The US Senate vote in favour of ending support for the war in Yemen is an important indicator that attitudes in Washington are changing and the Trump administration is becoming isolated.
Last week, the US Senate voted in favour of ending Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen where 14 million people live on the brink of famine. The historic measure passed the Republican-controlled Senate by a margin of 54 to 46. The vote was the latest indicator of how attitudes regarding the Yemeni civil war have changed among the foreign policy establishment due to both strategic and moral factors.
The vote is illustrative of a political rift on Saudi-related issues that is widening between the US administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Although Trump is unpredictable, it seems quite safe to bet that he will veto this bill when it arrives on his desk, assuming the House of Representatives passes the legislation. Like his top diplomat Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump views the Yemeni Civil War through a Saudi lens and endorses Riyadh’s narratives about the Houthi rebellion and Iran’s hand in the conflict.
Put simply, the administration is keener to see the dominant Houthi militia as more of an Iranian-allied terrorist organisation than an armed wing of a legitimate political movement, and thus Trump’s inner circle believes that a continuation of US support for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen advances America’s national security interests.
Trump has demonstrated he is determined to stand by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) throughout the Jamal Khashoggi affair while pursuing his various goals (bringing Arab states closer to Israel, countering Iran, profiting from massive arms sales, etc.) in the Middle East by relying firmly on a strong US-Saudi alliance.
Naturally, the US government will probably continue supporting the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen so long as Trump as at the helm, especially with special operations. As such, this resolution out of the US Senate will likely serve a symbolic role without directly impacting the realities on the ground in Yemen.
The political debate on Yemen
There is by no means any consensus on the question of US participation in the anti-Houthi campaign that Riyadh leads. All but seven Republicans in the Senate (Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Todd Young, Lisa Murkowski, Steve Daines, Jerry Moran, and Susan Collins) voted against the measure with some stressing the perceived need to counter Iran’s conduct in Yemen while also emphasising the importance of backing a key ally in the Middle East.
That this month’s resolution passed the Senate, unlike a similar measure that failed a year ago, underscores how attitudes in Washington regarding America’s support for the Saudi-coalition have changed.
Moreover, given that all Democratic presidential contenders serving in the Senate voted in favour of the resolution, there is a significant possibility of the Yemen war and the US-Saudi alliance being major foreign policy issues of disagreement between the president and his challenger next year.
Next year’s election will be different from 2016 in the sense that US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen will likely be an issue on the campaign trail, which it was not three years ago.
As Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has exacerbated to an extreme degree since the Arab coalition launched its anti-Houthi campaign in 2015, there is significantly more global media coverage of the civil war.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 has also prompted more lawmakers in Washington to voice their grave concerns about the direction of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policies in recent years. Within this context, whereby MBS has lost much of the goodwill in DC that he previously scored, criticising Riyadh’s conduct in Yemen while voting in favour of curtailing US support for the Saudi-led coalition has become a politically viable way for American politicians to take a stand against the leadership in the Kingdom.
Should Saudi and Emirati leaders fear Democrats?
There is unquestionably much uncertainty about America’s political landscape in the post-Trump era, and how such future dynamics will impact Washington’s relationships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
This month’s Senate vote on Yemen must unsettle the leadership in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite Saudi and Emirati officials having good reason to conclude that Trump will stand by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding the crisis in Yemen, the resolution indicates how American politicians’ views on Yemen in the post-Jamal Khashoggi era are increasingly unfavourable to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s interests.
As a result of Trump growing particularly close to the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the relationship between America’s executive branch and those in charge of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have warmed up and moved far beyond the period of chilly ties during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Yet with the Saudi and Emirati leaders’ strong relations with Trump and hostility toward Obama undermining the concept of Washington maintaining close alliances with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi rise above partisanship, officials in both Gulf capitals should be focused on countering perceptions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE being pro-Republican and anti-Democratic. That a resolution from the Senate seen by the American media as a rebuke to Trump was directly related to the conflict in Yemen should trouble officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Revelations from the Mueller probe may have many negative implications for the Saudis and the Emiratis, especially in the aftermath of much press attention paid to figures such as George Nader and Erik Prince, that could potentially create new baggage between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on one side and Trump’s political opponents in the US on the other.
The possibility of Trump losing the 2020 election and a Democrat entering the Oval Office in just over 21 months is concerning to the Saudi and Emirati leadership given the likelihood of that scenario leading to a change in US policy vis-a-vis Yemen and perhaps a revisit of America’s alliances with both Gulf states in the worst case scenario for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
That all serious Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential race have voiced their opposition to Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ten months ago also suggests that these candidates, if elected, would likely seek to bring the US back into the nuclear accord to the dismay of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as Manama and Tel Aviv.
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