Saudi Air Strikes Threaten Yemen’s Cultural Heritage

Washington's Yemen policy is a contradictory mess

Saudi Air Strikes Threaten Yemen’s Cultural Heritage Saudi Air Strikes Threaten Yemen’s Cultural Heritage
As Yemen’s civil war churns through its eighth month, Washington’s policy toward the small Arabian nation – once a critical ally – has become... Saudi Air Strikes Threaten Yemen’s Cultural Heritage

As Yemen’s civil war churns through its eighth month, Washington’s policy toward the small Arabian nation – once a critical ally – has become a contradictory mess. Despite criticism of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign from the United Nations, humanitarian organizations and the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon provides support from weapons to fuel.

Now, although Washington hasn’t slowed the flow of military aid to Riyadh and its partners, American diplomats are joining others in worrying that air strikes are threatening Yemen’s cultural heritage.

On Dec. 3, the State Department announced on the government’s main contracting website FedBizOpps that it was looking for a private company to draw up a “red list” of “Yemeni cultural objects at risk.” In the event that corrupt officials, rebels or criminals smuggled items out of the country in the midst of the ongoing fighting, the report would help everyone from police to private collectors identify the stolen goods.

“Ongoing conflict in Yemen has included airstrikes that have shockingly targeted cultural heritage monuments, sites and museums,” the State Department noted. “Military action and intentional acts of destruction are posing extreme threats to the survival of Yemen’s rich cultural heritage.”

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While the statement did not mention any actors by name, the comments are an unusually direct commentary on the Saudi-led campaign. But with Saudi pilots and their allies flying American-made planes, dropping American-made bombs while guzzling up American-supplied fuel, the statement appears to show frustration with the current state of affairs.

It further underscores the contradictions in Washington’s plans … and how little influence it has over the situation. “This is ultimately a Saudi-led intervention,” Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told War Is Boring.

Above - a U.S. tanker refuels a Saudi F-15C during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. Pentagon photo. At top - a Saudi F-15S. Air Force photo.Above – a U.S. tanker refuels a Saudi F-15C during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. Pentagon photo. At top – a Saudi F-15. Air Force photo

The most visible rebel faction in the current conflict, the Houthis, have been battling the central government in Sana’a on and off for more than 10 years. A minority sect of Zaidi Muslims, a breakaway branch of Shia Islam, the movement has long resisted Sunni authorities and opposed Saudi influence in the country.

Both Riyadh and Washington view the Houthis as part of the Iran-centered “Shia Crescent.” Both vocal critics of the Iranian regime, neither country is interested in an Iranian governing a country on the Arabian Peninsula.

Washington clearly sees the Houthis as dangerous to the future of Yemeni-American relations. The group was opposed to controversial drone strikes and other Pentagon-supported operations against Al Qaeda’s franchise in the country. In the past four years, American forces conducted more than 100 attacks in the country using unmanned attackers, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone War project.

“We specifically call on the Houthis, former President Ali Abdallah Salih, and their allies to stop their violent incitement and undermining of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s legitimate President,” Jeff Rathke, head of State’s Office of Press Relation’s Bureau of Public Affairs had said in a statement on March 20. “We call upon all Yemeni parties to return in good faith to a political dialogue to resolve their differences.”

But with political dialogue well out of the question, Washington stepped in to support the Saudi campaign in April. By Nov. 20, U.S. Air Force KC-135s had flown nearly 500 individual missions totaling more than 4,000 hours, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon’s top headquarters for the Middle East told War Is Boring. American tankers linked up with foreign jets more than 2,500 times and dispensed more than 18 million pounds of fuel in the process.

More than seven months after the aerial refueling started, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department had green-lit a delivery of nearly $1.3 billion in bombs to Saudi Arabia. The package included 20,000 smart and dumb bombs, plus GPS guidance kits – to turn the unguided weapons into precision munitions – and other equipment.

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia and its friends have not uprooted the Houthis through persistent bombing and an increasingly large ground offensive. Indiscriminate strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, destroyed hospitals and blown up humanitarian aid.

By summer, the United Nations had declared Yemen a Level 3 humanitarian crisis, the highest level possible. This declaration opened up additional aid, and put international humanitarian organizations on notice that their help may be needed immediately.

“A pause, along with commensurate disengagement of armed forces in all areas including Aden, Taiz, and Marib, would allow international aid organizations to deliver urgently needed food, medicine, and fuel to citizens throughout Yemen,” State Department Press Secretary John Kirby said in a July statement, without naming anyone in particular.

Kirby’s comments “reflected increasing U.S. concerns regarding the increasingly catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Baron noted. “Although it is certainly not an indication that the U.S. will move to ending its  support of the Saudi-led military intervention.”

Another Saudi F-15S. Air Force Photo
Saudi F-15S. Air Force photo

The situation has not improved. As of October, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated there were more than two million internally displaced people in Yemen and that more than 80 percent of the population lacked access to food, clean water, medical aid or shelter.

And as the State Department warned in its contract announcement, there’s the matter of Yemeni cultural history being destroyed in the process.

“I am profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as by the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape,” Irina Bokova, the Director General of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a press release after bombs hit Sana’a’s old city in June.

“This heritage bears the soul of the Yemeni people, it is a symbol of a millennial history of knowledge and it belongs to all humankind.”

Riyadh denied that it was responsible for the damage, but Washington is well aware of the scale of destruction from air strikes in the country. Like UNESCO, American diplomats have become especially concerned about the fate of historical artifacts.

So, unwilling or unable to stop supplying Riyadh’s coalition for fear of the Houthis seizing power, American officials are now putting the world on alert that Yemen’s cultural history might end up on the black market.

“At the moment, the U.S. government appears to be acting as if they want to have it both ways – often seeming to send mixed signals,” Baron explained. “This has led to both sides in the conflict expressing a deep distrust of the U.S. – even as U.S. diplomats continue to play a key role in attempting to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”