Saudi Arabia has become an important counterterrorism partner over the last decade, and the deserved recipient of much recent American commendation. Saudi Arabian-U.S. counterterrorism cooperation has deepened their once economic relationship, as the Trump administration’s recent amicable visit demonstrated.
Critics to U.S.-Saudi relations often cite Saudi Arabian finance for terrorism and efforts to spread the Wahhabi vision of Islam considered conducive to radicalism. These are valid concerns but not the central focus of this column. I am more concerned with Saudi Arabian counterterrorism itself.
Saudi Arabia must observe the fine line between counterterrorism and terrorism, and the United States should condemn drifts toward the latter. In their determination to exterminate terrorism, Saudi Arabia has too often enacted measures that violate human rights.
The Human Rights Watch 2017 report on Saudi Arabia emphasizes their criminalization of reformist activism, absence of fair trials and absurd criminal sentences that have included mass execution even for some non-violent crimes. As a result, stories of extended detention for dubious or false crimes arise far too often within the Saudi Arabian penal system.
American leadership tends to excuse these crimes for their net benefits, and President Donald Trump chose instead to focus on and laud Saudi intervention in Yemen while visiting Saudi Arabia last May. President Trump’s reference was ironic, as never have the faults of Saudi Arabian counterterrorism or American complacence been clearer than in Yemen.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabian-led coalition forces have bombed civilians with callous indifference and elicited near universal condemnation for committing war crimes. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed a blockade on resources that prevents most civilians from escape and then bombed entire towns as if civilians were not present.
International aid organizations have been instructed to leave conflict areas, media coverage has been barred from entrance, and hospitals have been leveled without care. The number of civilian deaths has reached almost 5,000, according to a report from the United Nations, and the conflict does not appear to be near an end.
Consider life for many in Yemen: there is little water, food or power. Many have no gasoline left and cannot walk out of the war zone. A cholera outbreak kills almost as fast as starvation and thirst. Relief hospitals have either been leveled or overwhelmed. Hiding in schools or resource facilities is not an option, as several have been bombed too. Outsiders either cannot see within the country or do not care. Cluster bombs litter the streets. Many believe they'll neither escape nor survive this endless civil war.
No matter where one stands on the political conflict, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen deserves, at the least, to be mentioned within the United States media and leadership.
How can we not care? The United States can preach non-interference, but the fact remains that Saudi Arabia drops American bombs based on American intelligence from jets filled with American fuel.
I understand our affection for Saudi Arabia — the kingdom serves American interests, counteracts Iranian influence, purchases inordinate amounts of American arms and delivers cheap oil — and that optics dictate one not criticize an important international partner over the mistreatment of random prisoners or Yemeni children that will never see the American news cycle.
And I like Saudi Arabia too; as a childhood home, birthplace and the location to which I still return to visit relatives, of course I do. But that affection requires of us more vigilance and criticism, not less.
The Trump administration must address the atrocities that Saudi-led coalition forces are committing in Yemen, and the more systemic abuses of human rights that occur in Saudi Arabia under the banner of counterterrorism. Our leadership should not dismiss these abuses just because their constituents cannot see them.
And for the cynics out there like myself: the United States has sometimes waltzed around the line between counterterrorism and terrorism as well, but I would rather be a hypocrite on Yemen than complicit on Yemen. Wouldn’t you?
Merrik Sanders is a senior from Cleveland, Missouri studying English.
— Edited by Danya Issawi