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Turning Off the Saudi Faucet in Yemen

by | Jul 13, 2022

Turning Off the Saudi Faucet in Yemen

by | Jul 13, 2022

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In modern dating parlance, “ghosting” is when someone suddenly stops returning your calls and seemingly vanishes as if your involvement was merely an apparition. Moreover, if the “ghost” unexpectedly returns, trust is undermined, and a continuation of any relationship is impossible.

So what happens when the partner isn’t romantic but geopolitical? In refusing to answer President Joe Biden’s requests for help with energy costs that might tank the U.S. economy, Saudi Arabia is doing just that: ghosting.

Still, Biden is set to travel to Saudi Arabia this week, in part, to beg the Kingdom to pump more oil. Biden should not use this trip to grovel and forgive the Saudis for being absent in their supposed role as one of our key partners. Instead, Biden should use the trip to dump the Saudis in person, beginning with cutting all U.S. support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen.

The Biden administration’s self-inflicted wounds on energy policy can be reversed without Saudi oil. At home, the president has taken drastic steps to curb fossil fuel production in the U.S., including the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline and the administration’s refusal to issue additional permits for oil drilling and exploration in previously approved areas. These decisions upended the Trump administration’s forward-looking policies, which positioned the U.S. as a net oil exporter for the first time in history.

Further complicating Biden’s trip is his rhetoric. Since launching his 2020 campaign, Biden has referred to the Kingdom as a “pariah” state. While his opinion is not without merit in many areas, given this administration’s rhetoric, it will take sophisticated diplomacy to refocus on specific areas of concentration and walk back such allegations. Similarly, imagine Biden meeting with Vladimir Putin in whatever aftermath of the Ukrainian war and just “shrugging off” similar comments he repeatedly made in that situation.

Is such a “walking back” of rhetoric worth it, or even needed?

Since 2001 Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards America has been dubious at best. At a minimum, we should not forget that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Additionally, through a global network of Madrassas, Riyadh has supported jihadist causes such as the “Haqqani Network” in Afghanistan, which killed numerous U.S. troops. Riyadh is also the site of brutal public beheadings and beatings, an anathema to the West.

With the above in context, one can only ask, “Why would Biden want a relationship with a country like this?” The answer, quite obviously, is a cheap and reliable source of oil, which the U.S. no longer receives from the Kingdom anyway. The actions the Saudis have taken in recent months lead one to think that these actions were political rather than economic in nature.

During a trip to Russia in mid-June, Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said relations between the two nations remain “as warm as the weather in Riyadh.” It appears that Saudi Arabia and Russia, both parties to the OPEC+ energy “alliance,” have not only cemented their relationship but are reaping windfall profits from record-high oil prices.

Common sense from a strong national leadership would suggest the president should own his “pariah” rhetoric and use this moment to turn off the faucet of arms and military aid flowing into Saudi Arabia. This begins with ending U.S. support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen, which has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and is arguably the Kingdom’s most egregious action.

In light of nearly three-quarters of Saudi weapons being imported from the United States, Biden could effectively end the Saudi war effort in short order. In the process, he can send a strong diplomatic message to the world while also salvaging any U.S. credibility that remains after enabling the war in Yemen for over seven years.

Biden (and America) are profoundly in need of a foreign policy “win.” Since assuming office Biden has overseen the debacle that was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and has witnessed China and Russia all but declare an alliance to open the Winter Olympics. And now Ukraine, all but in name a U.S. protectorate, is slowly being crushed under the weight of a Russian invasion.

Ending U.S. support and involvement in Yemen would be a win and an easy one at that.

Lest we forget, a joint resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen passed both houses of Congress in April 2019. This measure was ultimately vetoed by then-President Donald Trump, leaving America involved in the conflict.

This veto presents an additional political opportunity for Biden. After all, Trump ran on removing the U.S. from what he deemed “stupid” wars in the Middle East and failed to do so. However destructive and shameful the withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been, Biden provided a long-overdue end to U.S. involvement. Yemen presents another opportunity, this time with little potential downside.

More importantly, the conflict in Yemen, although primarily overlooked domestically, has stained U.S. credibility globally, as, without Washington’s support, there would be no war Saudi war in Yemen.

Launched in 2015 partly as a way for ascendant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to consolidate power, the Saudis have failed to achieve any military objectives. It has only succeeded in killing an estimated 400,000 Yemenis through a combination of starvation, disease, and battlefield deaths. All the while, Washington has sold Saudi Arabia tens of billions in weapons, with the majority of those sales fueling Riyadh’s war.

Ultimately, the conflict has been a disaster for Saudi Arabia, leading Riyadh to abandoning its initial objectives and eventually grinding into a stalemate. The initial regional coalition included long-time U.S. partners Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain, but the Saudi conduct of the war has led to these partners abandoning them.

Despite Riyadh’s failures, Washington is still bumbling along in zombie-like “forever war” fashion. America still provides virtually every aircraft flown, munition dropped, and weapon on the ground. According to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, American weaponry and equipment used in Yemen is so prevalent that Yemenis call the conflict the “Saudi-American War.”

With some of the most advanced aircraft and munitions the U.S. can provide, the Saudis have launched more than 24,000 air raids, with only 8,000 actually hitting Yemeni military facilities, and causing some 10,000 deaths. The remaining 16,000 sorties have hit targeted civilian and otherwise “non-military” targets such as farms, bridges, and infrastructure, which all make life in Yemen’s arid climate possible. Some 390,000 Yemenis have died from warfare directed at the population rather than military targets.

Whether Saudi targeting of civilians is deliberate or the result of incompetence is irrelevant. It’s the result of American weapons and support. Additionally, it’s militarily ineffective, so why are we still involved?

While there is room for a partnership with Saudi Arabia, it should serve the interests of the American people and should not be one where the U.S. is subservient. War hawks continually argue that U.S. involvement in Yemen is a crucial bulwark against the “malign” influence of Iran, which they claim supports Riyadh’s purported enemy, the Houthi. Regardless of the degree of Iranian support, logic suggests that Yemen, a nation in which nearly eight in ten of Yemen’s 29 million residents live in poverty, is not even a regional threat, let alone one to the American homeland.

Logic further suggests that continued U.S. involvement in Yemen may result from Riyadh’s robust lobbying campaign in Washington rather than any American strategic necessity.

According to Responsible Statecraft, at least eight former congressional lawmakers are registered as foreign agents who lobby on behalf of the Saudis—with another six lobbying on behalf of Qatar, an early co-belligerent who has since withdrawn from the conflict. These numbers do not include other former government officials and career lobbyists who do so on behalf of the House of Saud.

Maybe Saudi lobbying efforts are the culprit, or perhaps this is just the latest result of neoconservative foreign policy adventurism. Regardless, the current state of our relationship with Riyadh does nothing for the American people at home while it stains our national reputation abroad.

In light of the above, if any further motivation is needed for the U.S. to decouple from the Saudi regime, then look no further than the message sent to President Biden at last month’s G7 Summit by the Kingdom.

Instead of Riyadh returning a phone call, sending an email, a text message, or even a carrier pigeon, the Saudis opted to use French President Emmanuel Macron as their “bad news” emissary regarding oil production. Further, Macron relayed the news to a stunned-looking Biden in front of the international press pool. Was this media ambush a mere coincidence? Anything is possible, but the hapless Baltimore Orioles have a higher probability of winning the 2022 World Series than Macron’s encounter being by chance.

The time to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a war that continues to tarnish Washington’s reputation with each passing day, is long overdue. Additionally, Riyadh has not only failed to honor its role as a partner but has done so with disrespect. Ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen will salvage our national honor and send a sorely needed diplomatic message of strength to the world.

About James R. Webb

James R. Webb served as an enlisted Marine Corps infantryman in Iraq and covered the U.S. war in Afghanistan for Parade Magazine. Previously he worked for Senator Rand Paul covering national security and as the Senator’s representative on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Additionally, he also worked for Military Times and Coffee or Die Magazine. He can be reached on Twitter @SgtJRWebb.

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