Saudis: “We’re Killing Too Many Civilians in Yemen? Then Give Us Drones”

Yemeni militants

Yemeni militants

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen (which I reported on for The Arabist a few months ago) has not been without controversy. While the U.S. conducts its own drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al Qaeda targets and provides extensive funding, intelligence and training to government forces, it also provides satellite imagery to the Saudis, who conduct airstrikes and ground offensives against suspected al Qaeda targets and anti-government Shia militias. Given that much of the U.S.-Saudi joint effort has come in the form of airstrikes, many of the same objections regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been raised over the air campaigns in Yemen. In February 2010, according to diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh recently released by Wikileaks, the U.S. raised such objections with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, but was satisfied with their response to the matter and has continued supplying them with satellite data.

The Saudi military, never ones to pass up an opportunity to expand their capabilities, used the opportunity of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to suggest that “if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem [of killing Yemeni civilians].”

“Obviously, some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen,” Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled concluded, when the U.S. presented him with evidence that Saudi airstrikes were inaccurate and caused collateral damage to civilian facilities, such as medical clinics.

So despite U.S. concerns over civilian casualties, the defense minister’s assurances were stated to be sufficient to warrant continued cooperation in Yemen, much like the decision to provide Saddam Hussein with satellite imagery of Iranian positions during the Iran-Iraq War. Yemen’s domestic turmoil is viewed as a sideshow, an impediment, to the real purpose of Saudi and U.S. intervention. Like then, the Islamist specter is driving cooperation between the U.S. and an Arab government with a questionable human rights record. In the 1980s, it was Khomeinism. Today, it is al Qaeda. From Wikileaks:

[The] Ambassador met with Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Khaled bin Sultan to relay U.S. concerns about sharing USG imagery with Saudi Arabia in light of evidence that Saudi aircraft may have struck civilian targets during its fighting with the Houthis in northern Yemen. Prince Khaled described the targeting decision-making process and while not denying that civilian targets might have been hit, gave unequivocal assurances that Saudi Arabia considered it a priority to avoid strikes against civilian targets. Based on the assurances received from Prince Khaled, the Ambassador has approved … the provision of USG [United States Government] imagery of the Yemeni border area to the Saudi Government.

Some examples of black comedy can be found in the Saudi explanation of their airstrikes in Yemen, particularly their growing reluctance to take everything President Saleh’s forces are telling them at face value:

There was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh. This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government.

Another classified cable from this period, discussing the opinion of the powerful Saudi Ministry of the Interior [MOI] on events in Yemen, evidences extreme frustration and disdain on the part of the Saudis towards the Yemenis (including their strongman, President Saleh):

The reality is that “everything failed,” and “repression is back,” exercised by political parties, tribes, the military and corruption. Today, “everything is for sale in Yemen, including loyalty.” Saudi Arabia believes that the reconciliation effort failed, in part because President Saleh’s opponents were largely excluded

MOI has concluded that Yemeni leaders are now playing a “survival game,” with no clear strategic plan to take Yemen into the 21st century. Instead, most of the government’s tactics seem focused on maintaining the status quo.

When even the Saudi government says that political exclusion is a problem, then it is indeed a problem. But, it is not the main problem. The main reason all of this galls the Saudis (and Americans) is that they see Yemen turning into a new Afghanistan because of Yemeni actions.

Still, President Saleh is one of the Saudis’ and Americans’ few viable choices for a southern ally, so the Saudis are not quite willing to hang him out to dry. And on a related note, while bemoaning Yemeni mendacity, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior simultaneously expressed optimism about the expansion of the U.S.-trained Facilities Security Force to provide military protection to critical Saudi infrastructure. Once a ceasefire in Yemen goes into effect, Prince Khaled told the U.S. Ambassador, “we can concentrate on Al-Qaida.”

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.