Saudi Arabia's king has rented every room in Georgetown's poshest hotel as he meets with top U.S. officials to discuss his bombing campaign against the Middle East's poorest country.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Four Seasons in Georgetown has pulled out all the stops for the world’s most powerful monarch. In advance of Saud King Salman’s visit to Washington today, the hotel bedecked itself in gold, renting out every one of its 222 rooms to the monarch’s entourage of over 600 people.
The hotel does not only offer luxury, but security. Secret Service officers patrol the building with bomb-sniffing canine units, and have set up a metal detector and an x-ray machine at the entrance for all staff and guests. The process has upset the hotel’s normally well-oiled machinery: The hotel staff were pulled off their jobs yesterday as the security was put in place, leaving perplexed guests sitting at the restaurant alone. “It’s going to be at least 45 minutes before you get your food, sir,” the apologetic maître d’hôtel told a guest. “There’s nobody in the kitchen.”
When King Salman met with President Barack Obama today, however, one of the world’s least luxurious and least secure places was near the top of the agenda. In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been conducting a five-month bombing campaign, the per capita national income stands at roughly $1,400 — meaning that it would take the annual salaries of 10 Yemenis to afford a night in the Four Seasons’ $15,000 Royal Suite. The Saudi-led war against the Iran-supported Houthi rebels, who captured Yemen’s capital earlier this year, has greatly worsened the humanitarian crisis: Millions of Yemenis are now at risk of famine, more than 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, and nearly 4,500 people have died since the air campaign began, according to U.N. figures.
A senior U.S. official confirmed that President Barack Obama’s administration would raise the situation in Yemen during talks with the Saudis, highlighting the need to return to a political dialogue between the warring forces and addressing the “very serious humanitarian situation” on the ground.
In July, the Saudi-led coalition scored a major victory when fighters backed by Riyadh captured the southern city of Aden. The local fighters and Emirati forces have succeeded in pushing back the Houthi rebels, and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in other southern areas of the country over the past month.
“Our message is that this is a very promising moment,” the U.S. official said. “[The recent gains by Saudi Arabia’s allies have] balanced the table against the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces, so now is the time to get back to dialogue.”
The official added that there have been signs that the Houthis and Saleh are receptive to negotiations with Riyadh and its allies, “and we are seeing whether we can take advantage of that opening.”
Whether Washington can jumpstart peace talks in Yemen, however, remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia sees its war as part of a larger struggle for regional influence, with the kingdom’s supporters describing it as one front in a larger effort to combat Iranian influence in the Middle East. During this visit to Washington, Saudi officials are now looking for assurances that the United States will continue to oppose any meddling by Tehran in the Middle East in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement — and indeed, the Obama administration is currently finalizing a $1 billion arms deal that would provide Riyadh with more weapons to use against its enemies in Yemen.
In addition to selling weapons to Riyadh, the United States is providing targeting intelligence and refueling capabilities for the Saudi-led coalition. And some former U.S. officials argue that the very public links with the war effort are reason enough for Washington to do more to shape the campaign.
“In our media, we call it the Saudi air campaign; in the Middle East, it’s called the Saudi-American air campaign,” said Barbara Bodine a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who is now a professor at Georgetown University. “Can we use our leverage to try to get the Saudis to change their policy? Frankly, I think yes we can. And I think we should at least be seen to be trying.”
In his public remarks with King Salman today, Obama only said that Riyadh and Washington “share a concern about Yemen and the need to restore a functioning government that is inclusive and that can relieve the humanitarian situation there.”
The more in-depth discussions between Obama and King Salman, undoubtedly, will occur in private. However, some observers argue that the fact Yemen’s fate is being determined amid a gaudy state visit, with priorities that go far beyond this impoverished country, represents a failure in itself.
“[Yemen] is seen as part of Saudi-Iran [rivalry], it’s part of this grand game,” said Bodine. “We are forgetting that there are 25 million people who have been completely cut off…. So we have completely depersonalized this, and it is just seen as a pawn in a chess game, and I think that’s the tragedy.”