This long relationship has sunk deep roots in the U.S. defense establishment, especially since close acquaintance with the free-spending Saudi hierarchy can lead to attractive postretirement opportunities. David Commons, for example, the Air Force general who directed the military mission from 2011 to 2013, was responsible for what he calls the “management and execution” of the huge 2010 arms sale. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on his return from Saudi Arabia he turned to commerce, where his Middle Eastern connections could be put to good use. First he chaired the Sharaka Group, offering “knowledge, experience, and tenacity” in navigating the “maze” of Saudi bureaucracy. Next he cofounded Astrolabe Enterprises, which, by his account, helps the Saudis buy American weapons. “If they need a capability,” he told me, “we are there.”
Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.
Such was the dire condition of the country before Saudi Arabia unleashed a bombing campaign in March 2015, which has destroyed warehouses, factories, power plants, ports, hospitals, water tanks, gas stations, and bridges, along with miscellaneous targets ranging from donkey carts to wedding parties to archaeological monuments. Thousands of civilians — no one knows how many — have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.
This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.) U.S. Navy ships aided the blockade. But no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. “Honestly,” he told me, “I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.”
The principal targets of the Saudi bombers (augmented by a coalition of Arab allies) have been a tribal group from the north of Yemen, adjacent to the Saudi border, who follow Zaidism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Though it is distinct from the variant of Shiism practiced in Iran, the connection was destined to excite the suspicions of the fervently anti-Iranian Saudi regime.
So, almost forty years ago, the Saudis planted an outpost of their own extreme Wahhabi sect in the heart of Zaidi territory. The emissary sent to found the madrassa was Muqbil al-Wadie, a leader of the 1979 assault on Mecca’s Grand Mosque, who had until that moment been rotting in a Saudi prison. As has been their habit, the Saudis solved their own terrorism problem by exporting it.
The intrusive enterprise, which attracted a growing stream of militant Sunnis, eventually provoked a reaction among the local Zaidis in favor of their Shia tendencies. Accordingly, under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi, they sought religious instruction from Iran in the form of teachers and literature, which were duly supplied, much to Riyadh’s irritation.
For many years, this Iranian connection was treated with equanimity by Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Following 9/11, however, he came under pressure from Washington to play his part in the war against Al Qaeda, which had been active in Yemen since the late 1990s. Saleh found this mission unappealing, given the terrorist group’s connections with some of the country’s most powerful political forces. According to Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, an activist whose family has long played a leading role in the nation’s politics, Saleh suggested to the Americans that he first deal with the Shiite troublemakers in the north. “From day one,” Iryani told me, “the Houthis were presented as an Iranian client, a terrorist movement.” This policy, unsurprisingly, was greeted with favor in Riyadh, and reciprocated with commensurate financial largesse.
Privately, U.S. officials were doubtful of the Iranian connection, even at the beginning of Saleh’s campaign against the group in 2004. “The fact that after five years of conflict there is still no compelling evidence of that link must force us to view this claim with some skepticism,” wrote the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, in a classified 2009 cable later released by WikiLeaks. Nevertheless, the Americans were eager to secure Saleh’s cooperation against Al Qaeda. They did little to restrain him in his war with the Houthis, as they came to be called following the death of Hussein al-Houthi in 2004.
In 2009, hoping for a final victory, Saleh managed to involve the Saudis directly by eliciting their permission to send Yemeni troops across the border to attack the Houthis from the rear. In response, a small force of Houthis invaded Saudi Arabia. Adding to the complications, Yemen now became embroiled in Saudi court politics: Khalid bin Sultan, the prince who effectively controlled the defense ministry, moved to assert dominance at the expense of a rival prince at the interior ministry, using the Houthi incursion as an excuse. Promptly declaring the southern portion of the country a “killing zone,” he mobilized the entire Saudi military. The air force carpet bombed the border region, including Saada, the Houthi heartland.
The result, however, was a humiliating setback for the House of Saud. Their ground troops were bested by the Houthis and suffered numerous casualties. The aerial campaign was no more impressive. “It was not a moment of glory for the Saudi air force,” according to David Des Roches, who formerly oversaw Saudi-related policy at the Pentagon and is now an associate professor at the National Defense University. “They were basically just dropping rounds in the desert.” A senior U.N. diplomat put it to me more bluntly: “They lost.”
Saleh’s own offensive was equally ineffectual, and the Houthis were left to fight another day. Meanwhile, Yemen’s ill fortune proved a blessing, not for the last time, for the U.S. defense establishment. The Obama Administration was already bent on expanding arms sales as part of its drive to boost exports, and now manna fell from heaven. Shocked by their poor performance against the Houthi guerrillas, the Saudis embarked on a massive weapons-buying spree.
At the top of their shopping list were eighty-four specially modified Boeing F-15 jets, along with around 170 helicopters. They also purchased a huge quantity of bombs and missiles — notably, 1,300 cluster bombs sold by the Textron Corporation at a cost of $641 million. Fortunately for Textron, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia had endorsed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a 2008 treaty already signed by more than one hundred nations, which banned these weapons on the grounds that they caused “unacceptable harm” to civilians.
This enormous deal totaled $60 billion: the largest arms sale in U.S. history. The scale of the transaction says much about America’s relationship with the House of Saud. The bond was forged at a 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, with both parties agreeing that Saudi Arabia would guarantee the United States cheap oil in return for American military protection. Both sides largely kept to the bargain. The Saudis even subsidized the price of oil exported to the United States — at least until 2002, when they abandoned the policy out of irritation at George W. Bush’s plan to topple the Sunni regime in Iraq.
Andrew Cockburn discusses the story with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:
Read the complete story – Source: [Letter from Washington] | Acceptable Losses, by Andrew Cockburn | Harper’s Magazine