BY: AMIR DEHGHAN
Earlier this year the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, went on a three-week tour throughout the United States. During his visit, he met with four American Presidents, received an audience with Silicon Valley executives, and had dinner with Hollywood stars. The 32-year old Crown Prince is viewed as a reformer for his country, pledging to loosen the restrictions on Saudi citizens and permit women to drive. While he was receiving the red carpet treatment during his visit to the United States, little attention was paid to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. As the current defense minister of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince has been overseeing the military campaign in Yemen, one that the United States remains closely involved in.
The conflict in Yemen came to a head in March 2015, after the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group believed to have the backing of Iran, overtook the capital, Sana’a, and forced out of power the Saudi-backed president, Abu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, started a military campaign against the Houthis, with the goal of restoring power back to Hadi.
Between January 2016 and July 2018, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 50,000 civilians have been killed and more than 2 million people been displaced. The Saudis have launched indiscriminate attacks throughout the country, targeting homes, markets, hospitals, and weddings. The Houthis, on the other hand, have been firing missiles towards Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In September 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that 60 percent of civilian casualties are a result of the Saudi coalition airstrikes.
Since the war broke out in 2015, the United States, along with the United Kingdom, provided most of the weapons to the Saudi coalition. During the Crown Prince’s visit to Washington last March, the State Department approved the sale of $670 million dollars of antitank missiles to the Saudi government.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade on Yemen, making it harder for food, water, and resources to reach the Yemeni people, leading to starvation, famine and cholera throughout the country. According to UNICEF, “more than 22 million people – and nearly all children – are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The country’s infrastructure has been destroyed and its health services crippled.” In November 2017, Save the Children reported that 130 children die everyday from starvation. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, recently explained, “If the famine comes from a deliberate action of the State or other players using food as a weapon of war, it is an international crime.”
It is important to understand that Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia has long been engaged in a proxy war throughout the Middle East with Shiite-dominated Iran. The United States and Saudi Arabia both view Iran as an enemy, whose government sows chaos and instability throughout the Middle East. Since coming into office, the Trump administration has taken a hard line against Iran by developing close relationships with the Saudi and Israeli governments. During the Obama administration, Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear agreement that would block the former’s path to obtaining nuclear weapons. This agreement was viewed with suspicion in both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and officials in these countries would often accuse Obama of abandoning them in pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran. In May 2018, much to the dismay of its negotiating partners, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, arguing that it does not do much to block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA was hailed by both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Furthermore, the Trump administration has started to reimpose all the sanctions on Iran, beginning August 6, 2018, many of which were previously lifted under the agreement. The sanctions are expected to have a strong impact on the Iranian economy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated, “The president’s goal is to get Iran to behave like a normal country.”
While it is true that the Iranian regime is a malign actor, it is important for the United States to understand that by aiding the Saudi military campaign it is complicit in war crimes. With their indiscriminate missile strikes, the Saudis have proven that they are not handling American-made weapons responsibly.
Even though withdrawing from the JCPOA was not a wise decision, the United States should continue maintaining pressure against the Iranian regime for their other nefarious behavior. But if the Trump administration will not end its support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign, Congress must step in. In March 2018, Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced a bipartisan resolution to end American involvement in the war in Yemen. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) joined the Trump administration in opposing this resolution and refused to bring it up for a vote. In June 2017, Murphy had joined Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) in introducing a resolution that would have halted the sale of weapons to the Saudi coalition. The measure failed to pass by a vote of 47 to 53. In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California), Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), and Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) introduced a bipartisan resolution that would end American participation in Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. To date, the Republican majority has failed to bring this resolution on the House floor for a vote.
The United States needs to encourage all sides to come to the negotiating table to find a way to end the conflict. In February 2018, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Martin Griffiths as a special envoy for Yemen. Mr. Griffiths has been holding discussions with actors on all sides of the conflict, and is expected to begin peace talks very soon. The United States should support Mr. Griffith, and urge the Saudis to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Yemeni people. If columnists and American politicians genuinely believe that Crown Prince Salman is a reformer, they should pay more attention to the humanitarian crisis happening in Yemen.
Amir Dehghan recently received his Master’s of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University.
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