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October 21, 2020 6:13 am

Should the US Support Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen?

avatar by Eric Bordenkircher


Workers salvage a sack containing oil canisters from the wreckage of a vehicle oil and tires store hit by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, July 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah.

The Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, is mistaken to call for an end to US support and involvement in Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Biden fails to recognize the linkage of issues in the Middle East. The former vice president is promoting an arguably more destructive and potentially more dangerous policy.

The US involvement in the Saudi-led intervention of the Yemeni civil war is controversial and contested. The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claimed that Yemen in 2019 was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes of Yemeni civilian areas makes the already unpopular US-Saudi relationship look worse. Members of Congress have repeatedly criticized the Obama and Trump administrations for providing Saudi Arabia with the military equipment, logistical support, and intelligence necessary to conduct the intervention. In 2019, President Trump vetoed a bill with bipartisan support that called for an end to the involvement.

Biden’s position on Yemen looks to redeem the image of the United States as a just, principled, and compassionate nation. He will extract US forces and terminate support for a little understood, deadly, and destructive Middle East conflict. It is an electorally popular position. The optics and actors (i.e. Saudi Arabia) of the conflict make it easy to condemn. It appears to be low-hanging fruit.

It is tempting, but it is an illusion. Nothing is that straightforward in the Middle East.

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Withdrawing support and involvement from the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen will do more harm than good to the United States at this particular juncture. It jeopardizes future cooperation with Saudi Arabia — a much needed regional ally. This will inevitably damage US national security interests in the region and the ability to maintain and carry out policy.

Joe Biden either ignores or has simply forgotten the significance of US involvement in Yemen. Saudi security concerns, nuclear proliferation, and the US-Saudi alliance are inextricably linked. Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, noted this to The Atlantic in 2015: “The protection that we provide as [the Gulf countries’] partner is a far greater deterrent that they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile.”

US support and involvement in Yemen is a manifestation of that protection to the Saudi government. It helps to ensure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia believes the civil conflict in Yemen is a threat to its security. The civil war attracted Iranian involvement because of Yemen’s Shia community. Iran funds and inspires the Houthis, a Shia social-political movement/militia. The Saudi Kingdom perceives the revolutionary nature of Iran as an existential threat. The presence of the pro-Iranian Houthi militia operating freely on the Saudis’ southwestern border heightens that perceived threat. The Houthis already periodically launch missiles at Saudi Arabia.

The complete termination of US support and involvement in Yemen will trigger two outcomes. The Saudi government will question future American commitments to their security. The Biden campaign forgets that Saudi Arabia must continue to live in the same neighborhood with Iran. Iran is relentless in asserting a presence and/or leverage throughout the Middle East. One Saudi weapons deal with the US is insufficient for alleviating Saudi fears.

Without the continual assurance of US protection, it is likely that the Saudis will explore nuclear capabilities. Prior to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia openly declared their plan to match the nuclear enrichment capabilities permitted to Iran under the proposed deal. Obama and Trump’s support in Yemen, and a massive weapons package, postponed that Saudi plan. The Saudi pursuit of nuclear capabilities could trigger the proliferation of nuclear capabilities and weapons throughout the Middle East, making an already volatile region much worse.

Furthermore, a US withdrawal complicates future US-Saudi relations. The Middle East lacks staunch allies; however, the US cannot operate in the region and expect results without regional allies. Despite the lack of shared values, the US needs the cooperation of Saudi Arabia to assist in the employment and maintenance of US regional policies.

There are no ideal options in the Middle East. There is no low hanging fruit. If the Biden campaign claims otherwise, it is misleading voters. The US must choose the lesser of two evils and maintain its support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The US needs allies in the Middle East. Furthermore, and most importantly, the US and the world can ill-afford the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

The former vice president needs to reconsider the impact and dangers of his announcement to withdraw US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Joe Biden must construct a more responsible US policy in the Middle East if he wants to distinguish himself from President Trump.

Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. His twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development. 

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