Trump calls for end to Saudi blockade in Yemen, following desperate international requests

The United States has been a major backer of the vicious years-long war.

Supporters of Shiite Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
Supporters of Shiite Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

President Trump has called for Saudi Arabia to end its blockade in Yemen, an abrupt pivot in a war that has received U.S. backing and financial support since it began.

In a short statement released Wednesday, attributed to Trump, the White House demanded that Saudi officials allow vital necessities into Yemen.

“I have directed officials in my Administration to call the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to request that they completely allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it,” the statement read. “This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”

The White House announcement reflects a troubling reality. Aid organizations and human rights advocates have lobbied lawmakers to take note of the growing crisis in Yemen for months now. Earlier in November, House representatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, which has pushed the country toward a devastating famine. But up until Thursday, the White House had been slow to respond to those demands.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has been at war since 2015, part of a power struggle between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s supporters and the religious-political Houthi movement, which is allied with Iran. Neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened shortly after war broke out, worsening the situation and sending Yemen into a spiral. Officials established a blockade earlier this year in response to a missile seemingly fired at the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh.

At least 2 million Yemenis are currently displaced and more than 10,000 people have died since the war began. The ramifications of the Saudi blockade have been particularly dire. Water, sanitation, and medical facilities have been destroyed during the country’s brutal bombing campaign. Nearly a million cases of cholera have been reported in Yemen and at least 2,000 people have died from the disease, many of whom are children. Around 7 million people are now at risk of starvation as famine closes in — something that seems all but inevitable.

The United States has played a grim role in Yemen’s horrors. Saudi Arabia has long been a close U.S. ally and the Trump administration has only further cemented that relationship. The president finalized a $110 billion arms deal while visiting the country last May, weapons that have reportedly been used to kill Yemeni civilians. Trump has repeatedly praised the Saudi government as a regional leader, holding the kingdom up as an alternative to another regional power and source of White House ire, Iran.

But U.S. support for Saudi aggression in Yemen may finally be wearing thin. Former Yemeni president and strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted during the Arab Spring uprisings and previously allied himself with the Houthis, publicly broke with the group last week. Houthi fighters killed Saleh on Monday, marking another surprising turn in the years-long war. News of Saleh’s death has triggered riots and clashes across Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, with more than 200 deaths reported and around 500 others injured. Aid groups say the nature of the fighting has made exact numbers impossible to determine.

That uptick in violence has further alarmed the international community, in addition to attracting U.S. attention. On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pointed to Saleh’s death as a catalyst in the war.

“This is where we’ve all got to roll up our sleeves and figure out what you’re going to do about medicine and food and clean water, cholera,” Mattis said.

It was unclear on Thursday what impact Trump’s statement would have on Saudi efforts in Yemen. Lawmakers and aid organizations praised the move while lamenting its late timing. Oxfam International called the statement “long overdue but hugely important.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and long-time opponent of U.S. support for the Saudi campaign, echoed those comments.

“Though long overdue, I’m glad President Trump is calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately allow humanitarian aid and vital commercial goods like food, fuel and medicine to flow into Yemen. His statement is important, and I expect Saudi Arabia to heed our calls,” said Murphy. “The Trump administration must continue to make clear to Saudi Arabia that the U.S. will not support a campaign that intentionally starves civilians into submission.”

Trump’s call for an end to the Saudi blockade marks the second time the president has publicly broken with the kingdom this week. On Wednesday, the president disregarded Saudi warnings over the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Saudi officials argued that the move, along with the decision to eventually relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, “would constitute a flagrant provocation to all Muslims, all over the world”, a threat that failed to dissuade the White House.