by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
A coalition of activists and U.S. lawmakers alarmed about Saudi Arabia’s punishing war in Yemen is trying to block the Trump administration’s pending $510 million weapons sale to Riyadh. The coalition is backing a pair of resolutions in both houses of Congress to overrule the sale.
The Senate version of the bill is expected to be voted on this week, on Tuesday afternoon.
In a June 8 letter signed by 41 human rights groups, including Win Without War, Project on Middle East Democracy, and the Yemen Peace Project, activists have called upon legislators to reject the Trump’s administration’s proposed arms deal.
The activists’ concerns are backed by several senators, including Democrats Chris Murphy, Al Franken, and Jeff Merkley, as well as Republican Rand Paul.
In a May 25 press release announcing the resolution, Murphy cited the need to end Washington’s complicity in the Yemen conflict. “Thousands of civilians are being killed in the U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen while terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are getting stronger by the day,” Murphy explained. “Selling the Saudis precision-guided munitions that are going to be used to target civilians makes us complicit in this humanitarian and national security disaster. Saudi Arabia needs to see that there will be consequences if they ignore U.S. demands and target civilian infrastructure.”
But both the activists and co-sponsors face an uphill battle. For decades Washington has been closely allied with Riyadh, despite its dismal human rights record. It’s also the world’s second largest oil producer.
The White House has decided to hold its own briefing before the Senate vote on the proposed legislation blocking the munition sale. The Intercept recently accessed an invitation to the briefing sent from senior officials at the Pentagon and the State Department to senators and other personnel, pushing them to vote in favor of the arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Donald Trump regards the Saudis and their main Gulf allies who are also participating in the Yemen campaign—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—as Washington’s key partners in his efforts to roll back the influence of Iran. Iran is currently Saudi Arabia’s largest regional rival for power. Trump’s allegiances have become even more apparent since his visit last month to Riyadh—his first overseas destination as president. The vast majority of Republican lawmakers, who control both houses, are unwilling to challenge that policy.
Nonetheless, the resolution’s supporters argue that if the measure receives backing from a substantial number of senators, it could send a message to Riyadh and its allies, particularly in regards to the conflict in Yemen, that U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the conflict is not unconditional. Activists also hope that a strong showing of opposition—more than a third of the Senate—could help raise awareness about a conflict that has received remarkably little attention in the mainstream media, particularly compared to conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Deteriorating Situation in Yemen
The Saudi-led campaign, which has also included Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, and Sudan, has been calamitous for the Arab world’s poorest country. It was launched in 2015 after a coalition of Houthi rebels from the northern part of the country and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who was ousted from power in 2012, expelled the now-exiled Saudi-backed president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, from the capital, Sana’a. In addition to weapons, Washington has provided logistical support and intelligence backing to the Saudis and their allies.
The Saudi air war, however, became so destructive and indiscriminate, that the Obama administration suspended the sale of some $350 million in precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia in December. In March, the Trump administration announced it intended to continue sales despite the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen.
Congress was formally notified that the sale was going forward last month. Under U.S. law, Congress has 30 days to block major weapons sales from the notification date.
Peace activists are calling on U.S. citizens to pressure Congress to stop Washington’s sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. “Saudi airstrikes have completely destroyed Yemen with U.S.-sold weapons,” said Kate Kizer, from the Yemen Peace Project, one of the activist groups leading the effort. “We are literally sending Yemen weapons of mass starvation.”
The World Food Program reported that as of 2017, 3.3 million children and pregnant or nursing women are severely malnourished. Additionally, 60 percent of the population is food insecure, 24 percent critically so.
Amnesty International disclosed that about 18.8 million people in Yemen depend on humanitarian aid. The war has aggravated the scarcity of food, water, and shelter in the region.
Human rights organizations say that arms sales to Riyadh by the United States, Great Britain, and other nations have greatly worsened the situation inside Yemen, a nation of 25 million. In a June 8 statement, Joanne Lin, senior managing director for advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International, stated that “by selling arms to Saudi Arabia, knowing that they may well be used to kill civilians in Yemen, the U.S. government may be complicit in serious violations of international law, including war crimes.”
“The Trump Administration has repeatedly indicated a willingness to partner with Saudi Arabia despite its appalling human rights record. It is up to the Senate to stop this,” she added.
Kate Kizer linked U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia to what human rights groups say are the deaths of more than 10,000 Yemeni civilians, injuries to at least 50,000 others, and tens of thousands more lost to preventable diseases as a result of the destruction of health and sanitation facilities and the breakdown in health services.
In a telephone interview with The New York Times, UNICEF regional director of Yemen, Geert Cappelaere, said that cases of cholera could rise to 300,000 by the end of June, and that half of these cholera cases afflict children. Only 40-45% of existing hospitals still stand, according to the Yemen Peace Project and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, charge that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Many U.S. lawmakers have aligned with Saudi Arabia while arguing that Iran is complicit with the Yemeni rebels, whom they regard as Iranian proxies. Although Tehran has expressed sympathy for the Houthi cause, it has denied arming the rebels and denounced the Saudi intervention as having caused a humanitarian catastrophe.
The security vacuum in Yemen since the start of the civil war has strengthened the growing extremism in the region. Among the groups fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen are affiliates of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded as one of the most powerful al-Qaeda factions.
The upcoming votes constitute “one of the most consequential war-and-peace votes to go through Congress this year,” said Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “This U.S.-backed Saudi war has to end.”
Activists are trying to encourage a grassroots campaign, urging constituents to contact their representatives by various means. These include direct email messages, phone calls via a toll-free number: 1-855-68-NO WAR, lobbying visits to congressional offices, and in-person attendance at town hall meetings with lawmakers—all to raise awareness about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the effects of U.S. bombs and missiles dropped on Yemen.
Many lawmakers have yet to decide how to vote on the measures targeting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “They haven’t made up their minds yet, and they don’t have firm positions yet on the bills,” said Gould. “Every constituent action can make a difference.”
In an interview with LobeLog, she affirmed the importance of exposing the high level of U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict.
“Just having this bill on the Senate floor shines a spotlight on a country so often ignored in the U.S.,” she said. “The Saudi-led coalition is dropping the bombs, but the US is making the bombs, refueling the planes, providing logistics support and otherwise enabling the coalition’s war crimes. As President Trump gives the Saudis a blank check for more war, every vote sends the message that it’s time for the Saudis to end this carnage and get to the negotiating table.”
Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio is a rising senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. She has written and worked for the human rights NGO Cultural Survival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is currently an intern for LobeLog at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. Photo: Villagers scour rubble for belongings scattered during the bombing of Hajar Aukaish, Yemen (Wikimedia Commons).