‘Nobody Wants to See This War End’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

ADEN, Yemen — The neighborhood around Maashiq Palace, where the prime minister of Yemen resides, is now occupied by wild dogs. A rusted out armored vehicle has been discarded next to the palace gate, and crows regularly circle the majlis, or sitting room, where senior officials receive guests.

Inside the hilltop palace, behind several layers of armed guards, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed looks down on Yemen’s sprawling temporary capital.

“For me as prime minister,” says Saeed, “nobody wants to stay in this position in this particular time.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Saeed’s government wields precious little authority on the ground: Aden is dotted with checkpoints of rival militias, many of them manned by AK-47-wielding teenagers. The city’s former governor was killed in a 2015 car bomb attack claimed by the Islamic State; its current governor was targeted by another car bombing; and Saeed and his cabinet ministers barely escaped with their lives when Houthi missiles struck the airport during what was meant to be the newly-formed government’s triumphal return to Aden. Last summer, angry protesters stormed the palace to protest the deteriorating living conditions, forcing the government to flee by helicopter.

Now Yemen faces what the United Nations describes as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Some 20 million Yemenis, fully 70 percent of the population, are hungry. Roughly 400,000 people have died since 2014. That’s when the Houthis, an insurgent group funded and trained by Iran, seized the capital of Sanaa and much of the north of the country. Yemen soon became the center of a bitter proxy war, as Saudi Arabia struck back by launching an indiscriminate air campaign that has killed, by conservative estimates, roughly 9,000 civilians.

As President Joe Biden heads to Saudi Arabia next month to patch up ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, some Saudi critics and progressives in Biden’s own party are aghast. They had hoped that punishing Riyadh for its role in Yemen would be the first step in a broader reassessment of the United States’ decades-long partnership with the Saudis. Instead, Biden has made common cause with the Saudis on Yemen and now seems prepared to sacrifice his vow for a foreign policy shift in order to restore the relationship between the U.S. and its most powerful Middle Eastern ally.

Biden will bring a range of grievances with him to Saudi Arabia, from the kingdom’s reticence to increase oil production amid Ukraine’s war with Russia to its abysmal human rights record. But when it comes to Yemen, a conflict that once seemed certain to widen the rift between the two countries has brought them closer together. In April, the administration and the Saudis worked together to help broker a truce in Yemen, which was subsequently extended for an additional two months in June. Following the renewal, Biden praised Saudi Arabia’s “courageous leadership” on the issue.

The United States has been intimately associated with Yemen’s war since its inception. Saudi Arabia announced the beginning of its 2015 military operation against the Houthis from Washington D.C., and President Barack Obama’s administration expedited arms sales to the kingdom and increased logistical and intelligence support to aid the bombing campaign. Some Obama officials conceded that they knew the Saudi-led campaign would be a humanitarian and strategic disaster, but justified U.S. support as the price to pay to patch up strained ties with Riyadh. As one senior U.S. official put it, “We knew we might be getting into a car with a drunk driver.”

Biden, at least initially, took some steps to get out of the car. In his first major foreign policy speech as president, he announced an end to American support for “offensive operations” by the Saudi-led coalition. He also appointed a special envoy for Yemen to spearhead his administration’s efforts to end the conflict, naming veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking to the post.

The recent truce has provided a glimmer of hope that the worst of the conflict is over. Senior administration officials, in interviews with POLITICO, touted their coordination with the kingdom as a key factor in the recent diplomatic breakthrough. The only way to bring peace to Yemen, these officials argued, was to win Riyadh’s buy-in for a settlement.

This approach has horrified some foreign policy progressives, who believe Biden embraced their agenda — particularly on Yemen — on the campaign trail only to discard it once he reached the White House. Now, they perceive Biden’s planned meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed as proof that the White House is returning to its traditional bargain with Riyadh: The Saudis will ensure that oil flows to global markets, bringing down gas prices, and the United States will turn a blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses at home and abroad. And the primary victim from this trade could be innocent Yemenis.

Biden administration officials are quick to point out that it is the Houthis, not the Saudis, who are the primary obstacle to a peace agreement. The Iran-backed movement believes that it spearheaded a revolution against Yemen’s corrupt political establishment in 2014, when it captured Sanaa and large swathes of the country. It has shown little interest in negotiating with its domestic political opponents, who it often portrays as little more than mercenaries for foreign powers, and last year rejected a U.N.-backed truce proposal in favor of continuing a military offensive to capture the oil-rich region of Marib. It has committed a laundry list of human rights violations, from indiscriminate shelling of civilians to recruiting child soldiers, and has increasingly targeted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with rockets and missiles. Iran, of course, has been happy to meddle in the fight, amid its long-running hostilities with the Saudis.

On the other hand, Riyadh agreed to the failed truce proposal last year and worked to secure this year’s tenuous agreement. In April, Saudi officials also forced out the country’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was seen as an impediment to a peace agreement. In his place, they orchestrated the creation of a presidential council that is broadly representative of the major anti-Houthi factions, and took office with a mandate to end the war through a “comprehensive peace process.”

“The reality is that there isn’t going to be a solution in Yemen that doesn’t somehow enjoy a level of support from Saudi Arabia,” says Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy to Yemen.

Lenderking also credits U.S. support to defend Saudi territory against Houthi missile and drone strikes as encouraging Riyadh to take bold steps in pursuit of a negotiated settlement. Houthi strikes into Saudi territory have become deadlier over the course of the war: A strike in March on an oil depot sent a huge plume of fire and smoke over the city of Jeddah, while short-range rocket attacks on Saudi villages along the Yemeni border have left many virtually uninhabitable.

“Our ability to keep open lines of communication [and] help the Saudis with the defense of their country … these are all important factors why Saudi Arabia can go out on a limb a little bit more, and take a few more risks than it has,” says Lenderking.

It is hard to square this approach with Biden’s language toward the Saudis during the campaign. During the Democratic primary, Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” saying that it needed to be held accountable for “murdering children” in Yemen and orchestrating the killing of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi. He also promised to “order a reassessment of our relationship” with Riyadh.

Some of Biden’s senior foreign policy advisors were even more specific. Now Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, among others, signed a 2018 open letter issuing essentially a public apology for the Obama administration’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The letter, signed by 30 former Obama administration officials, admitted that their approach “did not succeed” and called on the United States to “end participation in or any form of support for this conflict.”

For progressive policymakers and activists who had long advanced a far more dovish foreign policy vision than the Democratic Party establishment, these statements amounted to proof that their views had entered the mainstream. When they pushed for a congressional resolution in 2019 that would have ended U.S. support for the Yemen war, not a single Democrat in the Senate or the House voted against the measure. President Donald Trump’s administration seemed to have forged a consensus among both left-wing and moderate Democrats that the United States needed to dramatically rethink its relationship with the Saudi monarchy — and that this effort would begin in Yemen.

Under Biden, however, that consensus has fallen apart. After the Biden administration backed weapons sales to Riyadh last year, Saudi critics in Congress sought to block the sales; the effort failed easily as Senate Democrats split on the vote. Foreign policy progressives are frustrated that the administration hasn’t undertaken a broader overhaul of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, and angry that U.S. contractors continue to provide maintenance support to Saudi warplanes that are bombing Yemen. They contend that Biden was happy to echo their talking points when he needed their support — and then promptly abandoned them when it came time to govern.

“We should be making clear that we can ground their air force to a halt if we stop providing them with spare parts for their planes,” says Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat. “We have an enormous amount of leverage, and they should know that.”

Biden’s distinction between making offensive and defensive weapons sales to the kingdom, which he established in his February 2021 foreign policy speech, also failed to placate those on the left. Those in Congress were left unconvinced by classified and unclassified briefings provided by the administration. After all, if Riyadh believes it is immune from Houthi attacks on the home front because it’s getting real “defensive” firepower from the United States, it will face less pressure to end its bombing campaign in Yemen.

“I don’t think it’s a real distinction,” says Khanna. “I don’t think we should be selling Saudi Arabia any arms until the war ends.”

More broadly, these progressives heard Biden speak out during the 2020 campaign in defense of a liberal international order and a foreign policy that reimagined America’s partnerships with autocratic leaders. They hoped to turn that rhetoric into action and thought that Biden shared their belief that Yemen was a logical place to start. For example, the administration could have established measures that monitor war crimes in Yemen, and hold the perpetrators, including Saudi Arabia, accountable. Trump’s administration supported a UN mechanism charged with investigating and prosecuting war crimes in Syria. Why has the Biden administration refused to take similar steps in Yemen?

“This administration made a lot of promises about putting human rights back on the agenda in a serious way, but thus far there’s been little change from previous years,” says Matt Duss, a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the leaders of the failed legislation to block the weapons sales to Riyadh. “Human rights is still mostly just treated as a cudgel to be used against U.S. adversaries, while U.S. partners get a pass for abuses, and rewarded with new weapons.”

For many in Aden, it can seem that the question of what is best for Yemen gets obscured by these debates about the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership.

In a week of interviews, Yemenis mostly expressed their hopes for improvements to their day to day lives: the removal of checkpoints that harass families, the return of basic services like electricity and clean water, and an increase in stable, well-paying jobs. In the same breath, however, many also expressed cynicism about whether the current political order can achieve even those modest goals. They described their leaders as too corrupt, too dependent on foreigners, and too addicted to profiteering off the war to deliver even incremental progress.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two richest countries in the Arab world, have not only failed to dislodge the Houthis from major population centers, they have also presided over Aden’s collapse into chaos and poverty. Saudi- and UAE-backed militias have come to blows in years past, and an ongoing rivalry has led to factional infighting and paralysis within the government. One senior Yemeni official, when asked his opinion about the prime minister, simply wrapped his hand around his neck to mime being strangled.

An economic crisis of the government’s own making has worsened the situation in non-Houthi areas, as Aden’s leaders created runaway inflation by printing massive amounts of Yemeni rials. The central bank governor responsible for further impoverishing the world’s poorest country was paid $40,000 per month — one of the highest salaries in the world for that position. “People killed their families and then killed themselves because they couldn’t afford food,” says the same senior Yemeni official.

All of this has occurred with Washington’s backing for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their local Yemeni allies. Three American presidents have now looked to Riyadh to resolve the catastrophe occurring in Yemen, so far with little success. As Biden makes nice with the Saudis next month, he will be forced to contend with that history as well as the fact that at this point, much of the Yemeni state has been hollowed out entirely.

“Nobody wants to see this war end,” says Basha Bashraheel, a Yemeni journalist. “And nobody thinks we have a government except the West, for some reason.”