It’s time to move the US Embassy to Yemen out of Saudi Arabia

It’s time to move the US Embassy to Yemen out of Saudi Arabia
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Agreement is difficult to come by in Washington let alone the Middle East, but on one issue there is consensus: Yemen has become a humanitarian nightmare. The UN has labeled Yemen to be “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”  

“As the conflict enters its fourth year,” Secretary-General António Guterres declared more than six months ago, “more than 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – need humanitarian aid and protection.” Famine threatens 14 million. Cholera is epidemic.

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Many in Washington blame Saudi Arabia. On October 31, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe Trump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race Paul calls Trump's pick for attorney general's views on surveillance 'very troubling' MORE called for a ceasefire within 30 days so that peace talks can convene. On November 10, Mattis announced a cessation of U.S. refueling support for Saudi aircraft operating over Yemen and, the following day, 30 Obama administration national security officials published a letter demanding “a suspension of all U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen” due to “the Saudi leadership's prosecution of the war.” It is a demand with which many Republicans agree.

The murder by Saudi agents of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi six weeks ago has only heightened broad bipartisan unease with Saudi Arabia and its ambitious but erratic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Of course, Saudi Arabia is not alone responsible for the Yemen tragedy. Iran exploited local grievances to co-opt the Houthi movement to Tehran’s own aims. “The Houthi group is a similar copy to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and this group will come into action against enemies of Islam,” Ali Shirazi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, acknowledged in January 2015, adding, “The Islamic republic directly supports the Houthis in Yemen.”  

Houthi rebels seized the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, and ousted the UN-recognized Yemeni government. The Houthis have embraced the most hateful elements of Iranian extremism; their slogan reads, "Death to America, death to Israel, and a curse on the Jews.” They have impeded aid to the government-controlled city of Taiz, and launched Iran-provided missiles at Riyadh’s international airport among other targets. Still, Saudi Arabia appears responsible for most of the civilian casualties because of the imprecision of its bombardment.

It is unfortunate that as the White House and international community are increasingly inclined toward a diplomatic settlement, the State Department undercuts the U.S. position by locating its embassy to Yemen in Saudi Arabia.

Certainly, against the backdrop of Houthi violence and Saudi bombardment, it made sense for the State Department to shutter its embassy in Sana’a. And, it was also logical to reopen the embassy outside Yemen. After all, there was no severance in relations, and embassies are loci for policy coordination. Not only does the embassy continue to interact with Yemeni government representatives, but the embassy must also distribute aid, gather intelligence, help coordinate counterterrorism, issue visas, and provide American citizen services.

Locating the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia (currently in Jeddah, but it will soon move to Riyadh), however, undercuts U.S. diplomatic effectiveness. It gives Saudi authorities veto power over Yemeni access to U.S. diplomats, and it associates the United States too much Riyadh at a time when Saudi efforts in Yemen do more harm than good.

At the very least, locating the embassy in Saudi Arabia undercuts any pretense of neutrality at a time when peace talks require it.

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There are better options: Perhaps the best would be the Sultanate of Oman. Oman is neutral in Yemen and has distinguished itself as a peacemaker regionally. Its capital Muscat was ground zero for initial Obama administration talks with Iran, and it is currently the focal point for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

Djibouti, in east Africa, would also be a good host. Like Oman, it is neutral. Its capital is increasingly international. It is just 23 miles across the Bab el-Mandab, and the U.S. base it hosts is also headquarters for U.S. counterterror efforts in Yemen.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) might also be a possibility. While its combatant status might raise some concerns, the UAE’s lead fighting Al Qaeda, its better track record, and its more seasoned leadership immunize it from the Saudi stigma.

A wildcard would be Yemen itself. It has now been three years since Emirati forces cleared Aden — southern Yemen’s largest city — of both Houthis and Al Qaeda terrorists. While diplomats would face serious security challenges in Aden, these would be no worse than what American diplomats face in Karachi or Kabul.

The benefits of a provisional embassy in Aden would be broader, however. A temporary embassy in Aden would underscore U.S. commitment to Yemeni unity at a time when the threat of southern secessionism is increasing.

Symbolism matters. Saudi Arabia might be easy for U.S. diplomats, but diplomacy is not always about ease. If the White House, State Department, and Congress are serious about making Yemen diplomacy work, it is time to remove the U.S. Embassy to Yemen from Saudi Arabia.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, he teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion and history for U.S. and NATO military units. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University.