By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
When the Senate debated in June whether to block a $510 million sale of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia for its campaign in Yemen, the White House feared the vote would be tight. So tight, in fact, that Vice President Mike Pence was dispatched to Capitol Hill as a possible tiebreaker.
As it turns out, Pence wasn’t needed. The Senate defeated the measure from Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., by a vote of 53 to 47, a narrow win for President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Gulf allies amid growing congressional frustration with the war in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis two years ago.
A month later, however, the House of Representatives passed two amendments to the annual Defense authorization bill prohibiting increased US involvement in the war absent congressional approval.
“There’s more and more political will to question the status quo,” Kate Kizer, the director of policy and advocacy at The Yemen Peace Project, told Al-Monitor. “More and more analysts are starting to point to Yemen as an example of aggressive Saudi foreign policy being detrimental to US interests.”
To stop that narrative from taking root in Washington, the Hadi government can count on Saudi Arabia’s multi-million-dollar influence operation. While impoverished Yemen itself does not have any lobbyists on its payroll, Riyadh spent $14 million last year lobbying a host of issues, including the conflict consuming its neighbor to the south.
In September 2016, the Saudis hired Denver-based legal giant Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck for $100,000 per month to influence policy in Yemen and other areas. Lobbying disclosures show that the firm in July circulated a British court’s legal verdict that arms sales for the Saudi campaign in Yemen are legal, despite the high civilian death toll.
Likewise, longtime Saudi lobbyist MSLGROUP (formerly Qorvis) has helped make the case that the UN should take over operations at Hodeida amid international pushback against taking it by force. The Saudis paid the firm and the 28 registered agents working on its account $6.2 million in 2016.
The exiled government in Sanaa is also firing back, emailing staffers in March with a warning not to go to a Senate briefing featuring Yemeni activists.
The congressional pressure comes as the civil war continues to worsen, with famine and a cholera epidemic looming while Houthi rebels fire missiles at Saudi targets. Human rights groups fear that as many as 7 million people — more than a quarter of Yemen’s population — may be in danger of starvation.
“Public sector salaries are not being paid, and a cholera outbreak could occur that is the worst in the history of recorded cholera outbreaks," Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy adviser, told Al-Monitor. "Congress is sick of unconditional and unlimited support for the Saudi-led coalition and wants to see a settlement to conflict.”
This March, a bipartisan group of 10 senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to press the Saudis and other belligerents to allow access for humanitarian aid at the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida. A month later, 55 House members signed a letter to President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding Congress have a say before the United States joins the Saudis in attacking the port or otherwise offers direct support to the Saudi coalition.
The White House, however, has continued to support its Arab allies.
Speaking in Riyadh in May, the president expressed support for the Gulf coalition fighting in Yemen, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and, until recently, Qatar.
“Every country in the region has an absolute duty to ensure that terrorists find no sanctuary on their soil,” Trump said. “Many are already making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against [IS] in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.”
And the Pentagon is reportedly weighing increased support to the coalition, including drone targeting and organizational help taking back Hodeida.
The United States has also committed to rooting out al-Qaeda safe havens in the country, including a January raid that took the life of a US Navy Seal. The State Department, however, appears ready to cut economic and security aid to Yemen from more than $203 million in 2016 to just $35 million in its most recent budget request.
US humanitarian assistance, by contrast, has been surging over the past few years, with $638 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from $328 million in all of FY 2016 and $179 million the year before. The Trump budget however proposes cutting the International Disaster Assistance and Migration and Refugee Assistance accounts by 26 percent and 18 percent, respectively, with unknown consequences for humanitarian aid to Yemen which heavily relies on them.
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