Ill-timed congressional letter misses the point on Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Last week, some 30 members of the US Congress sent a letter requesting information from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the status of the Biden administration’s “review and assessment of the US-Saudi relationship.” The letter suggested the need for a “recalibration” of that relationship, citing the Yemen war among other things.
The letter revealed an unusual gap of knowledge about the recent developments in Yemen, including the recent truce and Saudi Arabia’s initiatives. The timing of the letter could not be worse: While the administration is courting friend and foe, including Iran and Venezuela, to drum up support for Ukraine, the Congressmen’s letter attempts to drive a wedge between the US and one of its most important partners, whose help is needed at this time of crisis.
First on Yemen: The letter, issued on April 13, decries a brutal war that was already on hold and not happening at that moment. On April 1, 12 days earlier, Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, had announced a truce to last for two months. In addition, there is now a consensus in the international community that the Houthi militias are responsible for prolonging the war and refusing ceasefire proposals, not the internationally recognized government, and certainly not Saudi Arabia. The latest truce was in fact initiated by the Saudi-led coalition that declared a unilateral month-long ceasefire during the month of Ramadan, which the UN envoy was able to turn into a truce agreed by both sides.
Since the beginning of the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia has presented a number of initiatives to end the war. One of the most comprehensive was the March 2021 initiative, which was turned down by the Houthi militias. Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis are still planning to pursue a military solution to the crisis, believing that they will be able to impose their will by force at the end without having to sit at the negotiating table and agree to power-sharing.
Another indicator that the onus for continuing the war is on the Houthi militias is that until last week they had refused to meet with the current UN envoy, months after his appointment in August 2021. They stonewalled previous UN envoys and tried to assassinate one of them, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, now the foreign minister of Mauritania. By contrast, the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia have engaged positively with every envoy since the start of the conflict in 2014.
The letter also refers to “the denial of humanitarian access to Yemen through the port of Hodeidah.” This statement too is inaccurate. Humanitarian access to the port was never “denied” in the first place, but was eased further according to the terms of the truce announced on April 1, and ships started coming in more frequently as confirmed by the UN at the time.
In addition, the recent GCC-sponsored Yemeni-Yemeni talks could not have happened without Saudi Arabia’s considerable support. For 10 days (March 29 to April 7), about 1,000 Yemenis deliberated in the GCC headquarters in the Saudi capital. The talks included the leadership and most of the membership of both houses of parliament, leadership of the judiciary, the full cabinet, most governors, in addition to hundreds of representatives of political factions and independent professionals from all parts of Yemen. The consultations were organized along several tracks — political, security, economic, social, humanitarian and media, in addition to intra-parliamentary discussions. The outcome articulated a consensus about how to turn things around in Yemen, from the path of war and destruction to peace and reconciliation. The Houthis were invited to these talks but they did not show up, repeating a pattern of wasting opportunities to end the war.
The timing of the Congressmen’s letter was also out of touch with the global scene as the US is soliciting the support of all countries, including America's sworn adversaries, to help address the Ukraine crisis. It is counterproductive to publicly undermine US relations with Saudi Arabia, one of the oldest and most reliable partners in this region. In terms of public diplomacy and real action, at times of crisis there is a need to shore up support from allies and partners. Differences of opinion and more serious disagreements are normal in a decades-old relationship such as the Saudi-American partnership.
The Congressmen’s letter attempts to drive a wedge between the US and one of its most important partners, whose help is needed at this time of crisis.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
As expected, each side has its grievances, but they are better handled in direct conversations and not through the media and open letters, especially during tough times like what we are currently experiencing. For example, in addition to Yemen, the Congressmen’s letter referred to differences in priorities regarding US requests for producing more oil. For Saudi Arabia, oil remains the mainstay of its economy and as such, decisions related to its production and export take on tremendous significance. Strategic considerations, the stability of global oil markets, the long-term health of the Saudi economy and international commitment via OPEC and OPEC+ factor into all those decisions. If the US is perceived as an unreliable partner or not living up to its past commitment to regional security, those perceptions become reality when decisions are made.
The recalibration that is needed is to revisit the basic components undergirding the long-term US partnership with Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies. The US has played a key role in Gulf security without formal agreements between the parties. A new strategic architecture is needed to update and upgrade existing adhoc security cooperation. The new security arrangements should be credible and reliable, and seen as a step toward a more formal, treaty-based security commitment. When that happens, the partnership will be seen in a different light, where greater sacrifices are possible and expected from both sides.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1