Maintaining a close accord with Saudi Arabia has been an important part of U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades, but that partnership is now facing harsh criticism over human rights violations and the humanitarian cost of the Saudi-led coalition's involvement in Yemen's civil war. A recent vote from U.S. legislators demonstrates growing opposition to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, but the proclivities of U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as the U.S. desire to contain Iran in the Middle East, will keep the two countries close.
U.S. legislators have taken their greatest action yet to end U.S. involvement in Yemen's civil war. With a vote of 63 to 37, the U.S. Senate chose on Nov. 28 to move forward with a bill that would limit U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The White House has already prepared the groundwork to veto the bill – which must still pass the House of Representatives – by issuing a carefully worded statement that the United States is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen.
Why It Matters
The Senate vote is a rebuke of the White House's approach to maintaining relations with Saudi Arabia. The resolution was originally introduced in March, but it was defeated by a vote of 55 to 44. That it has now passed shows the growing tide of congressional displeasure over the growing accord between the White House and Riyadh, particularly after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October. While the vote itself does reflect some of the growing public awareness of the humanitarian cost of Yemen's conflict, it also represents a deepening divide between the White House and Congress over the authority to declare war, approve arms sales and direct foreign policy.
As far as changes to the relationship between Riyadh and Washington are concerned, legislators have already submitted numerous other pieces of legislation – or are preparing to do so – that would more directly impact arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, the White House will continue to defend the economic and strategic value of maintaining a close military and security relationship with Saudi Arabia, partially to maintain jobs related to the arms industry. Saudi Arabia, which is the United States' single largest arms customer, is aware of the need to defend itself in this debate, spurring Riyadh to confirm its intent to purchase the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system for $15 billion on the same day as the Senate vote.
Yemen's civil war has pit Houthi rebels against the Saudi-led coalition for over three years. Numerous attempts at peace talks have fallen apart as both sides have continually chosen to fight instead of engage in negotiations for a political settlement. According to a Sky News report, a senior British official has claimed that Yemeni peace talks will be held next week in Sweden, which reflects the growing political pressure currently pushing both sides toward talks. Houthi sources said Nov. 28 that a rebel delegation is tentatively slated to arrive in Sweden on Dec. 3. And on Nov. 28, the U.S. and Saudi ambassadors to Yemen met in Mukalla, Yemen, on the sidelines of a military ceremony, indicating that discussions are occurring with southern leaders, which is a difficult but necessary prerequisite for talks.