by Giorgio Cafiero and Andreas Paraskevopoulos
Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been controversial, to say the least. Largely that is because the war has created the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. It has left Yemen’s population grappling with famine, malnutrition, and cholera outbreaks. The conflict has displaced 3.3 million people while leaving almost 18 million without access to potable water and sanitation. Roughly 80 percent of the population currently requires protection and aid. Approximately two-thirds of the Yemeni population is food insecure.
Since Donald Trump began his presidency, and especially since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, America’s role in Yemen’s war has been subject to far greater scrutiny within the Beltway, where this devastating conflict has created a growing rift between the White House on one side and lawmakers on the other.
The Trump administration and the Saudis view the Yemen war through the same basic lens. The Houthi fighters, in this narrative, represent an extension of Iran’s influence in the Arab world and Red Sea, meaning that their consolidation of power in northern Yemen threatens Saudi Arabia just like Hezbollah’s foothold in Lebanon threatens Israel.
But this narrative, which the DC establishment largely accepted when the Saudis intervened in Yemen in 2015, increasingly lacks credibility among lawmakers, particularly Democrats. More politicians on the Hill believe that U.S. military involvement in Yemen should be geared toward countering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and other violent Sunni extremists, not the Houthis. From this vantage point, the Saudi-led war has been strategically and morally misguided and the Trump administration’s policies in favor of the Arab coalition have been reckless.
In April, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for the war. The resolution is based on the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR), which gives Congress the jurisdiction to force the president to remove troops engaged in “hostilities” abroad, if Congress has not given a formal “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization.”
Despite Congressional efforts, President Trump vetoed the WPR, and then circumvented another effort by Congress to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Specifically, 22 arms sales totally some $8 billion were “expedited without time for congressional oversight,” with Trump vetoing all resolutions attempting to block the sales. The administration used the pretext of an emergency to finalize the deals. Secretary Pompeo argued that delays in the delivery of the weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan would inhibit the stability of the region, and leave U.S. allies exposed and defenseless to Iranian aggression.
To reduce the president’s ability to make extensive use of the emergency provision in the future, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a bill that would restrict its invocation only to cases concerning “top-tier security allies,” including NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. That measure is still working its way through the legislative process.
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives, in defiance of Trump, voted in favor of measures to block the $8 billion in weapons sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Although Trump in recent days vetoed these efforts to restrict U.S. arms sales, such votes are illustrative of how much the attitudes in Washington regarding the Yemeni crisis have shifted.
Betting the Farm on Trump Is Risky for Riyadh
Trump has consistently demonstrated his commitment to the Washington-Riyadh alliance. Moreover, he has showcased the strength of his close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). That relationship was most recently manifest in the announcement of U.S. plans to deploy 500 military personnel to the Kingdom, where the Saudi government will host them as part of a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf intended to counter Iran.
But Saudi officials realize that one day the Trump presidency will end, possibly as early as January 2021. MbS, who is expected to become the next King of Saudi Arabia, faces a reputational crisis in Washington as a result of the Khashoggi murder, and this crisis will far outlive Trump’s time in the Oval Office. A continuation of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen will likely further harm the kingdom’s reputation in Washington—already, MbS is in a position whereby he cannot return to DC for a visit due to outcry over Khashoggi.
If the Democrats were to regain the White House, it could mean serious problems for the Saudis because of the positions that most mainstream Democrats embrace on Saudi-related issues. There a widespread consensus among most Democrats that U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia should freeze until peace returns to Yemen and that Washington should return to the Iranian nuclear deal. At the same time, a growing number of lawmakers, most of them Democrats, have been raising alarm over issues such as U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation, the plight of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, MbS’ “anti-corruption sweep” at the Ritz Carlton in 2017, the kingdom’s diplomatic spat with Canada last year, the Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah file, and so on.
Betting the farm on Trump’s presidency may produce short-term and medium-term gains for the Saudis. But to protect its longer-term interests the kingdom ought to invest more in preserving Saudi Arabia’s historic partnership with the U.S. as a country, not with any specific president, administration, or political party. The extent to which Saudi leadership has become pro-Trump (as much as anti-Obama) has triggered anti-Saudi rhetoric from more Democrats. If the Democrats become the dominant party in Washington in 2021, Saudi officials will need to ask important questions about what type of relationship they want to pursue with a much-changed U.S. government.
Looking ahead, the Saudis should take steps to rebuild strong ties with Democrats and avoid placing all their bets on the Trump presidency. One step that the kingdom’s leadership could take to pave the path for better ties with Democrats would be to signal a new approach to Yemen. A more pessimistic read of the situation, however, suggests that the Saudis might see the time between now and the November 2020 election as a narrowing window of opportunity for Riyadh to take full advantage of Trump’s presidency and his pro-Saudi stances on sensitive issues. If so, the upcoming 16 months could be particularly dangerous for Yemen.
Andreas Paraskevopoulos is an intern at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.