Four congressmen recently sponsored a bill on blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, worth $1.15 billion and expected to generate over eleven thousand American jobs. They justified the bill by citing the conflict in Yemen—the worsening humanitarian situation as well as the harm to American national security.
I will argue here for three points. First, Saudi Arabia is not given enough credit for its commitment to the protection of civilians as well as for the humanitarian aid it provides to Yemen. Second, the bill neglects the strategic context that dictated the formation of the Arab coalition under Riyadh’s leadership and its intervention in Yemen. Third, it is of fundamental importance to American national security that Yemen has a strong central government and a stable as well as a functioning state structure. These are the objectives of the Arab coalition in Yemen.
Although it is important to call on the Saudis to respect humanitarian standards, Saudi Arabia is in fact making serious efforts to reduce civilian casualties and provide aid to Yemen. The U.S. military can attest to this given that it has a front seat in the command center of the Arab coalition forces in Riyadh. One major reason for the slow advance of Yemeni government’s forces is that the Arab coalition wants to avoid civilian casualties. That is why many operations against Iran-backed Houthi militia and Saleh forces have not been carried out.
Moreover, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Saudi Arabia has received forty-one thousand Yemeni refugees, who were granted full access to the country’s public health and education facilities as well as to the labor market. As is the case with the five hundred thousand Syrian refugees currently residing in Saudi Arabia, Yemeni refugees are not called “refugees,” but rather, “visitors.” This is because of the historical sensitivity of the Arab world generally, and Saudi Arabia in particular, toward the word “refugee” since the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. According to UNHCR, Saudi Arabia has issued an extendable six-month stay permit to 465,400 undocumented Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia in order to facilitate their access to health services, education and the labor market. Saudi Arabia recently announced that 285 thousand Yemeni students are currently enrolled in free public schools in Saudi Arabia, as are 141 thousand Syrian children. And of the $730 million donated as humanitarian aid to Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia contributed $253.1 million (34.6 percent). Countries who host Yemeni refugees receive aid from Saudi Arabia too. It has provided Djibouti, for example, with over $13 million and constructed three hundred houses for Yemeni refugees there.
Secondly, the bill neglects the international, regional, and internal strategic context that led Saudi Arabia to form the Arab coalition and intervene in Yemen. The U.S. “pivot to Asia” is creating a strategic vacuum in the Middle East. U.S. allies feel that Washington is no longer a reliable ally, and that they have no choice but to take matters into their hands.
This international context has amplified serious threats in the Middle East, notably Iranian expansionism. Due to its isolation and economic sanctions, Iran has not been able to rely on the usual tools of the nation-state to influence players in the international arena. Consequently, Tehran resorts to non-state actors, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Abdali Cell in Kuwait, and the Houthis in Yemen. To build alliances with these non-state actors and influence their behavior, Iran has relied on sectarianism as a tool. Hence, it is no coincidence that all these militias are affiliated with Shia Islam. In order for these non-state actors to be effective in recruitment and mobilization, there must be a heightened sense of sectarian identity, which they can achieve through sectarian conflicts. In addition, central governments must be weakened and systematically undermined, or else non-state actors would not be effective. As a revisionist regional actor, Iran thrives on sectarian conflicts and weak central governments, which tend to mark Iran’s zones of influence. And that is a grave threat to the territorial integrity as well as the security of the Arab world at large, and to Saudi Arabia in particular.
Iranian policy reduces the nation-states of the Arab world into sects, Sunnis and Shia. Only “being sects” can allow Iran to wield a considerable influence in each Arab state’s internal politics, thus influencing their foreign policy. And certain Western governments have become, unconsciously, active agents in the service of Iranian expansionism. For the Arab world, Western reducing and debasing of Arab states into mere Sunni sects is viewed as another Sykes-Picot.
These two levels of context are coupled with an internal level of context with regard to Saudi Arabia. The arrival of the third generation of royal elites to the ranks of leadership, as well as the creation of the Committee of Allegiance, both symbolize change in the nature and the structure of power. It is a change in the nature of power because this new generation is not connected to the two foundational experiences of the political culture of the royal elites. The first is the experience of the battles of unification (1902-1932), resulting in the creation of the third Saudi state (first state 1744–1818, second 1824–92, third 1932–2006). The second experience is the conflict between King Saud and King Faisal (1956–64). Both gave birth to an intricate system of alliances and values, to which the third generation of royals has not adhered, thus fundamentally altering the framework of competition and cooperation. And it is a change in the structure of power because in 2006, the Committee of Allegiance was created in order to elect a king and a crown prince. And according to the concept of legal precedence, it is now charged with the task of electing a deputy-crown prince. That marks the end of one form of a balance of power and the rise of another. Also, it is the first legal restriction on the power of the king: it is only through the Committee of Allegiance that succession can be decided and the law of the Committee can only be changed by vote. The year 2006 marked the beginning of the fourth Saudi state.
With the emergence of the fourth Saudi state, the wide horizontal power-sharing which used to require endless and tedious consultations and thus resulted in a policy of reaction, is now replaced by three vertical power concentrations—the ministries of defense, interior and national guard—that are prone to speedy decision-making and proactivity. Now, Riyadh is moving from a strategic posture of reaction into one of initiative and action.
Given the strategic vacuum in the Middle East, the threat of Iranian expansionism, and the new Saudi strategic posture, Riyadh has stepped up to become the first line of defense of its own security. Cooperation with the United States has become based on short-term exchanges of benefits and renewable negotiations. Now, the alliance with the United States has shifted from “oil for security” to what I call “one deal at a time.”
Given the international, regional and internal contexts, Saudi Arabia has abandoned its eighty-four-year-old, quiet, compromise-seeking and back-scenes diplomacy. It felt obliged to take matters into its hands in order to protect its security. It is in this specific moment that Saudi Arabia built the Arab coalition to intervene in Yemen. The most essential element behind the Arab coalition’s intervention is the determination of the Arabs to prevent Yemen from becoming another Iraq, where sovereignty lies in Tehran, and not in Baghdad. The evolution of the Arab coalition’s goals is intrinsically related to this.
Thirdly, the sponsors of the bill argued that the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, is harming U.S. national security because it hurts American credibility in the region and because it is not fighting Al Qaeda.
The Arab coalition is the least of America’s worries when it comes to credibility, after its Iraq invasion under a false pretext and with the ongoing drones’ campaign. Besides, the member-states of the Arab coalition have faced the Al Qaeda threat since 1996. Al Qaeda in Yemen nearly succeeded in assassinating the current Saudi crown prince. And that is why member-states of the Arab coalition are fighting Al Qaeda, not only in Yemen but everywhere. Many attacks against American, British, French and German lives, for example, were foiled thanks to, and because of, the serious and dedicated work of Saudi Arabia.
No fight against Al Qaeda has any chance of success in Yemen without two elements: a strong central government and a functioning state structure. Without that, any achievement is a mere flash in the pan. These two elements on the one hand, and the predominance of the alliance between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and Saleh forces on the other, are mutually exclusive. Thus, fighting Al Qaeda starts with the Houthi militia becoming a political party and Saleh’s acceptance of an inclusive political process. That is why the Arab coalition labored so hard for a solution based on these elements, as evident in the Gulf Initiative, UNSC Resolution 2216, the Kuwait negotiations, and several failed ceasefire attempts.