The United Nations top official on human rights recently told the U.N. Security Council that the U.S.-supported, Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Sunni nations fighting Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen bore a disproportionate responsibility for attacks on civilians. Since the civil war in Yemen began in March 2015, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed and dozens of hospitals and schools have been attacked, leading the United Nations to warn of violations of international law.
The problem is that the United States is supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes by providing intelligence for targeting and also by refueling coalition’s war planes, thus extending the range of their bombing. Domestically, Saudi Arabia has a horrendous record on human rights that it is exporting to Yemen via bombing civilians there. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein exacerbated the Sunni-Shi’ite division throughout the Islamic world, and the war in Yemen is actually a joust for influence in the Persian Gulf between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which are bitter regional rivals. Saudi Arabia does have substantial interests at stake in Yemen, which borders the autocratic kingdom, but the United States does not and should cease providing weapons and the aforementioned support, which is tainting the U.S. with support for a country that very well may be committing war crimes.
The United States mutes its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, sweeps under the under the rug that the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudi nationals, and ignores that Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of militant Sunni Islamism by its support for radical schools around the Islamic world.
Yemen is a small, poor, and insignificant (from the perspective of U.S. vital interests) country just south of Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t even produce much oil; but of course Saudi Arabia does—and that’s why the Saudis are getting so much U.S. support, despite Saudi Arabia’s despicable foreign and domestic policies. The U.S. government ousts dictators in Iraq and Libya and loudly criticizes Iran’s bad human rights policies; in contrast, the United States mutes its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, sweeps under the under the rug that the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudi nationals, and ignores that Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of militant Sunni Islamism by its support for radical schools around the Islamic world. Why does the world’s only superpower tolerate a major ally supporting potential U.S. enemies (the U.S. has the same toleration for Pakistan doing a similar thing)?
The reason dates back to World War II, when Saudi King Abdel Aziz bin Saud traded U.S. access to Saudi oil for U.S. protection of that oil. Yet although Saudi Arabia is the anchor of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel, the country does not have the control over the world’s oil market that both policy makers and the public believe. OPEC, like most cartels, has failed to achieve long-term control over the price of its commodity. For example, right now, world oil supply exceeds demand—because of new non-OPEC sources of supply, such as from new fracking technology in the United States and because of slack demand due to sluggish economies around the world—thus driving the price down. In fact, Saudi Arabia has even given up trying prop up the price by reducing production. The Saudis, who produce oil very inexpensively compared to other producers, are afraid of losing market share to those exporters and so are keeping production high, despite the low world price. And forecasts for the oil market estimate that such factors—including increased Iranian oil output into the world market due to the lifting of international sanctions against that country because of its nuclear agreement with the great powers—will continue for some time.
But once upon a time—in 1973—didn’t Arab oil producers launch an embargo and production cutback that brought U.S. economic ruin and lines at gas stations? No, subsequent economic studies of the 1970s have shown that U.S. stagflation (inflation plus slow economic growth) was caused by poor U.S. government economic polices rather than by the Arab oil embargo and production limits. Gas lines in the United States were caused because the U.S. government still had price controls on oil. (Japan had no price controls, thus allowing price rises to naturally curtail demand., and thus no gas lines.)
Moreover, if the oil embargo and production cutback were so successful, why haven’t the Arab countries ever tried it again during other wars in the Middle East. Similar to what brought about the fracking technology recently, higher oil prices in the 1970s just increased supplies—non-OPEC sources of energy were found and conservation practices became more prevalent. Finally, industrial economies are much more resilient to oil price hikes than is commonly perceived and have become even more so since the 1970s, because oil consumption accounts for a smaller percentage of developed nations’ GDP.
Contrary to official and popular belief, oil is only strategic when needed to power military forces in a war. Fortunately, as I note in my book No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, the United States produces enough oil domestically to supply its military in a fairly large war several times over; this ability is rising as the U.S. substantially increases oil production via fracking. As for getting oil supplies to the United States during a war somewhere in the Middle East, if oil production is reduced from one or more countries in conflict, increased prices will cause non-affected producers to produce more oil. Moreover, in the past, valuable oil exports have traveled around and even through wars.
If the United States had a truly vital interest in holding its nose and supporting an autocracy like Saudi Arabia, that would be one thing. However, ignoring the despotic kingdom’s domestic oppression and likely international war crimes—in the erroneous belief that Saudi Arabia can successfully trump global market forces to manipulate long-run oil prices—is unnecessary, ethically questionable, and only increases the likelihood of blowback terrorism against the United States from the victims of Saudi aggression.