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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Unravelling the US-Saudi relationship serves no one's best interests

Whatever the issues between American institutions and Donald Trump may be, tearing apart vital strategic alliances is not the answer

President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Amid much political and moral duplicity, the overlap between a new US foreign policy bid and resentment over President Donald Trump’s attitudes has brought the issue of Yemen to Congress this week, where momentum could favour an end to the war. All the warring parties are exhausted and there is an international readiness – from the US, the UN, the Europeans, the Russians and the Gulf states – to make serious efforts towards halting the tragedy unfolding in the impoverished nation

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right to characterise the enthusiasm of some Congress members on Yemen as hypocritical and exploitative, meant to serve narrow interests of undermining Mr Trump and using the Yemen war as part of Congress and the media’s anti-Saudi campaign. Unravelling the strategic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia does not serve American interests – particularly since Russia, China, and other European and Asian nations are ready to fill any strategic, economic, or political vacuum created by Washington.

There are two main and contradictory views regarding the Yemeni issue, and the ways to end the war. One insists on an immediate cessation of military operations and a move to negotiations, after the port of Hodeidah is handed over to the UN. The other insists on achieving victory for the Arab coalition in Hodeidah, leading to serious negotiations being imposed on the Houthis and therefore a rapid end to the war in Yemen.

Yet most agree on continuing to support the mission of UN envoy Martin Griffiths, a Briton who enjoys unanimous UN backing and US support. Most sides agree on the need to put pressure on both sides – the legitimate government represented by President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and the Houthi insurgents; and pressure on Iran to end its support for the Houthis. Moreover, all sides agree on the principle of “no victor, no vanquished” as the preferable outcome of the conflict.

Here, Europe can play a role rather than lament lost opportunities to influence events, as has happened in Syria. Indeed, during a session of the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum – Körber-Stiftung this week, it was remarkable how much the Europeans appeared to feel their loss of global influence. Europe feels that its legitimacy is in decline, that its role is both marginalised and marginal, and that it is absent from international issues and regional conflicts, leaving fateful matters – such as the question of refugees – in the hands of the likes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Preoccupied by its own internal divisions, Europe has become a continent without sway.

But this does not devalue the importance of Sweden’s move to host the Yemen peace conference next week, which has received the backing of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on condition that the Houthi side proves it is serious and commits to negotiations. Nor does it negate the signs of remarkable changes in the positions of some European countries, especially Germany, vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Dr Philipp Ackermann, the German Foreign Office's director for relations with the Middle East and North Africa, spoke candidly at the Berlin Forum, saying Saudi Arabia was a crucial presence, without which “nothing in the region can be achieved” and stressing the importance of the modernisation taking place in the kingdom today. Ackermann spoke firmly about Iran, describing its economy as “imbalanced” – and not just on account of US sanctions – and calling on Iran to play a constructive role instead of making the kind of remarks that President Hassan Rouhani has been issuing about Israel.

Regarding Iran’s regional roles, Ackermann said that the nation’s influence in Syria is complex, but that in Lebanon it is explicit, currently taking the form of Hezbollah’s disruption of the government formation process. Ackermann added that he wished Iran to exert pressure on Hezbollah in a constructive manner. The German official spoke about the ongoing dialogue between Iran and European countries about Yemen, saying that Tehran can play a constructive role with the Houthis, but admitting that its leverage with them may be exaggerated. Finally, he noted the UAE’s positive role in paving the way for the talks in Sweden, saying that the Houthis were causing the biggest problem, not Mr Hadi.

This tone is new in German political discourse on the region, bearing in mind that it has traditionally avoided criticism of Iran. Furthermore, the reiteration of Saudi Arabia’s importance as a key player comes in the midst of a major anti-Saudi campaign in Congress and the US media, and at a time when Russia is realigning itself closer to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, despite its continued relationship with Iran, especially in Syria.

What Saudi Arabia wants most in Yemen today is not to have a failed state on its border. No one wants for this war to continue, not Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or other members of the Arab coalition. Today, there is a greater opportunity than at any time in the past to end the war, with concessions from all sides. It is crucial for the members of the Arab coalition, especially Saudi Arabia, to rapidly lead the reconstruction of Yemen’s human and physical infrastructure.

The G20 Summit – which this year convened in Argentina – will be held in Saudi Arabia in 2020. This presents another opportunity that Riyadh must seize to end war, rectify mistakes, and reform policy. This group is comprised of the world’s top 20 economies, led by the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, and Germany. Saudi Arabia is the only Arab nation in this club. The kingdom is under a lot of scrutiny and many sides are watching for any misstep from now on. Riyadh must therefore show wisdom and boldness, in order to be ready for this event.

The G20 summit is an occasion for leaders to meet spontaneously or to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the official gathering. Each leader brings their own priorities and agenda, with many hoping to get an audience with the US president.

Mr Trump came to Buenos Aires intending to meet with Mr Putin, but changed his mind on Air Force One, not because of Ukraine or any other crisis but because of the ongoing Mueller investigation over alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 elections. On Thursday, Mr Trump had been dealt another blow when his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about their discussions of a Moscow-based real estate deal during the 2016 presidential campaign, and arrived in a visibly hostile mood.

No one knows for sure how Mr Trump will be affected by the recent developments, which include the results of the midterm elections, the votes in Congress on Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and the investigation’s progress. Some are betting on him remaining in office and even being elected for another term, while others expect him to be relentlessly punished by the Democrats in Congress and others in the US media.

American policy must not institutionalise vendettas against the president or his allies, because this does not serve its national interest. At the same time, other nations must not bet their future on the president’s mood or the predilections of Congress and the US media.