Opinion

Saudi Arabia is not just a US partner, but a strategic ally

Saudi Arabia is not just a US partner, but a strategic ally

Author

Arab News publishes a story today, based on information from the Pentagon, which is a perfect example of US-Saudi cooperation for the greater good. Our US Special Correspondent Ray Hanania describes how American experts are training Saudi pilots to avoid civilian casualties in airstrikes. Pentagon sources have praised Saudi enthusiasm for the program, and the improvement in accuracy that has has been achieved.

On a visit to Washington DC, I met a number of senior State Department and Pentagon officials who are working on confronting Iran and terrorism. From our discussions,

It is safe to say that US decision makers who know the realities on the ground are not only appreciative of Saudi support for the US, but also sympathetic toward what the Kingdom must do to defend itself against the Houthis in Yemen. “I cannot but have full sympathy and understanding for anyone waging war against an Iranian-backed armed militia,” a US government official said.

Of course, no one wants to see civilians hurt, but there is no such thing as a “pretty” armed conflict; war is always ugly.

There have been mistakes in Yemen, and that is sad. One innocent life lost is one too many. But there is a crucial difference between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis. The former will do everything possible to avoid harming civilians, even if that means a delayed victory, an increase in skepticism and a longer campaign. The latter, on the contrary, will brag about firing missiles at commercial airports and population centers in Riyadh and elsewhere, with the deliberate aim of harming civilians.

Of course, not everyone in Washington gets this ... or indeed wants to. The other sad reality is that, between the war in Yemen and the awful murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it has become easier to criticize Riyadh and question the value of the historic Saudi-US relationship.

People with short-term memories criticize the Trump administration for blocking legislation that would prohibit selling arms to Saudi Arabia. They forget that President Obama, a Democrat, vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a profoundly misguided piece of legislation that specifically targeted Saudi Arabia.

Faisal J. Abbas

This is particularly true as America warms up for the 2020 presidential election. With the collapse of the investigation into Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, the administration’s strong ties to Saudi Arabia have become the favorite new stick with which to beat the president. This was certainly the case during the first round of Democrat debates for the party’s presidential nomination. It is regrettable that some of these otherwise perfectly capable candidates have resorted to using Saudi Arabia as a political football.

This is not to say that the Yemen war cannot and should not be criticized; in that respect it is no different from any war. But when Saudi Arabia has made clear its determination to end the conflict as soon as possible, has made many attempts to reach a political settlement, and, last but not least, is footing a hefty military and humanitarian bill, it is fundamentally unfair for Riyadh to be portrayed as the villain.

As for Khashoggi, while critics would do well to wait for the outcome of the judicial process, it seems to me that some US politicians would like to punish the whole Saudi population for a crime committed by a few; refusing to sell Saudi Arabia weapons to defend itself would allow the Houthis to attack more airports and target more civilians.

However, there is more to the debate in the US than this; some are questioning the very need for a Saudi-US relationship, and it is important to counter their “arguments” with facts.

First, it is a myth that the Democratic Party is inherently anti-Saudi. People with short-term memories criticize the Trump administration for blocking legislation that would prohibit selling arms to Saudi Arabia. They forget that President Obama, a Democrat, vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a profoundly misguided piece of legislation that specifically targeted Saudi Arabia. Obama, who famously bowed in respect to the late King Abdullah, knew and appreciated Saudi Arabia’s significant regional role.

US President Barack Obama (3rd L) bowed to Saudi Arabia King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (2nd R) as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (3rd R) and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (L) watched on on April 1, 2009. (File/AFP)

Second, there are worrying concerns about the arguments advanced by some of the Democrat candidates. Saudi Arabia is not just another US strategic partner, it is a historic and crucial ally in a relationship bound by neither time nor circumstances.

Saudi Arabia will not suddenly cease to be the land of Islam’s two holy shrines, or stop producing oil. Any country that genuinely wants to succeed in the war against terror requires the religious support of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi political weight is essential for initiatives such as Jared Kushner plan for Palestine.

With Princess Reema bint Bandar as the Kingdom’s new — and first female — ambassador in Washington, Saudi Arabia literally has an “uphill” battle to explain these realities to Congress, politicians and journalists. I noticed during my visit that she is determined to meet Saudi friends and critics alike.

It will be difficult to win everyone over, but it is crucial that the facts are laid out and communication channels kept open. This is not just because there is genuine change in the Kingdom (dismantling all forms of male guardianship of women being the most recent example), but if Democrat candidates continue with an emotional and irrational approach to international relations and historic allies, they will harm not only Saudi interests, but US interests too.

• Faisal J. Abbas is Editor-in-Chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

US training helps Saudi pilots avoid civilian casualties

Pentagon officials say training received by Saudi pilots has resulted in a significant reduction in civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict. (AFP)
Updated 26 August 2019

US training helps Saudi pilots avoid civilian casualties

  • Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes in Yemen war but has apologized for them
  • Saudi pilots have been working with their US counterparts to improve targeting

CHICAGO: Saudi pilots in the fight to destroy terrorist cells in Yemen have been receiving high-level training by the US military to reduce civilian casualties, Arab News has learned.

The war against the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen began after they toppled the UN-backed government.

The Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes but has apologized for them. Just over a year ago, for example, the Houthis fired missiles at Jazan and other civilian communities in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudis responded with airstrikes; one of the missiles accidentally struck a school bus, killing 30 children.

Since then, Saudi pilots have been working with their US counterparts to improve targeting. Pentagon officials say the training has resulted in a significant reduction in civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict.

“It’s a difficult challenge … but we believe, and the Saudis agree, that everything needs to be done to protect civilians,” said a senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing training.

There has been a marked decrease in civilian casualties ... the Saudis deserve credit for the improvements.

Pentagon official

He added that civilians are often unintended victims of conflicts and efforts to eliminate terrorist threats, especially when militants operate in areas heavily populated by civilians.

The US has been working in different ways to help the Saudis improve some procedures and encourage expedited, transparent assessment of alleged civilian casualties.

“Training has helped them reduce non-combatant casualties. We believe there has been a marked decrease in the number of civilian casualties,” said the Pentagon official.

“The Saudis have been very good partners. They deserve the credit for the improvements and changes.”

Salman Ansari, founder of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), commended the US and Saudi militaries for the training.

“As a reliable ally and trusted friend, it’s highly commendable that the US is helping train Saudi pilots in precision and avoiding casualties,” he said.

“This is a true example of positive engagement, and demonstrates the deeply rooted US support for Saudi Arabia,” he added.

“It’s true that the Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes in the past, but these mistakes have been accounted for and investigated,” Ansari said.


“The training of our pilots … shows that we’re serious about avoiding casualties. The same logic can’t be applied to the Houthis, who deliberately attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia regularly and brag about it.”

 


TIMELINE

Feb. 2012: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh hands over power to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Iran begins to arm Houthi militias.
Sept. 2014: The Houthis launch a nationwide assault, targeting civilians and Yemeni government institutions.
April 2015: Houthis driving Iranian tanks kill 12 civilians in an attack in Aden.
Sept. 2015: The Houthis launch Iranian-supplied Tochka ballistic missiles, killing 60 coalition soldiers.
Dec. 2017: The militias target and kill Saleh near his hometown.
Dec. 19, 2017: The Houthis fire missiles at Riyadh.
June 2019: The militias strike Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, killing at least one civilian and wound nearly 50.
July 2019: The Houthis target Abha airport, injuring nine civilians.
July 2019: The militias ambush Saudi soldiers in Jazan, killing four.
Aug. 2019: The Houthis attack a military graduation ceremony in Aden, killing 36 people, including a commander.


Without disclosing how many Saudis are involved in the training or where it is taking place, the Pentagon official said the program focuses on aspects of military responses to Houthi provocations.

“We’re working with the Saudis on making onsite decisions as to whether strikes should continue,” he added.

“Everything starts with intelligence, doing a better job of gathering intelligence on the battlefield and developing strike targets.”

The official said making positive identification of intended targets is key to protecting civilians.

He added that operations need to ensure that there is a “strong command and control link,” and that forces are not sent “looking for targets” but have a “clear and deliberate chain of command” for the strikes.

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He said it is important for pilots to be able to make decisions themselves during operations, and to be encouraged to provide onsite information that might contradict intelligence used to select targets.

“We want the pilots to feel empowered to not have to strike a target if they feel there’s something wrong or inaccurate,” said the official. “We teach them how important they are to a successful campaign.”

He added that the Saudi pilots are enthusiastic in embracing the strategies and avoiding civilian casualties.

“No one wants to have an accident … on their conscience,” he said. “The pilots are already well trained in flying their aircraft … but we hold seminars to talk to them about the specifics of each of the areas of training.”

Ansari said: “We must always remember the causes of this war, which was forced upon the Saudi-led coalition.”

He added: “It was a war caused by the overthrow of a legitimate UN-backed government at the hands of an Iran-backed militia that prides itself on its ‘Death to America’ slogan, and attacked the US Navy three times during the time of the Obama administration.”

In a recent op-ed for Arab News, Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former intelligence officer, called the Saudi response to the Houthi attacks a “necessary campaign” that is “failing in the public relations arena.”

He wrote that “if it ultimately fails, then Iran will have another Hezbollah in the region — and that’s the goal.”

Pregent added: “The Saudis are going out of their way to show their targeting process is aligned with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and that they are rushing humanitarian aid in, only for it to be stopped by Iran’s Quds Force and the Tehran-backed Houthis. Few give the Saudis credit for trying to do this right.”


Saudi Embassy evacuates 300 tourists from Lebanon

Updated 19 October 2019

Saudi Embassy evacuates 300 tourists from Lebanon

  • The embassy said that evacuees were escorted to Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut by Lebanese security forces to guarantee their safety
  • Three Saudia aircraft were used to transport them

BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia's embassy in Lebanon has confirmed it has facilitated the “evacuation of Saudi residents and visitors” from the country.
“The evacuation operation, imposed by the security situation in Lebanon and the importance of ensuring the safety of Saudi nationals, started Saturday at 5 a.m. after the Kingdom secured three Saudia aircraft to transport them,” the embassy told Arab News.
“Three hundred people were evacuated as of Saturday afternoon, while the total number of those wishing to leave remains unclear. We have identified a hotel in Beirut as a starting point,” it added, noting that most of those who had left were tourists.
The embassy also confirmed evacuees were escorted to Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut by Lebanese security forces to guarantee their safety.
Protests broke out in Lebanon on Thursday night, and disorder has disrupted roads leading to the airport, with burning tires blocking several key routes.
On Friday, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged its citizens already in Lebanon to exercise “utmost caution.”
Egypt’s Embassy in Beirut also called on its nationals in the country to avoid protest areas, Egyptian state news agency MENA said.
“The embassy calls on all Egyptian citizens in Lebanon to avoid the areas of gatherings and protests, to be careful in their movements and to abide by the instructions of the Lebanese authorities in this regard,” MENA reported.
Meanwhile, Kuwait’s Embassy in Lebanon asked citizens wishing to travel to the country to delay trips where possible.
“The embassy also calls on citizens currently in Lebanon to take utmost care and stay away from crowds and demonstrations,” it said on social media site Twitter.
Bahrain and the UAE warned against travel to Lebanon and called on their citizens in the country to leave immediately.