In 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition began an operation in Yemen that was supposed to last only weeks. Two and a half years on, Yemen has become the site of a brutal proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran: over 5000 civilians have been killed, at least 170,000 people have fled the country, three million people have been internally displaced, and over 21 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The besieged country is also suffering from a debilitating cholera epidemic, and severe shortages of food, water, and medical supplies have left hundreds of thousands of children malnourished. Earlier this year, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs went as far as to call the Yemen crisis “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”
In the midst of this alarming situation, Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it was imposing a blockade on all of Yemen’s air, land, and sea borders. The Saudis said this was necessary to stop Iranian arms from reaching Houthi rebels, but it also completely stopped the flow of food imports, medical supplies, and other humanitarian aid. Given that the poverty-stricken country depends on imports for 90% of its basic needs, UN officials warned that famine would set in within weeks if the blockade “is not lifted immediately.” After over a week of international condemnation, Saudi Arabia finally agreed to ease the blockade on some ports, but the airport in the capital of Sana’a and the port of Al Hudaydah, Yemen’s main point of entry for aid, still remain closed. On Monday, the USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network issued a rare alert that famine is still likely in areas reliant on food from Al Hudaydah because of the difficulty in moving goods within the country.
Saudi leaders, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, knew full well the catastrophic consequences of stopping the flow of supplies into Yemen. Yet they moved ahead with it anyway, and only begrudgingly relented to a partial easing of the blockade. Saudi Arabia’s leaders argue that the Kingdom has contributed $847 million – more than any other country – towards humanitarian relief in Yemen. But that is far short of the $4.5 billion the UN says it needs to meet humanitarian needs stemming from the conflict, and certainly less than the Saudis have spent on the military campaign that created the humanitarian crisis in the first place.
Recklessness at the hands of the Saudi regime is not confined to Yemen. It is widely believed that the Saudis orchestrated the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this month in hopes of installing a leader that would be more hawkish towards Iranian-allied Hezbollah. Hariri’s resignation threatens to destabilize Lebanon’s already-fragile political system, and there are fears that the situation is heading towards war. And of course, there is the Saudi-led diplomatic spat with Qatar this summer that caused another fracture in the region.
What does this mean for us in the United States? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hostile posture is at least partly the result of the United States’ failure to hold Saudi Arabia to account for its irresponsibility. As far as I can tell, no senior US diplomat or administration official has publicly condemned the Yemen blockade, save for a State Department spokeswoman who duly called for “unimpeded access for commercial and humanitarian goods” into Yemen when asked for the US’s position on the issue by a reporter. And instead of trying to put an end to hostilities in Yemen, the Trump Administration has only stepped up its support for the Saudi-led coalition. The US military has been providing logistical backing and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition since the conflict began in 2015, and has more than doubled its refueling support in the last year.
Beyond the United States’ support for the Yemen operation, President Trump announced a $110 billion arm sale – the biggest in US history – to Saudi Arabia during his tour through the country in May, and Congress gave its stamp of approval for the first $500 million of that several weeks later. President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has cultivated a close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman and has visited Riyadh at least three times since January, including an unannounced 4-day visit at the end of October. President Trump also tweeted his congratulations to the Crown Prince after he detained hundreds of Saudi officials in a corruption crackdown that has been interpreted by most observers as a bid to consolidate his power.
The consequences of our support for Saudi Arabia are significant. Even if we leave aside the ghastly human suffering the Saudi coalition has facilitated in Yemen, it is clear that Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy is not achieving its intended goal of countering Iranian influence. Instead of winning concessions from Qatar, isolation has only pushed Qatar further into Iran’s orbit. The conflict in Yemen is essentially unwinnable. And Saudi Arabia’s ambiguous role in the Lebanon crisis has left influential pro-Iranian political figures in Lebanon like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and President Michel Aoun calling for calm and for Hariri’s return to Lebanon, and they have vowed to continue to recognize him as Prime Minister until he personally tenders his resignation inside the country. This demonstration of statesmanship could earn Iran and its allies more international legitimacy, which is exactly the opposite of what leaders in Saudi (and the United States, for that matter) want.
To be fair, the United States is beginning to show signs of uneasiness about Saudi Arabia’s recent conduct. After a non-binding resolution to limit the US role in Yemen overwhelmingly passed the House last week, the Defense Department insists that the US is now only supporting operations against al-Qaeda and IS-affiliates. A State Department official recently told the New York Times that US diplomats, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency all felt “growing alarm” at Prince Mohammed’s recklessness, which “has the potential to damage U.S. interests.” And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also publicly questioned the corruption crackdown, called out Saudi Arabia for its unwillingness to solve its diplomatic fallout with Qatar, and warned against using Lebanon as the stage for another proxy conflict with Iran.
We need to do more. Instead of offering enthusiastic support for political purges, President Trump himself should stop contradicting his own Secretary of State and forcefully insist that Saudi Arabia back off in Lebanon. In Yemen, we should demand that the Saudis allow unimpeded humanitarian access to all ports, increase their humanitarian aid budget, and begin actively working towards a political solution to the conflict. If the Saudis do not follow through, we should cut arms sales to the Kingdom.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have long been allies, and that should not change. But because of that alliance, we are perhaps the only outside actor with enough influence Riyadh to tame Saudi behavior. It is time for us to exercise that power and insist that Saudi Arabia stop looking for trouble, for the sake of our interests and the stability of the entire region.