Houthi Embassy Attack Reflects Costs of U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Houthi Embassy Attack Reflects Costs of U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Changing American interests and Mohammed bin Salman's reckless foreign policy necessitate a dramatic recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. 

Reports that Houthi forces detained Yemeni employees of the U.S. State Department after breaching the U.S. Embassy compound on November 10 are yet another reminder of the costs of the United States’ special relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis did not carry out this attack because they are an apocalyptic terrorist group akin to the Islamic State. Instead, the Houthis attacked the Sanaa embassy compound because they are involved in a conflict with Saudi Arabia, the recipient of extensive U.S. support throughout the war, and are attempting to consolidate their victory. U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing campaign in Yemen, which is counterproductive and even harmful to U.S. interests, is emblematic of the growing risks of providing unwavering support to the kingdom in the era of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) rule. This recent crisis underscores the need for President Joe Biden to fulfill his campaign promises and dramatically recalibrate U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia.

Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud met aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a uniquely transactional relationship rooted in an “oil for security” arrangement. During the Cold War, when America was much more dependent on open access to Gulf oil and sought ties with anti-communist regimes, forging a close relationship with the Saudis and helping the royal family remain in power served U.S. interests.

Yet, while the U.S. special relationship with the repressive and theocratic monarchy might have made sense during the Cold War, it certainly does not today. Biden recognized this fact to a surprising degree while on the campaign trail. During a 2019 debate, Biden promised that he would make the Saudis “the pariah that they are” and refuse to “sell more weapons to them.” Similarly, while giving his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden declared that the United States would end “support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen,” a conflict he described as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” that “has to end.” However, rhetoric aside, most of the promised “recalibration” in the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been, at best, cosmetic. Just as it has with Iran, the Biden administration has used more palatable language while continuing much of Trump’s approach toward Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi attack comes on the heels of the State Department approving a $650 million arms sale to the Saudis. More importantly, the Biden administration has continued to provide critical maintenance for Saudi aircraft, supported Saudi efforts to leverage the blockade of Yemen in negotiations, and failed to punish MbS for his brazen assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

When noting Biden’s failure to live up to his promises regarding Saudi Arabia, most commentators have incorrectly asserted that the “realists leading Biden’s Saudi policy” have placed strategic interests ahead of human rights concerns and are attempting to preserve a working relationship with MbS, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne. Although U.S. officials may believe that maintaining the status quo in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a necessary evil, providing unwavering support to Saudi Arabia as its behavior grows increasingly destabilizing will undermine America’s interests in very tangible ways.

As the energy concerns that have driven the U.S.-Saudi relationship for decades have continued to become less important, Saudi Arabia’s traditionally risk-averse foreign policy has become increasingly belligerent and harmful to the United States. Since becoming the kingdom’s de facto ruler, MbS’ foreign policy initiatives have included strengthening Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon by ordering the forced detention of Lebanon’s prime minister; leading a blockade of Qatar, where the United States’ largest military base in the Middle East and U.S. Central Command forward headquarters are located; and entangling Saudi Arabia in a destructive quagmire in Yemen.

Rather than seeking to discourage the crown prince’s reckless adventure in Yemen, the United States has provided Saudi Arabia with weapons, logistical and intelligence assistance, and diplomatic backing to support the campaign since its inception in 2015. Ultimately, the Saudi intervention, which MbS framed as a sectarian proxy war against Iran, made the assertion that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While Iran’s influence in Yemen was relatively insignificant when the war began, Saudi Arabia’s intervention allowed Iran to greatly increase its presence and clout in Yemen. In addition, jihadists have benefited from the chaos caused by the war and Saudi Arabia’s support for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Yemen. The horrific humanitarian impact of the Saudi-led intervention has also destabilized Yemen and helped create conditions that foster radicalization and anti-American extremism. When innocents are killed by U.S. bombs dropped from U.S.-made planes that are kept in the air by U.S. contractors, Yemeni civilians understandably associate the United States with the carnage being imposed on them from above.  

Instead of trying to help Saudi Arabia win a war that is irrelevant to U.S. security and has already been lost, the United States must push for a negotiated end to the war that improves humanitarian conditions and fosters long-term stability. The Biden administration should immediately stop contractor support for the Saudi Air Force, suspend all arms sales to the kingdom, and threaten to withdraw more forces from the region to pressure the Saudis to end their involvement in Yemen.

However, the intervention in Yemen is just one part of a broader trend in Saudi policy that has repeatedly undermined U.S. interests. If the Biden administration’s approach toward Saudi Arabia fails to reflect changing U.S. priorities and the kingdom’s impact on them, an emboldened and reckless MbS will only do further damage to U.S. interests. With this in mind, the United States must end its special treatment of the Saudis and make clear that its armed forces have no obligation to underwrite the crown prince’s reckless foreign policy.

Hawks in Congress have already seized on the Houthi attack, framing it as another Iranian hostage crisis or Benghazi attack, to decry the consequences of purported U.S. weakness. Many more will surely use the hostage-taking to call for a renewed effort to support our “ally” Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s friends in Congress should instead ponder why we are in this situation in the first place and what continued subservience to the Saudis would do to advance U.S. interests.

Will A. Smith is an editorial intern at The National Interest and a graduate student at American University's School of International Service

Image: Reuters.