Don’t embrace Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of the Ukraine crisis

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The Biden administration is reportedly reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to urge them to increase their oil output to counterbalance disruptions in the global market sparked by sanctions on Russia. In doing so, it is crucial that the administration doesn’t excuse their crimes in Yemen or bolster their militaries with additional arms sales or other military support.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, appear to be pressuring the Biden administration over the oil issue to get more support for their devastating war in Yemen. Both men have declined to speak by phone with President Biden in an attempt to draw U.S. attention to the quid pro quo they are seeking — more oil output for more arms and assistance in fighting the Houthi movement in Yemen. 

The UAE announced on Wednesday that it would increase its oil output, but it is unclear whether the Biden administration offered anything to the UAE in return. Giving in to the Saudi and UAE demands on Yemen would be a disastrous mistake, both for U.S. interests in the Middle East and, most tragically, for the people of Yemen. There are other ways to get more oil onto the international market, including lifting sanctions on Iran as a revived nuclear deal under the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) moves closer to fruition.

As the humanitarian suffering caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come front and center, it has been all too easy to forget the devastation caused by the U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen. The United Nations estimates that there have been at least 377,000 direct and indirect deaths as a result of the war, which was initiated by a Saudi-led coalition seven years ago this month. Saudi air strikes are at their highest levels since April 2018, and the Saudi blockade of Yemen has choked off imports of fuel that are essential for powering hospitals and fulfilling the needs of daily life, causing further suffering and unnecessary deaths of innocent civilians. This is no time to be stepping up U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

The Biden administration has ample leverage to pressure Saudi Arabia to end indiscriminate air strikes and lift its naval and air blockade on Yemen. Nearly two-thirds of Saudi combat aircraft are of U.S. origin, and they could not operate for long without U.S. spare parts and maintenance. Cutting off this support and holding off on new arms sales would be an effective tool to change Saudi conduct in Yemen and persuade the regime to participate in comprehensive peace talks to end the war.  

Closer U.S. military relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE pose serious human rights issues, which should be reason enough to cut off U.S. military support. But cozying up to these regimes also undermines U.S. security interests in the Middle East and beyond. The war in Yemen has stoked anti-U.S. sentiment there and destabilized that country in ways that may create an opening for a resurgence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The UAE has supplied weapons to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, and has launched drone strikes there that have killed scores of civilians. This reckless behavior by U.S.-armed allies not only diminishes the United States’s reputation and influence in the greater Middle East, but it also threatens to pull us into more conflicts there at a time when we should be reassessing our military footprint in the region. 

If the Biden administration decides to continue or increase military support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in exchange for an upsurge in oil production, Congress should push back. It could do so by passing resolutions under the War Powers Act that would end U.S. support for the Saudi and UAE militaries, a move that would get the attention of both regimes and help end their brutal war in Yemen. Last month, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) announced that they will be introducing a new Yemen War Powers Resolution.

These efforts should move forward. Embracing Saudi Arabia and the UAE at this moment is the wrong thing to do. Doing it with the excuse that it might cushion the impacts of sanctions on Russia on the U.S. economy is not justified given the damage they are doing, both to U.S. interests and to the people of the Middle East.

William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Tags Biden Blockade of Yemen Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Houthis Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Joe Biden Peter DeFazio Pramila Jayapal Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabian–led intervention in Yemen the United Arab Emirates UAE Yemen Yemen war Yemeni Civil War Yemeni Crisis

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