The United States has usually not had a Yemen policy—rather, its policy toward Yemen is a subset of its policy toward Saudi Arabia. This is especially true today with the war in Yemen. Two U.S. administrations have backed the Saudi intervention in the civil war in its smaller and much poorer neighbor.
President Harry Truman sent the first American diplomatic mission to Yemen in 1946. It was led by Bill Eddy, a former Marine who arranged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous meeting with Saudi King Abdul-Aziz al Saud in Egypt a year earlier. After an arduous trip to reach Sanaa, Eddy spent weeks negotiating a treaty of good will and commerce with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom.
Eddy reported that the kingdom was the most backward nation in the region: no roads, legal system, or medical facilities. The Yemeni monarch did not want foreigners in his country unless they were doctors to treat himself. No permanent U.S. mission was set up, instead the American ambassador in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia served also as the non-resident ambassador to Yemen. Truman facilitated Yemen’s admission to the United Nations in 1947.
In September 1962, the army staged a coup against the Mutawakkilite Imam and set up a republican government. Civil war followed. Egypt backed the republicans with tens of thousands of troops and aircraft. The Soviets provided airlift for the Egyptian intervention. The Saudis backed the royalists, with help from Jordan and Israel. The British clandestinely coordinated the support for the royalists.
President John F. Kennedy recognized the republican government and refused to support the Saudi-backed insurgency. He did send American jet fighters to Saudi Arabia to deter any Egyptian cross-border meddling in Saudi Arabia. It was a rare display of America breaking mildly with the Saudis over Yemen. Kennedy believed the royalists were hopelessly out of date and incapable of reform. He also pressed the Saudis to implement reforms in the kingdom.
The Egyptians withdrew from Yemen after their defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The republican government survived, however, and ultimately reconciled with the Saudis. A series of military coups ended when General Ali Abdullah Saleh took power. Saleh famously said that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes.
An American company found modest deposits of oil in Yemen, which funded some development in the 1980s. Saleh united the north with southern Yemen in 1990. The south had been a British colony until 1968, when a communist government took power. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its impoverished protégés in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south had no choice but to take Saleh’s offer of union.
Saleh tilted Yemen toward Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Saudis were convinced that Yemen was secretly conspiring with Baghdad to partition their country and restore territory that the Saudis had won in a war with Yemen in 1934. President George H.W. Bush backed the Saudis—aid was cut off, and Yemen isolated.
To punish Saleh, the Saudi government expelled a million Yemenis living and working in Saudi Arabia. When President Bill Clinton came into office, he kept Saleh at arm’s length, but he did not support a Saudi-funded southern secessionist movement in 1995 that Saleh crushed in a short civil war.
Al-Qaida’s attack on a United States frigate, the USS Cole, in Aden in 2000 led to strains between Washington and Sanaa over Saleh’s half hearted investigation of the terrorists. President George W. Bush met with Saleh in 2001—I was the note taker, it was a tense conversation. Saleh never really cracked down on al-Qaida, which remains entrenched in the country today.
When the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011, the Saudis saw a way to finally get rid of their old nemesis Ali Abdullah Saleh. After a prolonged mediation, Saleh stepped down and his Vice President Mansur Hadi succeeded him. Hadi, from southern Yemen who had trained in Moscow, was the only candidate in an election in 2012.
Saleh then conspired with the Houthis, a northern militia group that had fought against Saleh in the early 2000s. Together, Saleh and the Houthis ousted Hadi from Sanaa in 2015. (Later, the Houthis and Saleh split and Saleh was killed.) The Houthis invited Iran to set up daily flights from Tehran to Sanaa and help expand the port of Hodeidah.
The Saudis intervened in March 2015 to support Hadi. The main driver behind the intervention was Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who promised a short, decisive war. Instead it became a stalemate with catastrophic consequences for the Yemeni people. The Saudis blockaded the country, denying food and medicine to most of the population.
The war costs the Saudis at least $50 billion a year; the Iranians spend a pittance.
President Barack Obama backed the Saudi war. The United States supported the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which sanctions the Houthis and Saleh, endorses Hadi’s government, and calls for the rebels to disarm. It’s completely unbalanced and a barrier to getting peace. Iran supports the Houthis with expertise, arms, and ballistic missiles smuggled into the country. The United States provides intelligence and crucial logistical support for the Saudis and their allies. The war costs the Saudis at least $50 billion a year; the Iranians spend a pittance.
President Trump doubled down on Obama’s support for MBS’s war. The administration has focused on Iran’s support for the Houthis and ignored egregious Saudi bombings of school and hospitals. The Saudis’ war is very expensive for the kingdom, disastrously devastating for Yemen, and a strategic plus for Iran.
Saudi oil wealth explains much about why America has consistently subsumed its Yemen policy to the designs of the kingdom. It’s unlikely that even the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul on October 2 will change the administration’s support for the war. MBS is confident that the administration is in his pocket.
The U.S. Congress might not be. The uproar over Khashoggi’s murder is galvanizing criticism of the kingdom—and finally of its war in Yemen.