Can the War Be Ended? US-Saudi Relations and the Yemen War

by John Whitehead



The Biden administration announced on June 14 that the president would visit Saudi Arabia in July. During his trip, President Biden will likely meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. This planned trip and meeting may be the first steps in a US effort to collaborate with the Saudis on various goals: countering Iran, improving Saudi-Israeli relations, and possibly bringing down gas prices through increased oil production.


Such future collaboration with the Saudis would be a change of course for the Biden administration, which had previously taken some steps to distance the United States from Saudi Arabia. If the upcoming presidential trip signals closer US-Saudi ties, then this shift has ominous implications for the people of Yemen.


Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other nations, has been fighting a military campaign in Yemen for over seven years. The Saudi-led campaign, an intervention in Yemen’s civil war, has included a naval blockade of Yemen and bombing the country. The blockade has caused severe economic damage to Yemen. The bombing is estimated to have killed roughly 24,000 people to date, including almost 9,000 civilians. Overall, the war has led to the deaths of an estimated 377,000 people.


One sign of hope for Yemen has been a truce between the warring sides that has held over the last few months. The truce has allowed for a pause in the bombing and an easier flow of trade to Yemen. Whether the Yemeni people will enjoy lasting peace remains unclear, however.


The United States, as an ally of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has assisted these countries since their intervention in Yemen began in 2015. The United States is the leading supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has also provided training, intelligence, and logistical support to their campaign.


A recent analysis by the Washington Post and the Security Force Monitor at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute (SFM) has provided additional details on US support to the Saudi-led bombing campaign.


The Post-SFM investigators identified 19 air squadrons, most of them Saudi or UAE, that have participated in bombing Yemen. They note that “analysis of public contract announcements shows that the United States provided arms, training or maintenance support to the majority of the fighter jet squadrons in the campaign.”


US involvement in training Saudi and UAE air forces is one of the analysts’ more striking findings. News reports and visual evidence indicate that the UAE’s 1st and 2nd Shaheen air squadrons, which UAE media identify as participating in the Yemen bombing, also participated in joint aerial combat exercises with US forces in 2016, 2019, and 2021. At least three of the four Saudi air squadrons that have likely participated in the Yemen bombing also participated in multiple US trainings and exercises.


Training aside, the United States has provided other significant technical support to the bombing campaign. The Saudis have identified F-15SA fighter jets, an American-made plane, as crucial to the bombing. Saudi Arabia purchased these fighters in 2010, but the last plane covered by this US-Saudi arms deal was delivered in 2020, well after the intervention in Yemen began. Also since the intervention began, the United States allowed dozens of contracts to support the F-15SA planes and other fighter planes.


Human rights groups have identified more than 300 airstrikes in the bombing campaign against Yemen that may have violated international law. While it is uncertain which air squadrons carried out which airstrikes, the US role in training Saudi and UAE air forces as well as providing weapons and other technical support raises the question of US complicity in legally dubious strikes.


Beyond the precise US involvement in specific airstrikes, the larger issue that the Post-SFM analysis underlines is Saudi and UAE military reliance on the United States. Cutting off US military technology or perhaps even just stopping maintenance support on military aircraft could force an end to the Saudi-UAE bombing and naval blockade.


However, if US policymakers are so desperate for Saudi cooperation that they don’t use their leverage, then Yemen’s prospects may be bleak. Without outside pressure to end the military campaign, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may continue to inflict death on the Yemeni people.


Some members of Congress have introduced a House resolution to curtail various forms of US support to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, including certain intelligence sharing, maintenance, and logistical support meant to assist the bombing campaign. Peace advocates should contact their representatives in the House to urge support for the resolution.


The current Yemen truce is a first step toward peace in a country that needs it deeply. We should not let this opportunity be lost.


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