Congress Sours on Saudi Arabia Over Yemen

While the White House fetes the kingdom’s crown prince, lawmakers are running out of patience with Riyadh’s catastrophic war in Yemen.

By Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
President Donald Trump presents a defense sales chart with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump presents a defense sales chart with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

As Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen enters its fourth year, U.S. lawmakers from both parties are running out of patience with a campaign that has left thousands of civilians dead and helped trigger one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

A concerted White House lobbying effort last week helped defeat a resolution in Congress that would have halted U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, but Riyadh’s troubles on Capitol Hill are far from over.

A top secret briefing from the U.S. Defense Department, direct appeals from Defense Secretary James Mattis, and phone calls from the White House were enough to avert an embarrassing political outcome in the congressional vote. Still, 44 senators voted for the resolution, sponsored by Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont; Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut; and Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah.

Even lawmakers who opposed the bill blasted Saudi Arabia for failing to do more to end the war and open access to humanitarian aid.

While Saudi Arabia may have dodged a bullet, the political climate in Congress is moving in a hostile direction for the kingdom — and another, more moderate bill aimed at curbing carte blanche U.S. support for the war in Yemen remains on the table.

Four separate congressional votes over the past three years, including last week’s measure, point to deep and growing dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia. Two U.S. arms sales narrowly won approval, and a proposal allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages passed with enough votes to overcome a veto from former President Barack Obama in 2016.

“The temperature is rising,” says Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam America. “This is now on a trajectory that’s been in place for three years.”

Despite the congressional mood, President Donald Trump rolled out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, during his visit to Washington last week.

“The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” Trump told reporters as he sat down with the Saudi heir apparent for lunch.

The Saudis seem to agree. Riyadh has a particularly sympathetic ear in the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The Intercept reported that the crown prince privately boasted Kushner was “in his pocket.”

Shortly after the crown prince paid a visit to the White House, the administration unveiled a major arms sale to Riyadh worth more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Houthi rebels — who control much of western Yemen, including its capital, Sanaa, and are alleged to have Iranian-supplied missiles — have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia. On Sunday night, Houthi rebels launched seven missiles into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia says it intercepted all the missiles, but one person was killed by shrapnel, and video appears to show that the Patriot defense systems didn’t work as well as claimed.

Both the Trump administration and aid organizations working in Yemen sharply condemned the attacks. Yet there’s also concern such attacks could serve as a pretext for Saudi Arabia to ramp up the war.

“These unlawful attacks must not be used as an excuse by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to indiscriminately attack civilians or further exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis,” says Samah Hadid of Amnesty International.

Another bipartisan bill in the Senate aims to tackle just that. Republican Todd Young of Indiana and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are spearheading the effort for the proposed legislation, which is expected to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next month.

The bill would require the State Department to certify whether the Saudi-led coalition is taking steps to expand access for food, fuel, and medicine shipments to Yemen; undertaking “an urgent and good faith effort” to pursue a diplomatic settlement of the civil war; and demonstrating it is reducing the risk of civilian casualties in its bombing campaign.

“This will create leverage for the administration and pressure on the Saudis that does not exist today,” a Senate aide says.

Unlike the resolution backed by Sanders and Lee last week, Young and Shaheen’s bill does not propose an immediate halt to U.S. military assistance for the Saudi air war in Yemen. Critics say this latest proposal of undercutting the legislation that failed last week with much less ambitious requirements.

But proponents say this new bill has a better chance of securing support from both sides of the aisle, including from the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Corker opposed the Sanders-Lee resolution last week but promised to hold a hearing on Yemen next month. Corker says he and other lawmakers conveyed a stern message to the crown prince in talks last week and “strongly pushed back on what is happening right now in Yemen and asked them to take strong corrective actions.”

The White House has not stated its position on the new bill, but like with previous administrations, officials oppose any attempt to curtail the executive branch’s freedom of action.

“The United States is taking a number of actions to help the Saudi-led coalition support the Yemeni government and defend Saudi territory while minimizing civilian casualties,” says a State Department spokesperson, including providing equipment and training and advising the Saudi military.

“Without U.S. support and training, it is likely the rate of civilian casualties would increase,” the spokesperson says.

The Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies launched bombing raids in March 2015 hoping to reinstall President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the U.S. military has provided intelligence and aerial refueling for coalition aircraft. As civilian casualties have mounted and relief officials have warned of an imminent famine, both the Barack Obama and Trump administrations have pleaded for patience from Congress.

After three years, the arguments are beginning to ring hollow with frustrated lawmakers.

Despite U.S. advice and support, the air war continues to exact a brutal toll on civilians, and lawmakers say repeated Saudi pledges to ease the humanitarian crisis have produced little concrete results. Aid agencies say a de facto Saudi naval blockade has helped fuel a spike in deadly diseases, including 1 million suspected cases of cholera.

Congressional staffers say the Trump administration’s arguments against the resolution last week were almost identical to the case made by officials during Obama’s tenure.

The White House, State Department, and Pentagon argue that halting U.S. military support would damage relations with Riyadh and undercut Washington’s influence, call into question U.S. credibility by abandoning an Arab ally, and place civilians at even more risk without any U.S. advisory role in the air campaign.

“The talking points don’t change,” a Democratic congressional aide says.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer