House hearing focuses on Saudi moves in Yemen

WASHINGTON – The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa clashed on Wednesday regarding Saudi Arabia’s increased involvement in Yemen and Lebanon. Citing reports of Hezbollah activity in Yemen, Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) asserted, “There is simply no way Saudi Arabia would allow for Hezbollah to gain a presence in Yemen and then build up an arsenal and presence on the Saudi border.”

Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institute, offered a different viewpoint of Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen. “The Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen appears impetuous and ill-considered, miring the Kingdom in a military quagmire, producing a nightmarish level of human suffering, and strengthening both Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and Iran,” she charged. The former senior Obama administration official noted that over 10,000 individuals have lost their lives during this three year conflict, with cholera infecting more than 900,000 people. “The blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition after a missile launched from Yemen nearly reached the international airport in Riyadh exacerbated an already-dire lack of food and medicine,” she added.

Other panelists were more sympathetic towards Riyadh’s challenges across the region. “The Saudis are no longer willing to prop up Lebanon while it serves as the base for Hezbollah’s military and terrorist activities in league with Iran,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is not Mohammed bin Salman who is bringing danger to Lebanon; it is not the Saudis who are bringing Lebanon into the region’s wars; it is not Saudi policy that threatens to collapse Lebanon’s coalition politics. It is the actions of Hezbollah, abandoning any national role to act as Iran’s enforcer and foreign legion.”

On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from his post during a trip to Saudi Arabia. He castigated Iran for sowing “devastation and chaos” throughout the Middle East. Reuters reported on November 9 that several senior Lebanese government officials believed that Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia with one source adding that Riyahd ordered him to resign and put him under house arrest.

Assailing Saudi Arabia’s role in the Hariri crisis, Wittes contended, “the ham-handedness of the Saudi pressure on Hariri backfired in Lebanon itself, reducing Saudi influence.” With the images of Hariri confined in Saudi Arabia plastered across Beirut, she added, “Saudi Arabia appears in this context as both a bully and a fickle ally willing to sacrifice its client, Hariri, for the sake of its own interests.”

Ranking Subcommittee member Ted Deutch (D-FL) expressed concern about the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. “While the new Crown Prince has stated his commitment to reforms, progress on human rights have been slow and unacceptable practices against minority groups and women remain national policy,” he explained. Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, adult women must receive permission from a male relative to travel or work. “I’m worried that the current administration’s sole focus on the strategic relationship, while ignoring other aspects, does not help provide full American leadership on issues vital to the U.S. like human rights in the broader region,” Deutch noted.

While concentrating on the Middle East, the hearing also addressed domestic political disputes. A fierce critic of the Trump administration, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) said that he was interested in discussing senior advisor Jared Kushner’s role in US policy towards Saudi Arabia following an unannounced trip to the kingdom last month. “I’m concerned that he (Kushner) has no idea what he’s doing. He has no foreign policy experience and zero foreign policy credentials,” Lieu emphasized.

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