The Second U.S. Sacrifice of Yemen

A hidden casualty of Russia's Ukraine invasion is Yemen, as the Saudis and the Emiratis raise the cost for the U.S. of increasing oil production. It's an oil prince's world; people just die in it.

The Second U.S. Sacrifice of Yemen
A man at work in an abandoned building in Sanaa, Yemen. Ahmed Allakmei, via Getty.

Edited by Sam Thielman

A CLEAR WINNER of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Saudi Arabia. Which means Yemen is in a lot of danger.

The U.S.' sanctions regime against Russia has provided Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—and his ally in the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed—with enormous leverage. Western capital is pleading for the Saudis to increase oil production and lower the price of global capitalism's most essential commodity. And so Bonesaw Daddy is flexing.

Last month, two influential Biden administration officials, Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, traveled to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates "to ensure the United States is doing everything possible to support the territorial defense of both countries against Iranian-enabled missile and UAV attacks," by which they meant the Houthis of Yemen. There is certainly an argument that the administration has done quite a lot to provide that support—specifically, $1 billion worth of weapons in its first year. Biden took office pledging to end U.S. support for MBS and MBZ's Yemen war and has instead adopted their position that Houthi violence, rather than the Saudi-led blockade, is the relevant rejectionism prolonging it.

But Biden publicly embarrassed MBS over the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, no matter how he quickly he made it clear that there would be no real consequences for the Prince and much material benefit. After that, his administration conspicuously routed around MBS, with Biden dealing with the elderly King Salman, as if to cordon MBS off from the U.S. relationship. Now there was about to be a severe disruption in global oil production.

So it was that McGurk and Hochstein tried to discuss with Riyadh what a National Security Council summary called a "collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures stemming from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine."

I can't read MBS' mind. But I feel confident that he enjoyed his reply.

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WITH THE INVASION underway, he and MBZ simply refused to take President Biden's phone calls. Instead, MBS talked to Putin, who embraced him after he had Khashoggi dismembered. MBZ, who currently holds a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council, abstained from the first Security Council vote to condemn Russia. That might have been too far: a week later, as nation after nation heaped opprobrium on Russia, both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates condemned the invasion in the General Assembly.

Then, on Mar. 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis were considering selling China oil in Chinese instead of American currency, a "profound shift" that would unsettle the dollar's centrality to the global oil market. Not two weeks earlier, MBS had told The Atlantic that if Biden wanted to alienate him, "go for it," since "I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy" doing business with him.

Putting the oil question aside, it's worth remembering that the U.S. is the world's biggest arms dealer and Saudi Arabia is the U.S.' biggest customer. The Atlantic piece is a reflection that elements of elite Washington (and Houston, and New York, and) are inclined to take his point: if America keeps displeasing him, the future king may choose to expand his list of imperial patrons.

OPEC meets next week, so we'll see what happens. But thus far the Saudis haven't increased production beyond the limits set by OPEC and Russia last year. So much for that "collaborative approach" McGurk and Hochstein sought. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco, which MBS functionally owns, on Sunday announced a $110 billion annual profit, more than doubling its 2020 showing. Tempering expectations, Fortune reported that even if OPEC approves the increased production, it won't happen for at least five years, "far too late to have any tangible effect on the current global oil markets."

If MBS has a message, it's that yesterday's price is not today's price. The Journal explicitly reported that the Saudis want "more support for their intervention in Yemen’s civil war." In a Monday op-ed in the Journal, Firas Maksad of George Washington University and the Middle East Institute offered that the U.S. "can also expand Arab Gulf air defenses by meeting requests for deploying more anti-missile defense systems, stepping up intelligence cooperation, and providing early warning against incoming attacks." So, more weapons sales and a return to "intelligence cooperation" against the Houthis in Yemen.

If that wasn't sufficiently ominous for Yemenis, the U.S., its allies, Russia, and China are trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal this week. That means that if everything somehow breaks Biden's way, MBS and MBZ will have to swallow the resurrection of the Iran deal, which they see as empowering their prime regional threat. That helps explain why national security adviser Jake Sullivan responded on Sunday to a Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia by pledging to "continue to fully support our partners in the defense of their territory from Houthi… terrorist attacks… enabl[ed] by Iran."

Sullivan conspicuously held out the Houthis as the rejectionists in the Yemen war. Mentioning the attack at all was the closest he came to acknowledging that the Houthis attack the Saudis because the Saudis, thanks to Defense Minister MBS, have bombed and—on a far vaster scale—starved Yemen for seven years.

Neither did Sullivan acknowledge a development in the war that Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute noted on Monday. "The first months of 2022 brought a substantial increase in [Saudi] coalition air raids: More than 400 were recorded in January, the most sustained heavy bombing in years." No fuel imports have reached Yemen since January 3, Sheline writes, detailing a massive driver of the humanitarian catastrophe. A war Biden promised to end is a war whose escalation he has materially abetted.

A FEW YEARS AGO, two Obama administration officials, Rob Malley and Stephen Pomper, reflected in Foreign Affairs on how it was that President Obama had endorsed and participated in the pitiless civilian assault that is the Yemen war. Malley (who is now Biden's envoy for Iran negotiations) and Pomper acknowledged that the administration's support for the war partially resulted from a perceived need to repair a relationship under strain from the Arab Spring, the Iran deal, the Iraq withdrawal and a sense of imperial abandonment. "Now, the Saudis felt threatened by an Iranian-backed militia on their southern border. Giving them a flat no would have been off message, to say the least," Malley and Pomper wrote. They noted that Obama's policy of "reassurance"—more than $115 billion worth of demonstration that the U.S. remained committed to their defense—"was the rationale that led the Obama administration to support the Saudis’ campaign in the first place."

A purpose of their piece, Malley and Pomper explained, was to prompt "U.S. officials to candidly reexamine the United States’ posture in the Gulf and recognize how easy it can be, despite the best of intentions, to get pulled into a disaster." But instead, here we find the successor to the Obama administration facing the same calculation, with only the circumstances adjusted.

For as long as we live in the hydrocarbon era, MBS' assessment of the fundamental interests at stake for the U.S. will be correct. Laid against that assessment, the U.S. and European economic response to the Ukraine invasion increases MBS' leverage. Conspicuous in that response have been Biden's exhortations to increase domestic energy production while mumbling something about moving away from fossil fuels in some distant future. That mumbly part is the only way to actually break MBS' power, but too many people with too much influence over the United States' oligarchic political system extract wealth out of the current arrangement.

The invasion of Ukraine, on its own terms, is worth every effort at an urgent diplomatic resolution for its reversal. So too is the immediate end of what Sheline reminds us has killed 400,000 people; pushed 16 million to the precipice of starvation; and is known by Yemenis as the Saudi-American War. The structure of global capitalism during a decadent phase of American hegemony places Yemen on the altar to be sacrificed so the U.S. can decimate the Russian economy. What an alignment of villainy the hydrocarbon era empowers.

A TANGENT, BUT: as someone who remembers how Washington went from patron to executioner of Saddam Hussein, seeing the rise of MBS is simply fucking wild. I am well aware of the different historical and material circumstances between the U.S.-Saudi relationship in contrast to the U.S.-Iraq one. But if the Yemen war isn't enough to trigger recognition of who we're dealing with here, I can only hope it's not going to take an Anfal.

Meanwhile, as we note the recent 19th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a disaster of truly historic proportions, whose many results include the continued presence of 2,500 U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, it turns out Iraq abstained when the United Nations considered the March 3 resolution to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. "Iraq has decided to abstain because of our historical background in Iraq and because of our sufferings resulting from the continuing wars against our peoples," Baghdad explained, referencing a very recent history that Washington has preferred to forget this past month especially. Perhaps that history explains why the Iraqis don't want any part of imperial endeavors.

TO SUPPORT THE PEOPLE OF UKRAINE, an old friend of mine from hardcore and an excellent drummer, Derik Moore, has put together a benefit compilation you can purchase on Bandcamp. This is some tracklist: Ted Leo, World/Inferno (RIP Pete V the immortal), Citizens Arrest… All proceeds are going to Razom, an organization providing humanitarian aid to Ukranians. I bought a copy and listened to it as I drafted this edition.