by William D. Hartung
This month’s White House visit by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) underscores the growing influence of the Saudi defense minister, who is the driving force behind the kingdom’s catastrophic war in Yemen. The Obama administration has provided crucial support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, including arms, intelligence, and aerial refueling of Saudi aircraft.
The portion of the official White House readout of the meeting with MBS that deals with the war in Yemen says, “The President welcomed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to concluding a political settlement to the conflict and of GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] support to address urgent humanitarian needs and rebuild the country.” But similar Saudi promises have been broken in the past. The fighting in Yemen—including Saudi air strikes—has continued since a ceasefire was announced in April, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties since the ceasefire was supposed to begin.
The rationale for the Obama administration’s continuing provision of arms and assistance to the Saudi war effort in Yemen is centered on the notion that Riyadh is too important an ally to alienate, because of both its role as one of the world’s primary oil suppliers and its assistance in fighting terrorism.
These considerations have been reinforced by a desire to calm Saudi fears about the implications of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal by accelerating the sale and delivery of U.S. weaponry to the kingdom. The United States has made over $37 billion in arms sales offers to Saudi Arabia since the Iran nuclear negotiations began in November 2013, with $13.2 billion of that total coming since the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in March 2015. And according to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor, the United States has trained nearly 10,000 members of the Saudi armed forces since the start of the Obama administration.
None of the arguments for arming Saudi Arabia justifies supporting a war that has killed thousands of civilians and left millions sick and hungry. The Saudi bombing campaign has targeted schools, hospitals, marketplaces, power plants, and water treatment facilities. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, after accusing both sides in the Yemen war of potentially committing war crimes, have called for an independent investigation. The Saudis have so far been able to block the United Nations or any other body from conducting such an inquiry. Saudi Arabia’s undue influence at the UN was underscored by its recent success in getting itself removed from a “list of shame” of countries that have harmed or killed children in armed conflicts. The Saudis threatened to cut off support for UN humanitarian aid programs if the country was not removed from the list.
Saudi Use of Cluster Bombs
U.S. transfers of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia are of particular concern. The United States should not be exporting cluster munitions at all, particularly since they are banned under a 2008 treaty that now has 119 adherents. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has ratified the treaty. Saudi use of these bombs may not only have fallen afoul of the cluster munitions treaty but can’t even meet the less stringent conditions set out by U.S. law. The United States is not allowed to export cluster munitions with more than a one per cent “dud rate” because many of the bomblets dispersed by an individual cluster bomb can fail to go off on impact, only to explode later when touched or picked up by a civilian. The one percent provision is meant to limit these kinds of casualties.
But according to evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch, the CBU-105 cluster bombs transferred by the U.S. and used by the Saudis appear to exceed that rate. The Saudis have clearly violated the second requirement of U.S. law—that users of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs take care to avoid civilian areas.
In addition to its horrific human consequences, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has opened up space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to operate. Until an April attack on the port city of Mukalla by the Saudi-led coalition, AQAP controlled the area and reaped millions by imposing taxes and charging customs fees. Even after being expelled from Mukalla, AQAP controls large swaths of territory in southern Yemen, much of which it has taken over since the Saudi-led invasion.
Change in the Air
There are signs that the current U.S. policy of uncritically backing Saudi Arabia may be changing. A June 16th amendment—introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)—would have banned U.S. sales of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. The amendment failed by only 12 votes. A few weeks earlier, the Obama administration imposed a temporary halt on deliveries of U.S. cluster bombs to the kingdom. And a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) would stop all U.S. deliveries of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia until Riyadh demonstrates that it is taking care to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen and is not providing support to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), al-Qaeda, or other extremist groups, among other conditions.
The message of the House vote on cluster bomb sales to the Saudis is that the U.S. policy of “Saudi Arabia right or wrong” may be coming to an end. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Saudi support for the war against IS has been limited, and it is not clear that any intelligence Riyadh can provide outweighs the negative impact of the war in Yemen. Much of what Saudi Arabia is doing in the region, from its modest military contribution to the war on IS to its provision of humanitarian aid to areas impacted by the region’s numerous conflicts, is in Riyadh’s interest whether or not the United States continues to help it wage war in Yemen.
Contrary to administration claims, pouring more weapons into Saudi Arabia, which is already far more heavily armed than its regional rival Iran, is unlikely to “promote stability” in the region. The current policy of backing the Saudis to the hilt as a way of reassuring them over possible gains by Iran has not been working. Instead, President Obama and the next administration should use U.S. economic, military, and economic influence to promote what the president has described as a “cold peace” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unlimited sales of weaponry to Saudi Arabia can only undermine that goal.
Beyond the brief official readout supplied by the White House, details of President Obama’s meeting with MBS have been hard to come by. But it’s clear that the president did not threaten to do what should be done: condition U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia on an end to its bombing campaign in Yemen, as well as on good faith efforts to end the war there. The myth that U.S. arms sales promote peace and stability in the Middle East must be abandoned in favor of a more balanced approach that values diplomacy over arms transfers. The alternative—more war and more civilian carnage—is unacceptable.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor. Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman.