Five years ago the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invaded neighboring Yemen. The conflict was supposed to be quick and simple, over in a few weeks. Now the once-haughty Saudi royals have offered a ceasefire, after their opponents, Houthi irregulars, captured the province of al-Jawf.
The conflict has created a horrific humanitarian crisis. Yemen, which has long been divided, impoverished, and embattled, is wrecked, and is unlikely to emerge as one complete nation. The cost has been roughly 100,000 dead in combat (nearly 20,000 of them civilians); another 130,000 dead from the consequences of the conflict; a million people suffering from Cholera; 20 million Yemenis facing food insecurity; sixteen million regularly hungry; and ten million at risk of famine.
“Across the country, civilians suffer from a lack of basic services, a spiraling economic crisis, abusive local security forces, and broken governance, health, education, and judicial systems,” Human Rights Watch reported.
The ongoing war is merely the latest interference by Saudi Arabia in the tumultuous domestic affairs of the Yemeni people. Yemen has been in crisis since its, or, more accurately, their birth. There were two Yemens until 1990, which fought, attempted to unify, fought, and finally did so. After that the continuing conflict was internalized.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was the new state’s first president but the Saudis remained heavily involved, paying off tribes and promoting fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabism. The Shiite Houthi movement—as Zaydis they differ theologically from other Shia, such as Iranians—rose in revolt against Saleh, supported by Riyadh. The fighting continued until his overthrow in 2011 amid the Arab Spring. The Arab nationalist party eventually joined with the Houthis to oust his vice president and successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in January 2015.
None of this mattered to the U.S. or even, really, to the Saudis. President Saleh was a pure opportunist while the Houthis were not run by Tehran. Hadi’s ouster was not about Riyadh but reflected endlessly disruptive Yemeni politics. However, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wanted a puppet in Sanaa and the Obama administration wanted to reassure the Saudis after negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement. Thus, Washington sold planes, supplied munitions, provided intelligence, and until a couple years ago refueled aircraft for the Saudis, directly implicating Americans in five years of conflict and war crimes.
The Houthis are no Western liberals and dislike the U.S., but they also hate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. Indeed, the Saudi attack reduced pressure on America’s enemies in Yemen. While the ousted Hadi regime has cooperated with such groups, the Houthis continue to battle against them. In February the Washington Post noted that AQAP had been weakened by several factors, including continued combat with the Houthis.
The Houthis killed Saleh after the allies had a falling out. They have been guilty of indiscriminate use of artillery, among other crimes. Nevertheless, human rights groups figure that two-thirds to three-quarters of the civilian damage and casualties are due to air attacks, and only the “coalition” of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have planes. These bombings have destroyed Yemen’s social and commercial infrastructure, leading to famine and disease.
Many of these attacks on civilian targets appear to be intentional, aimed at disrupting Yemeni society. Amnesty International reported that the coalition “continued to bomb civilian infrastructure and carry out indiscriminate attacks, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians.” The examples are many. “Saudi-led coalition forces have carried out at least five deadly attacks on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018,” reported Human Rights Watch last August. At least 47 fishermen were killed and more than 100 were detained, some tortured. The immiserating blockade has added to the population’s hardship.
The crimes of the coalition extend to the fight on the ground, as well. For instance, assisting jihadists including AQAP, employing brutal Sudanese militiamen, imprisoning and torturing opponents, and encouraging separatists. The latter has been a highlight of Abu Dhabi’s involvement. Explained Amnesty International: “The UAE for instance, even though it stated it had withdrawn from Yemen in October 2019, has been actively training, funding and arming different armed groups since mid- to late 2015, supporting as such the proliferation of unaccountable militias.” The Emirates also improperly transferred U.S. weapons to assorted fighters, many hostile to America.
There also is good old-fashioned oppression. HRW recently released a report covering the governate of al-Mahrah: “Saudi and Saudi-backed forces have arbitrarily arrested demonstrators protesting the presence of Saudi forces, as well as other local residents not connected with the protests,” along with “torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia.” HRW’s Michael Page called this “another horror to add to the list of the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful conduct in Yemen.”
UAE is no better. Two years ago Amnesty International reported on Abu Dhabi’s secret prison in Aden after the city was supposedly “liberated.” The Emiratis jailed Yemenis and practiced, “detention at gunpoint, torture with electric shocks, waterboarding, hanging from the ceiling, sexual humiliation, prolonged solitary confinement, squalid conditions, inadequate food and water.”
That the Kingdom mistreats Yemenis comes as no surprise. The royals oppress their subjects. Although Mohammad bin Salman has reduced social controls, he has tightened political restrictions. Freedom House rated the KSA as not free, earning only 1 out of 40 points for political rights. “Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties,” explained the group. Civil liberties does a bit better, receiving six of 60. The Saudi rating actually is below that of war-torn Yemen.
And Saudi repression has been worsening: “The authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. They harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of government critics, human rights defenders, including women’s rights activities, members of the Shi’a minority and family members of activists,” according to Amnesty International. HRW noted that “Saudi authorities stepped up their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents and activists in 2018, including a large-scale coordinated crackdown against the women’s rights movement.”
The State Department published a 58-page report on the conduct of bin Salman’s government, which included: “unlawful killings, executions for nonviolent offenses, forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary are and detention; political prisoners,” and so much more. Being outside the Kingdom offers no safety. Dissident princes living abroad have been kidnapped. Journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi want some mix of political control and commercial advantage. Their behavior is not surprising. But what explains Washington’s role in enabling this horrific violence?
For years American presidents acted as supplicants in Riyadh, effectively renting out the U.S. military as a royal bodyguard. However, no outside power now threatens to conquer the Persian Gulf, which no longer has a stranglehold over global oil markets. Moreover, Israel is secure, the region’s dominant military power. While running for office, candidate Trump appeared to understand this, criticizing the monarchy for relying on Washington for protection.
No longer, however. The president focused his entire Mideast policy on Riyadh’s chief enemy, Iran, added more troops to safeguard the royals from any threat, ignored shameful violations of political, civil, and religious liberties, and legitimized the Middle East’s worst dictatorship.
Why his switch to a Saudi-first policy? The royals buy American products, especially weapons, but do so for their own gain. And they do not spend nearly enough to treat American servicemen and women as rent-a-soldiers at the beck and call of Saudi princes.
A worse reason to subordinate U.S. interests to those of the Saudi royals is Iran. Tehran does not threaten America, which could destroy Iran several times over in retaliation for any attack. The Islamic regime remains weak economically and militarily; Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf should be able to deter any aggression. Iran is involved in Yemen because the Saudis foolishly gave Tehran an opportunity to bleed the royals.
Washington should stay out of the Shia-Sunni conflict. If it was in America’s interest to get involved, the U.S. should be bombing Riyadh. The royals have promoted fundamentalist Wahhabism, which treats Jews, Christians, Shiites, and members of other faiths as the enemy, around the world, including in America. The regime attacked Yemen, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, underwrote Islamist insurgents in Syria, used troops to support the repressive minority Sunni monarchy against the Shia majority in Bahrain, promoted Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal coup and reign in Egypt, and fueled Libya’s civil war. He has created a totalitarian dictatorship at home.
At least the U.S. should stop underwriting the royal regime’s depredations elsewhere in the region, especially in Yemen. President Barack Obama, despite his liberal reputation, made America an accomplice to war crimes. Trump has continued that practice, to all Americans’ shame.
For five years the Saudis have been murdering Yemeni civilians with Washington’s aid. The war also undermines American security. It is time for President Trump to say no more and allow the Saudis to pay the full price of their ruler’s folly.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author ofForeign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.