US Should Stop Playing the Supplicant to Saudi Arabia

“members of the infamous Blob, America’s foreign policy establishment, are urging Biden to do a full kowtow to Riyadh (and presumably Abu Dhabi as well), doing the royals’ bidding as before. After all, the relationship always has been about them. Years ago Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed that the Saudis were ever ready to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” Nothing has changed.
For example, Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria backed the idea of a “grand bargain,” which would trade security guarantees for Saudi concessions: “There is a way for Washington to forge a new security umbrella in the region that includes Israel, Egypt and the gulf states. It would stabilize the security environment, foreclose the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the region and provide access to energy for the industrialized world. But that path would have to include making up with Mohammed bin Salman.”

Bloomberg’s Bobby Ghosh views the problem as personal and political immaturity: “The most important partnership in the Middle East has been put in jeopardy by the peevishness of a prince and political opportunism of a president. Repairing the Saudi‐American relationship will require the first to behave like a grown‐up, the other like a statesman.”

Although Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner was more skeptical that a satisfactory accommodation could be reached, he intoned: “I hope the Biden administration is conducting internal deliberations about what concessions it would be willing to make to engage in some transactional diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. As bad as Saudi behavior has been, Russia’s bad behavior has been worse and merits a priority of focus.”

This approach, which treats murderous wars and grievous human rights violations as minor inconveniences, is a terrible idea. To start, fulfilling demands by dependent regimes would undermine Washington’s credibility. The Washington War Party has routinely insisted that the US should intervene militarily everywhere for the most spurious reasons to convince the world that it is prepared to go to war anywhere at any time for anything. Hence nonsensical claims that failing to bomb Syria over chemical weapons or stay in Afghanistan for a 21st year would trigger major power aggression around the globe. In fact, America’s adversaries distinguish between serious and peripheral issues, and act accordingly. (Which is why Moscow withdrew from Afghanistan after only ten years compared to America’s astounding two decades.)

However, US credibility really would be at stake if the administration submitted to Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s demands, acting as if it was a weak Third World state rather than global superpower. Again, putting royal interests first would encourage other defense dependents to make similarly inflated and malign demands. Washington would be playing the supplicant and would be expected to do the same elsewhere.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia, in particular, and UAE are not normal countries, either liberal democratic or even moderately authoritarian allies. The Kingdom earned a rating of just seven out of 100 by Freedom House, making it one of the world’s baker’s dozen most repressive nations and territories, dwelling in the human rights cellar along with Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Riyadh is much worse than Russia, at least prior to that latter’s internal crackdown to suppress any antiwar dissent, which made the latter much more like the KSA.

Those celebrating MbS’s recent social liberalization are merely highlighting how until recently the Kingdom was a true totalitarian state, in some ways more absolute than Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea. Thankfully, those who face prison for dissent now can attend a movie before being locked up! Alas, a free society that does not make.”

“Riyadh is, despite Drezner’s claim, a more malign actor internationally than Russia. The royal regime’s alleged friendship with America never meant respecting America’s interests. Especially once MbS took effective control of the government. The regime tolerated substantial financial public support for al‐Qaeda until the group attacked the royals. Saudi Arabia also kidnapped a head of government (Lebanon), blockaded and made plans to invade another friendly state (Qatar), used money and troops to enforce brutal dictatorships (Bahrain, Egypt), and subsidized jihadist forces (Libya, Syria).

Worst was the invasion of Yemen. To reinstate a pliable regime in its desperately poor neighbor, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi joined in a “coalition,” hiring countries dependent on their financial largesse, such as Sudan, which deployed ground forces in the conflict. Total deaths are estimated at roughly 400,000, 60 percent of them young children, who are particularly vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. Human rights group report that coalition activity, both air attacks and de facto blockade, is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths.”

“In short, rewarding Saudi Arabia to further punish Russia would be a bad trade‐off, for moral as well as practical reasons. Especially since the Saudis likely would undercut any promises to increase production — cheating by OPEC members always has been systemic and endemic. Nor would increasing the flow of Mideast oil necessarily significantly intensify pressure on Russia or affect Moscow’s behavior. US economic sanctions have rarely forced regimes to act against what they viewed as fundamental political interests. The costs of such a policy would be substantial and real. The benefits would be speculative at most.

The better strategy would be for the administration to demonstrate that US officials will no longer be docile retainers for the Saudi and Emirati royals. For instance, the administration should stop helping them slaughter their poor neighbors. The US sold the aircraft, for a time refueled them, and still services the planes, supplies the munitions, and provides the intelligence. Washington should effectively ground the royal fleets by ending support services and weapons resupply. That would encourage the Saudi king to take the president’s next call.

Moreover, the administration should indicate that the well‐armed Gulf regimes are vulnerable to attack mostly because they lack domestic political legitimacy — who wants to die defending Crown Prince “Slice n’ Dice” so can he murder another critic or build another palace? US military personnel should not be treated as mercenary bodyguards, the equivalent of the civilian expatriate labor used to do most of the “dirty work” in those societies. It is past time for the Saudis and Emiratis to earn their people’s support. The KSA’s uncertainty about America’s continuing military commitment already has spurred the regime’s talks with Iran, which could ease the region’s dangerous Sunni‐Shia split. Ultimately Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should take over responsibility for their security.”

“Foreign policy sometimes requires difficult compromises. Thankfully, the Cold War is over. Russia is far less dangerous than the Soviet Union; today’s united Europe is far more able to contain Moscow than yesterday’s Western Europe. If Washington officials are going to confront Russia over domestic oppression and foreign aggression, they cannot excuse Saudi Arabia for the same.”

A Ceasefire in Yemen after Seven Years: Are US‐​Backed Saudi/​Emirati Aggression and War Crimes Finally Over?

“After years of attacks on civilians, the Saudis and Emiratis are guilty of manifold war crimes. The United Nations Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, subsequently disbanded under Saudi pressure, last fall described the horror: “Since March 2015, over 23,000 airstrikes have been launched by the coalition in Yemen, killing or injuring over 18,000 civilians. Living in a country subjected to an average of 10 airstrikes per day has left millions feeling far from safe.” Victims included “civilians shopping at markets, receiving care in hospitals, or attending weddings and funerals; children on buses; fishers in boats; migrants seeking a better life; individuals strolling through their neighborhoods; and people who were at home.”

Support for the royal aggressors made US officials into coconspirators. Reported the New York Times in September 2020: “The civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous air war over Yemen was steadily rising in 2016 when the State Department’s legal office in the Obama administration reached a startling conclusion: Top American officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners. Four years later, more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials say the legal risks have only grown as President Trump has made selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle East nations a cornerstone of his foreign policy.””

“Last November the United Nations Development Programme estimated Yemen’s death toll at 377,000, 70 percent of whom were children under five. Indirect causes, especially malnutrition and disease, took the majority of lives.”

“despite Washington’s shameful backing for Saudi/Emirati aggression and attacks on civilians, the royal regimes appear to have tired of their endless wars. Indeed, Ansar Allah’s strikes on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, though limited in effect, seriously embarrassed both governments. The Emiratis were particularly vulnerable since further attacks on Dubai could wreck its role as a hub for commercial activity and air travel.
In a dramatic move, the Saudis forced Yemen’s nominal president, Hadi, to yield his authority, after spending seven years justifying war to restore him. Reported The Wall Street Journal: “Saudi authorities have largely confined him to his home in Riyadh and restricted communications with him in the days since, according to Saudi and Yemeni officials.” The Houthis dismissed the move and some analysts speculated that Riyadh hoped to unite factions opposed to Ansar Allah to better wage war. However, the move effectively cleared the deck for negotiations. Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group opined that this was the “most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti‐Houthi bloc since war began.”

More significant — and generating more hope — is the two‐month ceasefire that began on April 2, the first day of Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection for Muslims. For the first time in more than seven years, the royal air war against Yemeni civilians halted. If respected, the suspension of hostilities, which was announced by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, could lead to a more durable settlement. Needed is a political compromise among Yemenis providing broad representation in a new government.

Still, any optimism must be tempered. Past ceasefires have collapsed and reaching agreement, especially given outside interference, will be difficult.”

Biden promised a harder line on Saudi Arabia. Why can’t he deliver?

“Since the FDR presidency, Saudi Arabia has been an important United States partner. It is a major energy producer and home to the two most significant sites in Islam, and for decades, America had provided security guarantees to the kingdom. In return, the US has depended on Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran in the Middle East, an intelligence partner against terrorist groups, and a dominant investor with an enormous sovereign wealth fund. But MBS’s ruthless intransigence had put the relationship to the test.

Biden’s government-in-waiting recognized that MBS demanded a different approach. Daniel Benaim, who advised the campaign and is now a senior Middle East diplomat, searched for a way to elevate human rights. In summer 2020, he proposed a “progressive course correction” that spelled out consequences for future malign behavior.

Benaim suggested a six-month review of policy, but it’s not clear whether Biden’s State Department has conducted such a reassessment. (The State Department declined to comment on the record, as did the White House.)”

“Overall, the Biden administration has responded to MBS with an approach that keeps human rights concerns behind closed doors because, advisers say, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is so integral to US policy. By balancing the concerns of human rights activists and the Washington national-security establishment, Biden’s team has found that it is disappointing both, as well as supporters of the crown prince.

A month into office, Biden broke with Trump by releasing the intelligence agencies’ report on Khashoggi. It showed unequivocally that MBS was responsible for the killing of the Virginia resident in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Blinken announced the new “Khashoggi Ban” that would prohibit government agents who target dissenters from entering the US.

It was a good step, but Biden didn’t follow through. The formal ban was implemented against 76 Saudis but not the prince himself. Critics say true accountability would have meant putting MBS on the banned list. MBS hasn’t visited the US since Trump, but that relates to an implicit policy of distancing him, not a formal declaration that he’s banned. (MBS’s brother, who was reportedly involved in the Khashoggi operation, quietly visited the White House in July.)”

“On the campaign, Biden said he would stop supporting the war in Yemen. More than 375,000 Yemenis had died by the end of last year, and the devastating death toll led Obama alumni to take responsibility for supporting the 2014 Saudi invasion. The State Department says it is working with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen.

Last February, Biden ended “offensive” support for the war. Yet last month the Senate, with White House encouragement, approved a $650 million arms sale to the kingdom for “defensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia, a distinction that many experts reject.”

“Biden has made one big move: He won’t talk to MBS directly. The president, thus far, has only held phone calls with his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. This has reportedly angered MBS. But it’s an insufficient form of retribution. “The big punishment for murder and dismemberment of a journalist is you don’t get to meet the president yourself? You can meet with anyone else and get all the weapons you need,” said Andrea Prasow of the Freedom Initiative. “The consideration of human rights is not integrated into US policy. It’s an add-on.”

Why is there so much hedging in US policy toward Saudi Arabia, even when the Biden administration has set out to shake things up?”

“The Biden team now seems resigned to a close relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to achieve its own policy objectives, like cheap gas prices and an accord with Iran.”

Oppressive Regimes Reach Beyond Their Borders

“”In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption,” ProPublica reported after its own investigation.

While “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world,” according to Freedom House, it’s hardly alone. Russia’s overseas effort “accounts for 7 of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014, as catalogued in Freedom House’s global survey”; former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted in the United Kingdom in 2018 in an attack that resulted in the death of a local woman. Saudi Arabia’s government plotted what a UN special rapporteur described as “a premeditated extrajudicial execution” of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Turkey, in turn, has developed a reputation for leaning on other governments “to hand over individuals without due process, or with a slight fig leaf of legality,” in the words of the report.”

The US may still be helping Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war after all

“In February, President Joe Biden announced that he was ending America’s “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, six years into the conflict that has killed around 230,000 people and triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Instead, the US role would be limited to “defensive” operations “to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

There’s just one problem: The line between “offensive” and “defensive” support is murky, and critics argue even the limited support the US is providing still helps Riyadh carry out its offensive bombing campaign in Yemen.”

“Biden’s policy sounds straightforward enough. For the past few months, the US made a clean break and no longer provides assistance to Riyadh’s ongoing strikes inside Yemen, right?

Not quite. That’s because the “defensive” support the US is still providing includes greenlighting the servicing of Saudi aircraft.

Multiple US defense officials and experts acknowledged that, through a US government process, the Saudi government pays commercial contractors to maintain and service their aircraft, and those contractors keep Saudi warplanes in the air. What the Saudis do with those fighter jets, however, is up to them.

The US could cancel those contracts at any time, thus effectively grounding the Saudi Air Force, but doing so would risk losing Riyadh as a key regional partner.”

“Riyadh, with its own money and at no cost to the US taxpayer, uses a US government program to procure maintenance for its warplanes. (That service likely was included when the Saudis bought the American-made warplanes.) It may not be the US military providing direct support, then, but the service was still greenlit by the US.”

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an Offensive Air Force and a Defensive Air Force. It just has the one aerial service that the US supports.

Still, the offensive part is relatively straightforward: The Saudis find a Houthi target inside Yemen they want to hit, and they bomb it.

But it gets more complicated when you consider what “defensive” might mean. As the Houthis continue to launch missile and drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia, Riyadh might decide to strike a few of the Houthis’ launch points to dissuade further assaults.

Would such a move be defensive or offensive? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that without the US-approved maintenance of Saudi fighters, Riyadh wouldn’t really have the option of launching such retaliatory responses. “They’d be able to fly two out of every 10 aircraft,” said Des Roches. That would give the Houthis an edge in the ongoing fight.”

“it seems likely that US-authorized contractors maintaining Saudi warplanes are indirectly involved in helping the Saudis carry out “offensive” operations, however one defines them. “If we’re servicing the planes that are fighting the war, we’re still supporting the war,” said the Democratic congressional aide. That the contract remains in place, after all, is a policy decision. The US could also decide to maintain other equipment and provide training instead of keeping Saudi aircraft in the sky.

But it’s also true that without the maintenance support, Saudi Arabia would be further exposed to all kinds of attacks from the Houthis (and others). And after nixing the contract, the decades-old ties between Washington and Riyadh might not just spiral downward but sever entirely.”

“It is not a blockade”: US says Saudi Arabia isn’t to blame for Yemen’s fuel shortage

“Saudi Arabia, along with several other countries in the region that joined its war effort, has been fighting a war in Yemen since 2015. They’re fighting to oust the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran that had just overthrown Yemen’s internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led coalition, which until recently was also supported by the US, wants to return Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power.

When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched the war, they used military force to stop planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran.

But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting.

That concern proved devastatingly prophetic.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that more than 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve.

What CNN found last month fit the years-long pattern: Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year.”

“It turns out the State Department disagrees with the growing narrative since the CNN report’s release.

“It is not a blockade,” a spokesperson for the agency said Monday. “Food is getting through, commodities are getting through, so it is not a blockade.”

However, the administration does acknowledge there has been a slowdown in the amount of fuel coming into the country, and they’re concerned about it. “The United States understands the urgent need for fuel to get into Hodeidah port,” Lenderking told me on Tuesday. “This is a constant priority in our conversations with the Republic of Yemen government and Saudi Arabia.”

But the primary culprit for the fuel slowdown, the State Department and the National Security Council contend, is not Saudi Arabia but rather the Hadi government.

Here’s why: Even though it doesn’t actually control the bulk of the country and is operating out of Saudi Arabia, it is still the legitimate, recognized government of Yemen and thus retains authority over who is allowed to dock in Yemen’s ports.

Which means that if the Hadi government doesn’t grant permission to a particular ship to dock in Hodeidah (or elsewhere), that ship can’t dock. The Saudi-led coalition enforces those decisions if necessary with its ships and planes, blocking any vessels Hadi’s government says can’t come in.

And that process of approving ships to dock is where the State Department says the real problem lies, leading to the fuel shortage.

The State Department said it opposes any arbitrary restrictions of commodities entering Yemen, but that “we respect the right of the government to control its access to ports.” However, the spokesperson added, “We do press them and work with them to make sure that their process improves and runs as smoothly as possible.””

“The Houthis are partly to blame here, too. Experts told me the rebels aren’t great about dispersing the fuel that is allowed to come off the ships. Sometimes they shut down gas stations so that the price of fuel they control on the black market goes up. So they are also responsible for why fuel isn’t getting to those who need it.”

“All three parties — the Hadi government, the Saudis, and the Houthis — are guilty of purposely using fuel, and access to it, as a weapon in this war.”

“the severe restrictions in fuel imports at Hodeidah aren’t happening out of pure malice, but they are happening on purpose. It’s part of an effort by the Hadi government and the Saudis to stop the Houthis from exploiting fuel revenues for their own benefit. The Hadi government “has declined to let them in [to Hodeidah] because of a long-running dispute with the Houthis over revenue payments,” the UN spokesperson told me.”

Biden Cuts Support for Saudi War in Yemen, But It Should Only Be the First Step

“The Biden administration’s decision to pull the United States out of Yemen’s six-year-long civil war was a highly prudent act. But it’s merely a first step. Washington’s Middle East policy must be anchored in restraint and humbleness. This simply won’t happen until U.S. policy makers realign the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship with the realities of the world today—not on how the world looked during the Cold War.”

Mohammed bin Salman Is an Odious Murderer. We Should Help Saudi Arabia Anyway.

“Many young Saudis support MBS’ Vision 2030 for its promises of employment, prosperity, and less stringent gender regulations, which are especially welcome to the generation of Saudi millennials who spent their college years abroad and are eager for their country to be “normal.” Americans should remember that the people of Saudi Arabia are not responsible for MBS’ crimes, so the economic and social transitions that MBS has accelerated should be encouraged, however offensive they consider the crown prince’s other actions.

Oil and the U.S. military are what keep Arab dictators in power. The global economy is slowly scaling back its addiction to the fossil fuels that are killing the planet. The U.S. can and should stop propping up Arab dictators with weapons sales and instead help wean their economies off of oil. While many rightly consider engagement with MBS distasteful, for the sake of Saudi and American citizens as well as the global climate, Biden should help MBS achieve his more admirable goals while constraining his malignant inclinations.”

How Biden’s best-laid plans for Iran and Saudi Arabia failed in his first month

“As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.

But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.

And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.

That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.”