islamists. Last year, according to the Associated Press, the coalition paid and recruited AQAP members and “cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash.”
Moreover, Amnesty International reports that Washington’s nominal allies have been “recklessly” supplying weapons to radical groups in Yemen. As a result, “compromises and alliances have allowed al-Qaeda militants to survive to fight another day—and risk strengthening the most dangerous branch of the terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks.” CNN also investigated the issue: “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al-Qaeda-linked figures, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States.”
The humanitarian cost of the war has been extraordinarily high. The conflict so far has rolled back national development by 21 years, figures the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Complains Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf, “all parties to the conflict in Yemen have acted with utter disregard for civilian lives.”
Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported: “Coalition air strikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties. In the past three years, such air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” By year’s end, predicted the UNDP, there would be about 102,000 battle deaths, with estimates of the civilian toll ranging between 60,000 and 133,000, mostly “indirect” civilian deaths due to the widespread destruction of social, economic, and agricultural infrastructure. The UNDP figured that every 12 minutes a Yemeni child dies.
About four million people have been displaced since the start of the war. Roughly 80 percent of the population of nearly 30 million needs aid, while 1.3 million have contracted cholera, two thirds of the population is “food insecure” and about a third suffer serious hunger, and civilian infrastructure, primitive to begin with, has been wrecked. Almost two thirds of Yemenis lack clean water, adequate sanitation, and necessary health care. In January, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen warned of the country’s continuing “slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe.”
Washington has become an accomplice to murder at the behest of nations that routinely undermine its own interests. Saudi Arabia is a tyranny at home, with not a scintilla of political or religious liberty, while the UAE looks good only in comparison to its larger neighbor. The two states’ shared foreign policy has been brutal, reckless, and contrary to America’s interests.
Both are pushing Washington towards war with Iran, fomenting conflict rather than diplomacy in Libya, and backing the Sudanese military against protesters seeking democratic rule. The two royal regimes have supported brutal dictatorships in Bahrain and Egypt, subsidized radical jihadists in Syria, and divided the Gulf by isolating Qatar. Riyadh also continues to spread, even in America, fundamentalist Wahhabism, which acts as a precursor to terrorism by demonizing all but Sunni Muslims.
The Trump administration should stop putting the interests of the Gulf monarchies before those of the U.S. With a missile program and nuclear ambitions, Saudi Arabia is a particularly dangerous regional player. Instead of encouraging Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s delusions of regional hegemony, the U.S. should promote a Mideast balance of power by developing relations with Iran.
Most immediately, Washington should stop underwriting Saudi and Emirati atrocities in Yemen. The war “is a preventable humanitarian disaster,” notes the UNDP. Moreover, the West should either embargo arms for the coalition or lift the ban on weapons for Yemenis. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh should be forced to bear the entire cost of their criminal war. For that, a few more missile attacks on coalition targets might help.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.