Yemen Crisis: One More Reason to Re-evaluate the Toxic U.S.-Saudi Alliance

By Medea Benjamin

After almost a year of civil war, the conflicting forces in Yemen sat down on December 15 in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the prospect of finding a political solution to the conflict that has been raging since March 2015. While this is a necessary step towards ending the violence that has killed thousands, crippled infrastructure and led to a critical humanitarian crisis, the peace talks should include a mechanism for rebuilding this impoverished nation. Saudi Arabia, which is responsible for most of the destruction with its relentless bombings, should be forced to pay for the terrible damage it has wrought. So should the United States.

The U.S. involvement in the Yemen crisis can be summed up in four words: allegiance to Saudi Arabia. The United States’ problematic relationship with Saudi Arabia goes all the way back to World War II, when U.S. officials started to see Saudi’s oil as a strategic advantage. Since then, the U.S. has blindly supported the Kingdom in almost every political and economic effort, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative Islamic monarchy rife with human rights abuses.

When the Houthis, a Shia rebel group from northern Yemen, took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in January 2015 and forced Sunni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi into exile, Saudi Arabia formed an Arab Gulf states coalition to fight against the Houthis. Naturally, the U.S. agreed to support its close ally in its endeavor to ‘reinstate order’ in Yemen by providing intelligence, weaponry and midair refueling, as well as sending U.S. warships to help enforce a blockade in the Gulf of Aden and southern Arabian Sea. The blockade was allegedly to prevent weapons shipments from Iran to the Houthis, but it also stopped humanitarian aid shipments to beleaguered Yemeni citizens. The American CIA and military intelligence are also on the ground in Yemen, providing targeting and other logistical support, and Uncle Sam’s drones are constantly flying overhead, sending intel to the Saudis.

Since then, the coalition has carried out indiscriminate airstrikes and bombings throughout the country, often targeting highly populated civilian areas. As of late September, the U.N. had documented that the war had killed 2,355 civilians and wounded 4,862, the majority of cases as a result of coalition airstrikes. The Saudi-led military intervention has created a humanitarian crisis that has left over 75% of Yemen’s population (21 million people) in urgent need of immediate aid. Millions of people have been forced out of their homes and left without water or electricity, as the country’s infrastructure continues to disintegrate.  

The U.S. is the main supplier of these weapons being used to carpet bomb Yemen. Cluster munitions, which are sold to Saudi Arabia by an American company called Textron, have been used in several coalition strikes. These horrific bombs constitute a particular danger to civilians because of their wide area of effect and the fact that unexploded bomblets can remain hazardous for decades after their deployment, which is why they are banned in over 115 countries. “Saudi-led cluster munition airstrikes have been hitting areas near villages, putting local people in danger,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “These weapons should never be used under any circumstances. Saudi Arabia and other coalition members – and the supplier, the US – are flouting the global standard that rejects cluster munitions because of their long-term threat to civilians.”

The United States’ direct role in coordinating Saudi air operations also makes the United States complicit in war crimes. “The US government is well aware of the Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate air attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Providing the Saudis with more bombs under these circumstances is a recipe for greater civilian deaths, for which the US will be partially responsible.”

To make matters worse, the terrible conditions on the ground have led to the strengthening of extremist terrorist groups that will inevitably plague that nation for years to come. The local Al Qaeda branch, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (also known as AQAP), formed in 2009, has exploited the present conflict and increased recruiting efforts. The current political and security vacuum has also opened the way for the appearance of a branch of ISIL, which has been carrying out deadly attacks on Shiite mosques and positioning itself as even more aggressive than AQAP. Some fear that AQAP and ISIL recruitment efforts might lead to competition between both radical groups, which could mean even more attacks around the country as the groups try to upstage one another.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen has only destroyed lives and created a state of total chaos, and the U.S. government is complicit in the carnage. Both nations should, as part of the peace process, be forced to pay reparations for the tremendous damage their bombs have inflicted.

The Yemen crisis should also serve as a prime moment for the U.S. to reconsider its alliance the Saudi regime, a regime that not only denies human rights to its own people but exports death and destruction abroad. An upcoming activist-based Saudi Summit, which will be held in Washington DC on March 5-6, is an effort to build a campaign to support challenge this toxic relationship.

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