Early this August, the Pentagon announced plans to sell weapons worth $1.15 billion to Saudi Arabia. The news itself was not surprising as the Arab kingdom is one of America’s biggest arms buyers, but the timing of the announcement was rather conspicuous. The Saudis had resumed heavy bombardment of Yemen after a lull as part of the peace process. By deciding to send in more tanks and armaments to Saudi Arabia at a time when the kingdom faces severe international criticism for rights violations in Yemen, including the killing of children, the U.S. was unmistakably sending a message that it’s with Riyadh in this war.
Descent into chaos
Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen in March 2015 only after getting permission from the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir, the then Saudi Ambassador in Washington, went to the White House in March 2015 to discuss the war plan with the administration officials. Shia Houthi rebels had already taken over Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and toppled the government of Mansour Hadi. Mr. Jubeir, now the kingdom’s Foreign Minister, argued that Iran had moved to Saudi Arabia’s backyard through its proxy Houthis and a military intervention was inevitable. Within days, Saudi bombers started pounding rebel locations in Yemen.
But after 16 months of air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions, the Saudis haven’t managed to meet any of their strategic goals. Regionally, with or without the Houthis, Iran remains a powerful force. The Saudi bombing may have weakened the Houthis’ firepower, but they still control much of the territories they have captured, including Sana’a. Saudi Arabia’s border security has also worsened. The Houthis have retaliated by staging border raids and firing rockets into Saudi villages. The presence of al-Qaeda has spread in Yemen while much of the country’s northern parts has been plunged into anarchy and chaos. In other words, the war has turned Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe, worsened regional security and helped terror groups, while the invader has been dragged deeper into the conflict. In such a scenario, two questions beg answers. Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia end the war despite the setbacks? And why is it allowed to continue a disastrous war with impunity?
West Asian Cold War
The Saudi interests in continuing the war are not hard to figure out. The intervention itself was a result of a Saudi-Iran Cold War. Riyadh believes that Tehran is consistently trying to expand its Shia influence across West Asia. Iraq has already embraced Shia rule. Lebanon has the Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want a country in its backyard to have a Shia-dominated government. If the Saudis pull out of Yemen, that would obviously strengthen the Houthi forces. In today’s Yemen, there’s no proper army that could effectively challenge Houthi advances. The forces loyal to President Mansour Hadi are only a fraction of the strength of the Yemeni army till a few years ago. When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh joined hands with the Houthis, a major faction of the army did the same. Therefore, the only thing that prevents further advances of the Houthis is Saudi bombing and a blockade of Yemen. So the Saudis would prefer staying the course, at least till they put together a credible force on the ground that could defend the Hadi regime, now based in the southern city of Aden. But during its course, the Saudis, given the profundity of their campaign and little regard for human cost, will push Yemen further into anarchy.
Generally, Western nations present themselves in the international system as guardians of human rights. The U.S. and its European allies have even gone to war in the name of defending human rights, Libya being a recent example. They have imposed sanctions on several other countries for aggression. Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia has not been spared after his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine two years ago. But no such moral outrage is seen in the case of Saudi Arabia.
Part of the reason for this is historical. U.S.-Saudi cooperation goes back to the Roosevelt era when the American President promised security to Saudi King Abdulaziz in 1945 in return for oil. Though the U.S.’s oil dependence on Saudi Arabia has come down in recent years in the wake of the shale oil boom, the geopolitical and economic aspects of the “special relationship” are ever more significant. Geopolitically, the Americans see their support for Saudi Arabia, even in the backdrop of the carnage in Yemen, as a factor that will help them balance ties between Tehran and Riyadh. The Saudi royal family is genuinely upset with U.S. President Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The kingdom fears that an Iran without global sanctions and isolation will emerge as a stronger regional rival to its interests. Even the timing of the attack on Yemen is self-explanatory. The Iran nuclear talks were in the final stages when the Saudis went to war. So the U.S. decided to chug along in Yemen, trying to mollify some of the Saudi security concerns.
Arms and the war
Second, Saudi Arabia is too big a market for any arms exporting country to ignore. For the U.S., the world’s largest arms exporter, ties with Saudi Arabia are particularly important. Almost 10 per cent of U.S. arms exports goes to Saudi Arabia, and 9 per cent to the United Arab Emirates, an ally of Riyadh in the Yemen war. In 2015 alone, the U.S. sold military equipment and support worth more than $20 billion. In September last year, a few months after the Yemen operation began, Washington announced a $60-billion arms deal, the largest such sale in U.S. history, which includes the supply of 84 F-15 fighter planes, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk troop-transport helicopters, and 36 Little Bird surveillance copters. The cluster bombs the Saudis are accused of using in Yemen today were also bought from the U.S. In 2013, Saudi Arabia bought 1,300 cluster bombs — a weapon which is banned by more than 100 countries as it causes “unacceptable harm to civilians” — from Textron for $641 million. The last thing Mr. Obama would want at a time when U.S. exports are sagging and the economy is struggling would be to say no to arms buyers.
So it’s clear that the international community won’t do much to stop the Saudis from pounding Yemen. No matter how hard the U.S. may talk about human rights, it won’t raise a finger against the Saudis. None other than U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged earlier this year that he had taken off Saudi Arabia from a UN list of countries/militias that kill children after Riyadh threatened to defund UN programmes.
But will these financial threats, Western-supplied weapons and diplomatic protection be enough for Saudi Arabia to shape the future of Yemen? How long can Riyadh continue a disastrous war at a time when its own border security is worsening and economy struggling with low oil prices? Besides, it’s not easy to shape Yemen’s politics from outside. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent thousands of troops in 1962 to Northern Yemen to back republican fighters against the royalists in a civil war. Five years later he had to withdraw the troops in ignominy. The U.S. started a drone war in Yemen against al-Qaeda in 2010. One of the most powerful branches of al-Qaeda is now in Yemen. Saudi Arabia sent troops to Yemen in 2009 to attack the Houthis at the request of then President Saleh. Six years later, Riyadh had to send bombers to attack the same group, which now controls much of the country’s north. If the Saudis and their partners in this war take the right lessons from this history, they should pull out of Yemen at the earliest, leaving the Yemenis to decide their future.