BY LAURA KELLY
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to set up a long-term ceasefire between warring Yemeni factions are influencing warmer ties between Washington and Riyadh, which nosedived after President Biden promised early in his campaign to make the kingdom a pariah over its targeted killings and human rights violations.
But the Biden administration is largely on the sidelines of a peace process made possible by China, which in March brokered relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two Gulf countries are on opposite sides of Yemen’s eight-year civil war.
Still, Biden officials are offering gushing praise for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a key signal that the administration is atoning for what the kingdom views as unfair, disproportionate criticism among America’s allies. It marks a significant turn for the administration that had identified in 2021 that the crown prince, known as MBS, approved an operation that led to the gruesome killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who was killed, dismembered and his body burned at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
“I think the administration recognizes that their approach in the first two years of the administration was not productive and they are trying to reverse course,” said David Schenker, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the Trump administration.
There’s optimism that Saudi efforts to broach talks between Yemen’s internationally recognized government in Aden and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Sanaa will help resolve a war that has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and left millions more hungry.
Houthi negotiators last week said progress was made in talks with Saudi and Omani officials held in Sanaa and that further discussions are expected to take place.
“I believe we have not seen such a serious opportunity for making progress towards ending the conflict in eight years,” United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg said during a U.N. security council meeting on Monday.
US criticism softens
That has garnered intense cheerleading from top Biden officials.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan, in a call with MBS last week, described “remarkable” progress in Yemen and welcomed Saudi Arabia’s “extraordinary efforts.”
Sullivan also committed to “regular contact” with the crown prince, who is also the prime minister, on other priorities, namely a White House initiative to support investments in infrastructure and internet connectivity in developing countries and that largely serves as an alternative to China’s efforts in this area.
The White House also dispatched senior members of Biden’s national security team to Riyadh last week. This included Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking; coordinator for Middle East and North Africa Policy Brett McGurk; and special presidential coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security, Amos Hochstein.
“I think it’s helpful that the United States is being encouraging and supportive of what, I think for some time, has been an earnest Saudi effort to reach an agreement, or peace in Yemen,” Schenker said.
“But I don’t think we can underestimate how much bad blood there is. This was personal for the first two years of the Biden administration.”
Progress in Yemen appears to even be softening criticism on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called out Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses and forced Biden to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen that some NGO’s have said amount to war crimes.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a strident critic of Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings on respect for human rights, noted that “there’s been a number of positive developments on Yemen and the Saudi’s willingness to facilitate productive discussions on Yemen’s future.”
Murphy, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), introduced in mid-March a privileged resolution that would compel the State Department to publish Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses or risk cutting off U.S. assistance to the kingdom. The resolution includes key authorities that allow the senators to quickly push through its consideration in the Senate if faced with opposition.
But Murphy said there’s no update on its progress: “We certainly are still planning on moving that resolution, but we don’t have a timetable yet.”
Lee told The Hill that Saudi Arabia’s good progress on Yemen is not influencing whether to move forward the resolution. “We’re making progress, it’s a good bill, I think we can get there.”
US-Saudi relationship evolves
The U.S. and Saudi relationship is often described as having its roots in practical interest, with its most basic equation being Saudi oil for American security.
“I think we need to understand the Saudis are only interested in partnering with the United States when it’s in their specific security interest, and thus our policy should reflect that we should be interested in partnering with the Saudis only when it’s in our interest,” Murphy said.
“We facilitated their disastrous war in Yemen for years, even though it wasn’t in our national security interest, that was a huge mistake. And we shouldn’t make that mistake again.”
The U.S. and Saudi relationship has evolved alongside changing Middle East dynamics. The kingdom is a spiritual center for billions of Muslims, holds significant influence among neighboring countries and has served as a partner for the U.S. in shared security interests of pushing back against threats from Iran and countering Sunni-Islamist extremism.
But the kingdom is also concerned that the U.S. is losing focus on the region, spurring Riyadh to more bluntly assert its own foreign policy.
Episodes of frustration include what Riyadh viewed as the former Trump administration’s failure to appreciate the severity of an attack on its oil fields in September 2019 and anger at the Biden administration for publicizing intelligence that fingered the crown prince as ordering an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, as well as the “pariah” remark.
The president has made moves to balance out criticism with engagement. Biden fist-bumped the crown prince during a meeting in Jeddah, and the gesture was viewed as a compromise against shaking the hand of someone responsible for fatal repression.
While Saudi Arabia is unlikely to jilt the U.S. entirely, Riyadh is increasingly asserting itself separately from Washington’s interests.
It decided in October to cut oil production, despite U.S. protests that it would bolster Russia’s funds to wage war in Ukraine. And Riyadh is moving closer to China, which announced a breakthrough in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran following a diplomatic summit in Beijing.
Still, the Saudis are keeping America close as part of its security umbrella, with a robust U.S. military presence in the region and long-standing support through military sales, training and maintenance. Agreements on foreign military sales between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amounted to more than $100 billion between 2009 and 2020.
And Saudi Arabia’s recent $37 billion purchase of Boeing aircraft, its providing of $400 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and its help in prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia are also viewed as positives in the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.
“The U.S. has persisted in its strengthening parts of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, even in spite of the disagreements over human rights and Khashoggi,” said Eric Pelofsky, who served as senior director for North Africa and Yemen at the National Security Council and special assistant to former President Obama.
“It’s an important, difficult, region and the kingdom is a key player in the region — our national security needs require to manage a range of challenges at the same time.”
Impact of peace in Yemen
Making progress toward peace in Yemen would add to the balance of good in the relationship.
Jared Rowell, the International Rescue Committee’s country director for Yemen, said aid groups are closely watching the developments surrounding peace talks, but warned against viewing the end of fighting as solving the immense challenges facing the aid community, which includes providing for Yemenis critical food and health support, education services and working on efforts to counter the exploitation of women
”I think we just need to get the message across as an international aid community that the needs will continue as long as a lot of different factors are still at play,” Rowell said.
He advocated for the United Nations and other international actors to take an active role alongside the peace discussions to protect and support the independent work of aid groups.
“I think it’s just really important to convey the message that reduced conflict doesn’t automatically equate to improved conditions on the ground, or reduced levels of need.”