The Washington That Never Says No: Saudi Arabia Borrows U.S. Military to Kill Yemenis

06/06/2015 05:33 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016

Apparently incapable of resisting the temptation to meddle in the Middle East, the Obama administration remains part of Saudi Arabia's ten-member "coalition" against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Said Secretary of State John Kerry: "We're not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships." The administration is providing intelligence, logistical aid, arms shipments and even a naval flotilla, including an American aircraft carrier, to monitor Iranian ships. Apparently Washington wants to block any Iranian military aid for Houthi rebels while underwriting Saudi aggression.

Alas, the entire campaign is built on a lie. Contrary to Riyadh's claims, the Houthis are not directed by, and seem only barely supported by, Iran. Even British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond admitted that "the Houthis are clearly not Iranian proxies." Instead, the rebels have been fighting for years. Yemen was only reunited in 1990 and has spent most of the succeeding years rent by crime, unrest and conflict. The Houthis, classified as a Shia sect (Zaydi) despite some theological similarities to Sunnis, have been in rebellion for years. Filmmaker Safa al-Ahmad, who produced a documentary on the Houthis, commented that they "don't need Iranians to bring them weapons. They're awash in weapons."

America's then-ally, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, actually used U.S.-supplied arms to battle the Houthis a decade ago. But after Saleh was ousted in 2012, he allied with the Houthis against his successor, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The newly empowered rebels -- many of the official security forces remained loyal to Saleh -- ousted Hadi last fall. Saleh may have hoped to install his son as president.

Those familiar with Yemeni politics agreed that none of this had anything to do with Iran or Saudi Arabia. Argued journalist Peter Salisbury, the conflict, like previous fights, was "driven by local issues and competition for resources rather than regional or ideological rivalries." With none of the parties looking beyond Yemen's borders, the conflict had no regional let alone global implications. Even the players were not easily categorized. The Jamestown Foundation's James Brandon wrote that each side was a coalition incorporating "a wide range of both Sunni and Shia elements. Self-interest, and not sectarian affiliation, is therefore the driving force behind much of the ongoing violence." Riyadh has turned a tragic though commonplace power struggle into a sectarian proxy fight, encouraging Tehran to respond in kind.

The KSA has wrapped itself in international law, claiming that it wants to restore Hadi to power. But his followers largely abandoned him after he fled into exile and endorsed Saudi airstrikes on his fellow citizens. Killing people generally is not a good way to rally the public to your cause. Only a Saudi occupation could sustain him in power. Yemen requires a negotiated settlement, which Riyadh has done nothing to promote.

Yemen's political turbulence is largely irrelevant to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that America's ally, Saudi Arabia, was "sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force." But it doesn't much matter to anyone outside of Yemen if they do. Whoever rules Sana'a will neither challenge Saudi primacy nor block Gulf shipping. America's only serious security concern is the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the Houthis hate AQAP as much as they dislike America. Unfortunately, AQAP has gained in the chaos, to which Saudi Arabia has greatly contributed: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter worried about the group's "great gains." But a Houthi-led government cannot be expected to combat AQAP while under attack by Riyadh.

Secretary Kerry sounded like a late-night comedian when he announced that the U.S. was "not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries." Washington engages in such behavior regularly, and the KSA is the region's most malignant player. Indeed, on any normal measure, Riyadh is far more inimical to American interests than Iran.

You wouldn't know that from American policy. Normal countries have constitutional monarchies in which the nominal heads of state are tourist attractions. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian theocratic gerontocracy in which a handful of elderly brothers and their sons rule over nearly 30 million people while looting the country's wealth on behalf of a few thousand princes. It's great work if you can find it.

King Abdullah recently died and Western leaders swiftly abased themselves, painting the autocrat as a great humanitarian and liberal, even someone who encouraged greater "tolerance" and sought "sincere dialogue" among different religions -- none of which can be practiced legally in his nation. His successor, King Salman, appears determined to extinguish what tiny fires of reform Abdullah lit while fighting an aggressive war against his nation's southern neighbor.

In contrast to Kuwait and even Iran, there are no elections, political opposition or dissenting viewpoints in Saudi Arabia. The royals once explained that elections were "not consistent with our Islamic creed." No doubt. The eruption of the Arab Spring was met with generous social spending and ruthless repression. At the time, said Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz: "What we won by the sword we will keep by the sword."

Anyone who voices criticism is treated as if he was in the Soviet Union. The State Department's latest human rights assessment noted that "citizens lack the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement and religion, and a lack of equal rights for women, children and noncitizen workers." The report went on to cite "torture and other abuses; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; holding political prisoners and detainees; denial of due process; arbitrary arrest and detention; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home and correspondence."

Last summer the regime sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison; he now faces a possible retrial for apostasy and the death penalty. The Saudis later imposed a 15-year term on his lawyer, Waleed Abul-Khair, for "undermining the regime and officials" and "inciting public opinion."

The KSA is even more restrictive when it comes to religious liberty. For instance, the Saudis long have underwritten the intolerant Wahhabist theology around the world, including in America. Wahhabism is hostile to modernity and creates a theological environment conducive to extremism and terrorism. The royals feign piety through such activities, which enables them to live licentiously when they escape abroad at their people's great expense.

Spiritual oppression is complete. Not one church, synagogue, temple, or other house of worship operates in the KSA. Gathering together privately in a home is enough for arrest. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom observed that "Saudi Arabia remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam." Nor are Muslims exempt, since Saudi Arabia is a Sunni theocracy.

The State Department reported simply: "Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice." School textbooks encourage intolerance, including "justification for the social exclusion and killing of Islamic minorities and 'apostates'." The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevent of Vice, which employs the Mutawaa'in, or religious police, continues to enforce religious law. King Abdullah made the force slightly more accountable; King Salman seems likely to move in the opposite direction.

The KSA's international policies are equally bad. Saudi Arabia was one of just three governments to recognize the Afghan Taliban (America's loyal ally Pakistan was another one). Saudis generously funded Saudi Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, which forced the KSA to crack down. (The Bush administration not only spirited Saudi nationals out of the country afterwards, but apparently hid details of Saudi support for terrorism.) Fifteen of the 19 9/11 terrorists were Saudis.

Although al-Qaeda's later attack on the royals spurred the regime to crack down, the Kingdom's malign role continues. A 2009 Wikileaks document indicated that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." In Syria the Saudi government has financed and supplied extremist Syrian rebels, perhaps including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and apparently even the Islamic State, at least before the U.S. intervened.

In neighboring Bahrain Riyadh sent in troops to back the repressive Sunni monarchy -- essentially the Khalifa family dictatorship -- which sits atop a Shia majority. The KSA also bullies its Gulf neighbors, which tend to be more liberal in both political and religious affairs. Saudi Arabia did discover the limits of its influence when Pakistan rejected Riyadh's request for military involvement in Yemen. As the U.S. long ago discovered, even generous financial support results in little gratitude, at least when it comes to joining a no-win war.

Despite the horrid Saudi record, Washington rarely says a critical word. Indeed, while the U.S. criticizes other nations for violating religious liberty, the State Department routinely suspends the KSA's well-deserved designation as a Country of Particular Concern. And the word democracy rarely passed the lips of U.S. officials. One unnamed official once declared: "They're not in a mode for listening." At least the administration criticized Riyadh's treatment of Badawi.

However, far more often U.S. officials have celebrated their friendship with the Saudi royals, inviting Saudi kings to intimate tete-a-tetes at secluded presidential retreats. President George H.W. Bush called then-Crown Prince Abdullah a "dear friend and partner." Most important, Washington has routinely lent the Saudis the U.S. military. President Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf to be a vital American interest. President Ronald Reagan armed the Saudis over Israeli opposition. President Bush fought the first Gulf War as much to safeguard the KSA as liberate Kuwait and left a garrison later targeted by the 1996 Khobar Towers barracks bombing.

Now, President Barack Obama is holding the Saudi royals' coats as they intervene in the Yemeni civil war. At least Washington so far has not complied with Riyadh's demand that America oust President Bashar al-Assad, who threatens U.S. interests less than does the KSA. But the Saudis and their allies may yet find a way to maneuver America into that war as well.

Ironically, Riyadh resembles the Islamic State more than the U.S. or any other American ally. Freedom is to be feared. Women are objects of discrimination. Heads are routinely lopped off as punishment. Only the orange jump suits and horrid YouTube videos are missing.

U.S. policymakers have sold American values for a pittance largely because of oil. However, that never was an adequate reason to support medieval theocracy. The Saudi royals always needed to sell their oil to fund their brutal repression and lavish lifestyles. Cut off the funds and there is no one to clean up for them or protect them. Even more so would a successor regime need the money. Moreover, U.S. reliance on foreign supplies, in what always has been a global market, is down dramatically with the discovery or new oil fields and development of new sources of oil.

Yet the one-way relationship continues. President Obama praised the late King Abdullah's "steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East." Of course the royals believe in the "alliance." It's cheaper to borrow U.S. forces than hire bodyguards.

But that might not be enough in the future. The royal system's vulnerabilities are only likely to grow. A handful of elderly kleptocrats, fearful of free expression and liberal thought, are ill-equipped to guide a nation with an increasingly youthful and restless population into a tempestuous future. As the Shah of Iran discovered 36 years ago, at some point oil and repression aren't enough to preserve authoritarian injustice. Hopefully Washington will not have earned the same dubious reputation with the Saudi people once they are free. The danger of making a pact with the devil, as America has done with Riyadh, is that you risk being locked in the devil's embrace, like in Yemen.