Trump pressures Saudi Arabia on Yemen blockade

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President Trump, who has been taking heat from humanitarian groups that say his administration has mostly ignored an escalating humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, on Wednesday pressured Saudi Arabia to lift a blockade on that country.

The United Nations estimates that as of November, 5,295 civilians have been killed and another 8,873 injured in the fighting in Yemen’s civil war. The conflict escalated last month when Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade in response to the Houthi rebels firing a missile on Riyadh believed to be supplied by Iran.

Trump said he was directing his administration to push Saudi Arabia to completely lift the blockade.

{mosads}“I have directed officials in my administration to call the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to request that they completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it,” he said in a brief statement. “This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”


Critics of Trump praised the turnaround.

“Though long overdue, I’m glad President Trump is calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately allow humanitarian aid and vital commercial goods like food, fuel and medicine to flow into Yemen,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “His statement is important, and I expect Saudi Arabia to heed our calls. The Trump administration must continue to make clear to Saudi Arabia that the U.S. will not support a campaign that intentionally starves civilians into submission.”

Kate Gould, legislative director for Middle East policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said Trump’s statement Wednesday was a welcome development.

“It is very welcome news that President Trump is now calling on the Saudi government to entirely end the blockade of Yemen,” she said in an email. “Given the unfettered praise we’ve seen from the Trump administration showered on the Saudis from the glowing orb onwards, it’s encouraging to see what is certainly a significant change in rhetoric.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted Trump’s decision, which came the same day he announced the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israeli’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there.

Some observers said they believed congressional criticism might have got through to the White House.

Yemen is on the brink of famine, and the World Health Organization has reported nearly a million cases of cholera and nearly 200 of diphtheria. The country’s war entered an uncertain new phase earlier this week when the Houthis killed their onetime ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Critics have long seen the Trump White House as prioritizing the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia at the expense of Yemen’s 7 million people.

“I think that’s exactly what happened,” Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam America, said before Wednesday’s statement from Trump.

On Wednesday, he added that Trump’s words were “long overdue” but “hugely important.”

“We should not overlook the fact that U.S. support has helped create Yemen’s horrific crisis,” he said. “The U.S. should also insist on an immediate ceasefire and an inclusive political settlement. If the parties refuse, the U.S. should discontinue the supply of weapons and military assistance it is providing to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.”

Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since early 2015 when Houthi rebels took over the capital of Sanaa and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden. Saudi Arabia, concerned about Iran’s support of the Houthis in a neighboring country, formed a coalition and intervened in support of Hadi.

U.S. support for the campaign includes selling the Saudis weapons, providing limited intelligence and helping with logistics such as air refueling.

“It’s not simply a matter of Trump turning a blind eye — the Trump administration is actively aiding and abetting Saudi war crimes in Yemen,” Gould said before Trump’s announcement.

Former President Obama also came under criticism for providing support to the Saudi coalition. But in general, the Obama administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was rocky, particularly after the Iran nuclear agreement that Riyadh vehemently opposed.

As critics of the Yemen conflict became more vocal, Obama also curtailed some military support for the campaign in the final month of his presidency, adding to the Saudis’ displeasure.

When Trump came into office, the Saudis sought to court him. The efforts appeared to pay off in Trump’s first stop on his first trip abroad, when pictures of him bowing to accept a gold medal, participating in a ceremonial sword dance and clutching a glowing globe with Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi went viral online.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said Trump’s affinity for the Saudis appears to be more specifically about Mohammed bin Salman, who became crown prince in June after replacing his cousin.

In addition to supporting Salman’s policies in Yemen, McInerney said, the Trump administration did not act after Salman launched an anti-corruption campaign that has been described as a purge and effort to shore up his power. McInerney also cited the administration’s lack of action in the drama surrounding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who returned home this week after speculation he was being held hostage by the Saudis after abruptly announcing his resignation during a trip there, as well as mixed messages on the ongoing stand off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“A lot of his ideas in the region, including in Yemen, have failed, but he has very much enjoyed support in the White House,” McInerney said of Salman. “I think Trump likely overestimates the influence that Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi regime have in the region. … Mohammed bin Salman’s latest big move was to have a decisive blow against the Houthis with Ali Abdullah Saleh withdrawing support and that failed in spectacular fashion.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday there have been talks with Saudi officials about the situation in Yemen, though he would not say who specifically was involved in those talks.

In general, Corker added, the situation in Yemen has become “untenable.”

“The humanitarian toll is far greater than it needs to be,” he said, adding that the Saudis “themselves are responsible for a large part of this problem that has occurred there and they are the more dominant entity and they have big role in rectifying the situation.”

In the House, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) recently agitated for a vote to end U.S. involvement in Yemen. Ultimately, the House last month approved a watered-down, nonbinding resolution that nonetheless said U.S. military involvement in the civil war is unauthorized.

“If there is any country who we have leverage over, it is the Saudis,” Khanna said at an event last week. “On a scale of one to 10, I said this is probably step two, but it is a two, it is a step forward in at least getting the conversation in the Congress and some of the facts out there. And all of us now need to build on it to make sure that the pressure on the Saudis continues and that our own government stops in any aid to the Saudis in this corner.”

Tags Bob Corker Chris Murphy Donald Trump Ro Khanna Saudi Arabia Yemen
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