Saudi Arabia and the United States have a relationship that stretches back almost a century, since the 1933 kick-off of oil exploration in the kingdom.
However, no physical support or intervention happened until the 1940s, when oil companies urged Washington to establish some form of relationship with Saudi Arabia — through political and defence influence. Consequently, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that the defence of Saudi Arabia was very important to the US, which led to the construction of an airfield in Dhahran and various other military facilities, as well as training for the Saudi army.
Since then, the two countries have maintained a basic partnership centred on economy and security that has kept ties between them strong.
Nonetheless, during the final years of the Obama administration, a senior advisor to Prince Salman (King) said that “relations had undergone a period of difference of opinion”. This came after the Saudis declined to co-operate with Iran, and after the Obama administration warned the kingdom about the civilian death toll in Yemen.
Ironically, under the Trump administration relations seem to have bettered and it seems that the US is fully supportive of the kingdom; displayed by the $110 billion arms deal that was finalized in May. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia is the US’ largest foreign military sales customer. In addition, an official who contacted Reuters (“on condition of anonymity”) claims that the deal could be worth around $300 billion over the next decade; ensuring the Saudis improve their military whilst Israel maintains its “qualitative… edge over its neighbors.”
Today there seems to be an evident tactical orientation between Saudi Arabia’s specific goals for the region and the interests of the US — mostly centered around controlling Iran’s regional reach. There have been significant events that have exposed the disgraceful nature of this relationship, such as the destabilization of Yemen.
Yemen has become a fighting ground where the Saudis have unleashed numerous bombing (and other various military) campaigns resulting in countless atrocities over a 20 month old civil war between Yemeni government loyalists (backed by Saudi Arabia) and the Houthis (backed by Iran). The Houthis claim the government has been discriminating against them for several years, whilst others in the region see the conflic as a ‘shadow war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran over control of the entire region.
The importance of Yemen is its geographical placement:
Yemen shares a desert border with Saudi Arabia, and due to its inability to maintain a stable economy, a lack of sufficient governance, and its growing population, it is an increasingly unstable country. The Saudis do not want the problems of Yemen to spill into their backyard. Not to mention that Saudi Arabia plays a very important role in influencing Yemeni politics, and is by far the most influential foreign power to the country. In addition, Yemen houses one of the most important ports in the region: the City of Aden. Located in the south of Yemen, Aden houses a port which was built by British merchant ships travelling to India. The importance of the port is that it is at the crossroads of some of the busiest sea lanes in the world — 3 million barrels of oil pass through the Gulf of Aden everyday.
The US’ support of Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen today stems from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. Under the Obama administration, the US lifted its economic sanctions on the country in return for Iran to get rid of its supply of medium-enriched uranium. Iran’s political and economic power has significantly increased, making the Saudis worry about the influence it will have in the region. And now, the loyalty of Houthi rebels worries Saudi Arabia because it may spill into their own country. Additionally, the US wants to make sure that its counter-terrorist strategy for the middle-East ensures that Yemen does not become a hotspot for radical extremists. For example, it wants to restrict the influence and growth of the most dangerous branch of Al-Qaeda that is looking to take advantage of the power instability in Yemen. Finally, given its history with Saudi Arabia, the US feels obligated to make Saudi Arabia’s priority for Yemen for also their priority.
Since the war erupted in 2015, Saudi Arabia — with the support of its allies – has dropped 90,000 bombs (one airstrike every twelve minutes), killed more than 10,000 people, and has left 7 million facing starvation. UNICEF reports that at least one child dies every ten minutes due to preventable diseases (such as malnutrition, diarrhea and respiratory-tract infections). 462,000 suffer from severe acute malnutrition and nearly 2.2 million are in need of urgent care. The UN has declared that Yemen is facing a “humanitarian crisis”. However, mainstream news outlets have not been able to cover the crisis, partly due to the ongoing siege in Syria.
Despite this, some of the weapons the US uses include Abrams tanks (2016 deal worth $1.2 billion sold 153, 20 went straight to ‘battle damage replacements’), cluster bombs (which are banned by most of the international community — as of July 2017, 108 states have signed the treaty and 102 have ratified it or acceded to it), and numerous F-15 fighter planes which makes up most of the Saudi air force. It gets worse; Washington has authorized the air-borne refuels of Saudi fighter planes. Enormous planes such as the American KC-135 Stratotanker fly from the Incirlik air base in Turkey and meet the Saudi F-15 fighter planes over Yemen to refuel them. This significant air based support gives the Saudi military campaign an enormous advantage (whilst raising the inevitable risk of harming innocent civilians), as it allows the planes to stay in the air longer and gives them more range; allowing them to hit targets frequently.
As of late November 2016, the US has flown more than 1,600 refueling missions to more than 6,300 planes; bombing Yemen — an average of 2 times per day.
Ultimately, the answer is yes. Yes, the US has been aiding Saudi Arabia commit war crimes by continuously supporting its military campaign in Yemen. Yes this is politics and business but the unjustifiable disregard for innocent civilian life will only result in ‘terrorists’ knocking on the US’ door. Yet then the US will, probably, see that as a sign to physically enter Yemen. Department of State documents obtained by Reuters reveal their option to “limit U.S. exposure to LOAC concerns”. LOAC stands for ‘law of armed conflict’ (a series of international laws and treaties prohibiting attacks on civilians and requiring combatants to minimize civilian death and damage.)
Some officials believe that the US has disobeyed these guidelines because it continues to help Saudi Arabia. A document from a 2013 court decision states that if someone were to “provide practical assistance, encouragement or moral support” to another nation committing war crimes, it would be a violation. In this case, that someone would be the US, which they means they would potentially be committing war crimes. In a 2015 document, the US has tried to avoid this by urging the Saudis “to exercise the utmost diligence in the targeting process”; i.e. a no strike list for hospitals, schools, etc. However, it is evident that Saudis have disregarded this because on April 23, 2016, a Saudi-led coalition destroyed a school in the Ibb region of Yemen; and on August 16, 2016, another Saudi-led coalition attack destroyed a hospital in the Abs region.
Over the course of a year, more than 3 million civilians have been displaced and the Houthis run the government in the capital of Sana’a. This begs the question, what has Saudi Arabia really accomplished? Even though the US has criticized several attacks, it continues to be complicit in the carnage that is being created by the Saudis; and with the recent arms deal in May (2017), it further proves the claim.
Photo Credit: Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters