OpEd: Can the U.S. Change Saudi Policy in Yemen?

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Written by Alexandra Stark

The horrific murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi has raised concerns about the erratic foreign policy behavior of Saudi Arabia since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015. Some have argued in the wake of the murder that U.S. officials should push the Saudi-led coalition to end its devastating intervention in the Yemen civil war. But can the United States substantially affect Saudi Arabia’s behavior in Yemen and to what extent?

Evidence over the course of the Trump administration suggests that it can. The Trump administration has invested in improving the U.S.-Saudi relationship without publicly criticizing its foreign policy moves, and Saudi leadership appears to have interpreted this as license to double down on the Yemen intervention. However, critically, on occasions when the Trump administration has publicly criticized the intervention, the coalition has shifted its behavior in response.

Both the Trump administration and Saudi leaders saw the new administration as a chance to strengthen a relationship that they believed had frayed over the course of the Obama administration. While the Obama administration had publicly rebuked the coalition and placed a temporary freeze on a planned sale of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to Saudi Arabia, within its first months, the Trump administration notified Congress that it would resume sales of PGMs to Saudi Arabia, and lifted other restrictions on U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention.

Administration officials also immediately began developing closer personal ties to the Saudi leadership. On his first trip abroad President Trump traveled to Riyadh in May 2017, where he signed a joint “strategic vision” that he claimed included $110 billion in weapons sales. The president’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor, Jared Kushner, serves as a backchannel to the Saudi regime, and reportedly grew close with the Saudi Crown Prince during a trip to Riyadh in October 2017, staying up until 4 a.m. “swapping stories and planning strategy.” Kushner also began to meet with UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, on a regular basis. Politico reported that Kushner and Otaiba were in contact daily. In a regime where personal relationships are especially meaningful in the conduct of diplomacy, the Trump administration’s investment in these relationships was seen by the Saudis as a welcomed gesture. These relationships were bolstered by Saudi leaders’ apparent eagerness to invest in the United States, a move that was welcomed by the Trump administration.

The Trump administration views the war in Yemen through the lens of regional competition with Iran. Seen through this lens, Yemen is yet another arena in which the United States and its regional allies can push back against Iran’s regional influence. These personal relationships and the Trump administration’s eagerness to confront Iran have led the Trump administration to virtually uncritically back the coalition intervention in Yemen thus far.

In addition, the administration also continued to provide logistical military support to the coalition, including aerial refueling and targeting, although Department of Defense spokespeople have given conflicting assessments of the precise types of support that the United States provides. This has led the Saudi-led coalition to double down on fighting in Yemen. According to an anonymous Western diplomat, there was a shift amongst Saudi leadership in their thinking about Yemen after the 2016 U.S. election, “from an approach of ‘we need a deal’ to thinking there might be a military solution after all, and that the Americans might help.” Indeed, an anonymous Trump administration official noted that ending the Obama-era limits to U.S. support for the coalition would be seen by the coalition as “a green light for direct involvement in a major war.”

A key exception to the administration’s uncritical support for the intervention came in December 2017, when it publicly called for the coalition to lift the blockade on Hodeidah Port. The port, located on Yemen’s northwestern coast, is the entry point for about 80% of Yemen’s imported food and other critical humanitarian supplies. In August 2015, Saudi aircraft destroyed five cranes that were used to unload shipments coming into the port. USAID purchased new cranes, but when they arrived coalition ships turned them away. In November 2017, the coalition imposed a complete blockade on ports and airports in Yemen in response to a ballistic missile that was fired towards Riyadh.

The administration issued an unusual statement that publicly rebuked the coalition calling on Saudi Arabia to “completely allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it. This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley also engaged in efforts to raise pressure on the coalition to lift the blockade and allow the cranes into the port. In response, the coalition announced that it would temporarily end the blockade of Hodeidah Port and allowed for the delivery of the four new cranes. In this specific instance where the Trump administration did use some of its leverage to place pressure on the coalition, the effort successfully changed the behavior of the interveners.

This suggests that the administration can indeed use leverage to encourage the Saudi-led coalition to change its behavior in Yemen. The cooling of relations that has followed the murder of Mr. Khashoggi constitutes a critical moment where U.S. leverage is effectively at its peak. In the strongest public statement this administration has made to date, on October 30th Secretary of State Pompeo called for a ceasefire and for all parties to engage in the UN-led negotiation efforts. U.S. officials have also indicated that they will end refueling of coalition aircraft. Though largely symbolic, these are critical first steps.

There is still a long way to go before the parties are able to agree to a comprehensive negotiated settlement, and there are substantial gaps between the parties on key issues. However, the United States can play an important role in placing pressure on the coalition to declare a ceasefire, encouraging the Saudis and Emiratis to engage in back-channel talks with the Houthis, and supporting the UN envoy’s efforts to get the parties to agree on a framework for more comprehensive negotiations.

About the author: Alexandra Stark is the Security & Defense Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Georgetown University. Her dissertation research analyzes the conditions under which countries in the MENA region are likely to intervene in civil wars. She also holds an MSC from the London School of Economics and a BA from Wellesley College, where she was a fellow of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs.