New Yemen violence, Washington backtracking, betray depressing lack of progress
The recent drone and missile attacks in Abu Dhabi claimed by the Houthis, as well as the retaliatory Saudi coalition airstrikes on a residential area in Sana’a on Monday, show that the war on Yemen continues to destabilize the region and that civilians are still paying the highest price. Worse, the Biden Administration now says it may re-designate the Houthis as terrorists, which could cut off even more humanitarian aid beyond the current Saudi blockade strangling the country.
Biden said last year at this time that he wanted to end the war, but this appears to be moving the needle in the complete opposite direction.
The Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi’s airport and an oil facility on Monday killed three civilian workers, and the immediate coalition response killed at least 20 people, mostly women and children. While the U.S. and the rest of the world have neglected the conflict and ignored the increasingly dire humanitarian crisis there, the war has intensified again.
The latest violence serves as a reminder that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are still very much involved in the war on Yemen through its arming and support of its militia proxies. There have been other Houthi attacks on UAE territory, but this is the first one that their government has acknowledged. The strike on Abu Dhabi was apparently the Houthis’ way of responding to set-backs they suffered at the hands of UAE-backed proxies by demonstrating that they can hit back directly at the sponsors. While the UAE has lowered its profile in the war on Yemen, it is still a party to the conflict, and the Houthis hold them responsible for what the militias they arm do. A Houthi spokesman said earlier this week, “UAE is an unsafe state as long as its aggressive escalation against Yemen continues.”
The attacks in Abu Dhabi also underscore how the Saudi coalition’s intervention in the name of “stabilizing” Yemen has not only devastated Yemen but created greater instability throughout the peninsula. Just as the coalition’s intervention has driven Iran and the Houthis closer together than ever before, the war that they have waged nominally in “self-defense” has exposed their countries to greater dangers than they faced seven years ago.
The attacks have likewise dealt a blow to nascent diplomatic engagement between Iran and the UAE on account of Iran’s links with the Houthis. The possible rapprochement between the two neighbors was an encouraging sign that de-escalation of regional tensions might be in the offing, but that is now in jeopardy. As long as the war on Yemen is allowed to fester, it will make all countries in the peninsula less secure, it will further stoke tensions between Iran and its neighbors, and it will implicate our government in more of its clients’ crimes.
The Biden administration has failed in its first year in office to bring any significant pressure to bear on the Saudi coalition to end their campaign and blockade. On the contrary, the U.S. seems to have resumed business as usual with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE with new arms sales. Far from treating Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” as Biden once pledged, he has done just the opposite. As The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi and Annelle Sheline explained in a recent article for The New Republic, “Senior Democratic Senate staffers tell us that the administration’s strategy is to provide Saudi Arabia with extensive support now, in the hope that it will give the kingdom momentum in the war in the next few months, at which point [Mohammed bin Salman] will agree to end the war without losing face.”
There is very little to distinguish this “strategy” of cozying up to Riyadh from the blank check that the Trump administration gave to the Saudis, and it is not going to end the coalition’s part in the war. It remains the case that the U.S. has substantial leverage to push these governments to halt their campaign, but it has to be willing to use it. Biden simply won’t take the risk of antagonizing two reckless client governments even when it is clearly in U.S. interests to do so.
Following the attacks in Abu Dhabi, the UAE has demanded that the Houthis be designated as terrorists once again by the United States. Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to be entertaining doing just that. In his press conference this week, President Biden said that the U.S. was considering the option of designating the Houthis. That would represent a complete reversal of one of the Biden administration’s first and most significant policy changes, and if it happened it would sentence hundreds of thousands and possibly millions to preventable deaths from famine and disease.
Biden’s remarks elicited immediate condemnations from human rights activists and aid groups, who stressed that a terrorist designation would have devastating effects on the civilian population that is already suffering. Afrah Nasser, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “The designation would exacerbate the already unspeakable humanitarian suffering across the country.” Oxfam’s Scott Paul was equally critical: “This would have massive humanitarian consequences. The Biden admin[istration] lifted the designation last year—in spite of Houthi attacks—to spare Yemenis from even higher food, fuel, and healthcare prices. Also, it didn’t create any useful leverage. None of this has changed.”
Because the Houthis are the de facto government in the areas where the vast majority of Yemenis lives, a terrorism designation of the group would mean putting tens of millions of people under an even stricter siege than they have already experienced.
Biden’s State Department removed the designation on the Houthis last year in recognition that the sanctions that came with the designation would effectively cripple Yemen’s economy, cut off the population from humanitarian assistance that they need to survive, and exacerbate a humanitarian crisis that was already the world’s worst. Just as sanctions on the Taliban have worked to strangle Afghanistan’s economy in no time, a designation of the Houthis would have a similarly catastrophic effect in Yemen. Lifting the Houthi designation was one of the only things the Biden administration has done right in Yemen, and now there is a possibility that they will undo even that.
It seems incredible that the Biden administration would even contemplate putting the Houthis back on the list of terrorist organizations when they know what the consequences for the civilian population would be if they did. When the previous administration designated the group at the very end of Trump’s term, it was widely seen as a spiteful attempt to sabotage Biden’s policy out of the gate. It would be appalling for the Biden administration to reinstate such a vicious Trump-era decision at the request of one of the governments that bear the greatest responsibility for Yemen’s humanitarian disaster.
When there are attacks on U.S. clients, the instinct in Washington is to express support for the clients and redouble U.S. backing for them, but in this case that is exactly the wrong thing to do. The Saudis and Emiratis have brought these attacks on themselves through their aggressive intervention in Yemen, and the best thing that the U.S. could do for their security and for the stability of the region is to stop providing them with the means to continue their campaign. Whatever else the Biden administration does, it must not cave to pressure from the UAE on the issue of designation, because if they do they will be responsible for putting millions of innocent lives in jeopardy.