As Congress Scrutinizes Yemen, Spotlight Shines on Saudi Arabia and Its Partners

The politics of the Yemen war are becoming clearer as the 116th Congress gets about its business.

On February 13, the House of Representatives, sporting a new Democratic majority, voted 248-177 to discontinue US involvement in operations of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, marking the first time that the Congress has invoked the 1973 War Powers Act to force a halt to a US military operation overseas. While the Senate had taken similar action last December, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) had refused to bring the Senate’s resolution to the floor. The new House bill was taken up by the Senate on March 13 and passed, 54-46, with seven Republicans voting in favor despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) insistence that the vote was “inappropriate and counterproductive.” For parliamentary reasons the bill was returned to the House where it passes on April 5. But the White House has made clear its opposition and the president is expected to issue a veto that is unlikely to be overridden.

While the Trump Administration has shown few signs that it is willing to abandon Saudi Arabia in its fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, these developments represent new scrutiny of the administration’s Gulf policy, not to mention its choice in friends. Indeed, as reports of serious human rights abuses keep emerging from Saudi Arabia, more than just the Yemen war is coming under review. US relations with Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are earning a closer look too.

While the Trump Administration has shown few signs that it is willing to abandon Saudi Arabia in its fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, these developments represent new scrutiny of the administration’s Gulf policy

Congress Takes Another Hard Look at Yemen

The sharp congressional rebuke of the administration’s position has signaled broad dissatisfaction with the Saudi war in Yemen, the consequences of which become more serious by the day. According to Relief Web, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “conditions are worsening at a nearly unprecedented rate”; the total number of civilians “in acute humanitarian need across all sectors has risen 27 percent since last year [2018].” Approximately 80 percent of Yemen’s 29 million people need protection and humanitarian assistance, and 20 million require help in getting food. As many as 56,000 are believed to have been killed in the fighting, many in indiscriminate bombings carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Widespread outbreaks of disease, particularly diarrhea, diphtheria, and cholera (which is endemic), have claimed many more lives. Despite UN efforts to effect a resolution, the war shows no signs of abating.

Other troubling developments have helped undermine the US rationale for supporting the Saudi intervention. According to a CNN report, US arms provided to the Saudis and their coalition partners have leaked into the Yemeni black market, and coalition members have transferred US-made weapons to “al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions … in violation of their agreements with the United States.” American weapons have also found their way to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against whom the US-supported intervention is aimed, the report concluded.

US weapons have been used by Saudi and allied forces in a number of well-documented high-casualty incidents involving Yemeni civilians, which US efforts have been largely unable to curb.

In addition, US weapons have been used by Saudi and allied forces in a number of well-documented high-casualty incidents involving Yemeni civilians, which US efforts have been largely unable to curb. American support for the coalition air campaign has led to charges that the United States may be complicit in war crimes, a concern evidently much on the minds of US senators who demanded answers from the Pentagon during hearings last year. But US arms supplies continue to be deemed vital by the administration.

Spotlight on Saudi Arabia

The increasing attention focused on US involvement in Yemen has gone hand in hand with the greater congressional ire directed toward Saudi Arabia following the October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi. This was compounded by the administration’s ham-handed attempts to shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) from scrutiny for his alleged role in the killing. Immediately after passing its Yemen resolution last December, the Senate passed a second charging MBS with personal responsibility for the murder. The State Department’s facile dismissal in February of a congressional deadline under the Global Magnitsky Act to report on who was ultimately responsible for the murder—determined to have been the crown prince by US intelligence agencies—angered many on Capitol Hill who considered the move to be insultingly dismissive of Congress and tantamount to a coverup for the prince’s actions. (President Donald Trump’s risible statement last November on whether MBS ordered the Khashoggi murder—“maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”—helped cement the impression that the administration took neither the murder nor Congress seriously.)

Congressional pushback against the administration on Yemen and Saudi Arabia has a political upside on the Hill for members of both parties: it is popular with the public. Even before the Khashoggi killing, most Americans had an unfavorable view of the kingdom. In polling conducted after the murder, consistent majorities of Americans said the Trump Administration has been too soft on Saudi Arabia; they even rejected the proposition that the Saudis are allies of the United States. This negative attitude extends to the Yemen war. In one poll taken in late 2018, 58 percent of those who expressed an opinion wanted to end US support for the Yemen intervention, compared to 22 percent opposed. As more troubling revelations about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia emerge, public opinion on the US-Saudi relationship is likely to sour further.

Many in Congress see an opportunity to resist what they view as executive overreach and erratic, even troubling, foreign policy decision-making—including an unsavory appetite for cozying up to dictators.

In addition to enjoying clear public backing for a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, many in Congress see an opportunity to resist what they view as executive overreach and erratic, even troubling, foreign policy decision-making—including an unsavory appetite for cozying up to dictators. Thus, in spite of Majority Leader McConnell’s plea during Senate debate on the Saudi resolution in March that “we should not use this specific vote on a specific policy decision as some proxy for all the Senate’s broad feelings about foreign affairs,” bipartisan majorities in both houses appear willing to do just that. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) appeared to be speaking for many when he observed that “the United States Congress is going to reassert its constitutional responsibility over issues of war that have been abdicated for presidents, Democrats and Republicans, for too many years.”

Blowback on Saudi Allies

The spillover from congressional and public anger at Saudi Arabia is affecting some close Saudi allies, too. The UAE, for one, is coming in for a closer look. The country has been implicated in the provision of American-made arms to terrorist elements in Yemen and is heavily involved in the air war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels that has caused so many civilian casualties. Disturbing reports have emerged of Project Raven, an elite cyber-hacking operation staffed largely by former US intelligence operatives employed by the UAE to spy on rival leaders, dissidents, and journalists—including Americans. This has spurred a federal investigation of whether American operatives illegally spied on US citizens and computer networks or revealed secret surveillance techniques to the Emiratis. Moreover, the intimate association between MBS and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, as well as the important role played by Yousef Al Otaiba—the Emirati ambassador to the United States—in MBS’s pre-Khashoggi ascent in Washington elite opinion, have tarnished the UAE’s reputation and fueled disquiet on Capitol Hill.

Egypt, too, is facing heightened skepticism about its role in the region and worsening domestic repression, and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s close ties to Saudi Arabia are likely to play a part in increasing congressional focus on the country. Freshman Representative Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), fast becoming a leading light on human rights issues in Congress, has said he expects “a much more critical focus on the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and that may have some implications for how Egypt is viewed.” In this climate, the heavy lobbying by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on behalf of Egypt may have something of the opposite intended effect. Sisi’s April 9 visit to Washington, which angered many in the city, including in Congress, will be another opportunity for Egypt’s critics to question the country’s role in Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership bid.

Options for the Hill

Congress may consider any number of options to restrict and possibly end US involvement in the Yemen war, and perhaps even constrain the US-Saudi relationship more broadly. In addition to the ban on aerial refueling of coalition aircraft fighting in Yemen, Congress could consider reducing or ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Legislation along these lines has been introduced in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and has tens of cosponsors. Congress could take an even more serious step by imposing sanctions linked to Saudi Arabia’s alleged commission of war crimes in the conflict. Legislation to this effect has been bottled up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman, Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), is a strong ally of the president’s and has expressed his support for the current policy on Yemen. Any substantial congressional action to fundamentally alter US policy on Yemen, or Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, will be a very heavy lift on Capitol Hill and faces the likelihood of a Trump veto.

In addition to the ban on aerial refueling of coalition aircraft fighting in Yemen, Congress could consider reducing or ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

How Will the Administration React?

The administration has taken the position that use of the War Powers Act to end American involvement in Yemen is inappropriate and that constraining US actions there is bad policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said shortly after the Senate’s vote in February that “the Trump administration fundamentally disagrees that curbing our assistance to the Saudi-led coalition is the way to achieve these goals [of ending the war and the humanitarian crisis]. If you truly care about Yemeni lives, you’d support the Saudi-led effort to prevent Yemen from turning into a puppet state of the corrupt, brutish Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The proposition that Iran seeks to turn the ungoverned tribes and political chaos of Yemen into a puppet state—a goal it has failed to achieve even in Iraq—is unsupported by the evidence, and in any case the administration appears uninterested in exerting much persuasive effort on Congress.  Rather, current US policy in Yemen seems driven by Trump’s personal view that commercial and business ties to Saudi Arabia should be paramount, untroubled by human rights or other moral considerations. Close interpersonal relations between the Trump family and the Saudi royals, particularly the strong rapport between MBS and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, reinforce this conviction. Unstinting support for the kingdom’s Yemen war is just one way President Trump demonstrates support for the Saudi royal family and expresses appreciation for the business deals—including, evidently, Trump’s personal deals—that he has repeatedly held up as the bedrock of the relationship.

In all this, Trump is following the pattern of his interactions with other authoritarian regimes in which he excuses bad behavior and dubious policy choices in the pursuit of a limited set of US interests, such as counterterrorism cooperation. The repressive nature of these regimes and their leaders, far from giving pause, appears to be a positive for Trump, who evidently admires authoritarians’ unbridled exercise of power, appreciates the flattery they often direct his way, and values the ease of doing business with their governments.

Feeling vindicated and empowered by the recent release of the Mueller report, President Trump is likely to be in no mood to back down before Congress on Yemen—or much of anything else for the present. A triumphal mood at the White House will more likely encourage the president to double down, including on his Middle East policies. This is unlikely to serve US interests in the region very well, however, particularly as it involves stubborn adherence to increasingly discredited and dangerous approaches. The US Congress will need to remain vigilant, exercising its voice as well as its legislative and oversight powers, if it is to effect real policy change on Yemen.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here