A Bold (If Not So New) Idea for President Trump’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

As the U.S. president prepares to depart on his first international trip, including a visit to Saudi Arabia, National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster remarked that President Trump will encourage the United States’ Arab and Muslim partners to take “bold, new steps” to promote peace and confront the sources of chaos, violence, and suffering in the Muslim world and beyond. One bold, but not-so-new idea is to make humanitarian concerns and human rights the main consideration in discussions with Saudi leaders and to demand that U.S. partners make humanitarian assistance a priority across the region.

“….there is no better time to press the Saudi government to do much more to address the enormous humanitarian needs in Yemen.”

Some speculation suggests that this visit is a step toward the White House aligning itself more closely with Riyadh. If this is the case, there is no better time to emphasize the U.S. commitment to protecting and assisting vulnerable people around the world. And there is no better time to press the Saudi government to do much more to address the enormous humanitarian needs in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia leads the international coalition that has been blocking humanitarian access to Yemen, and, at the same time, has been heavily bombing the country as well, killing civilians, ruining infrastructure, and creating insecure conditions for those who would provide aid. There are indeed aid agencies working inside the country, but there are far fewer today and they have far less capacity than is necessary for a crisis of Yemen’s scale. 

Humanitarian needs in Yemen

7 million people on the verge of famine. 
10 million people urgently need humanitarian aid.
More than 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. 

In Yemen, seven million people are on the verge of famine. Another 10 million urgently need humanitarian aid of some sort to survive. More than three million people have been forced to flee their homes. Food insecurity is worsening by the day, children are missing school because it is not safe to go out, and the medical care system is in ruins. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that “non-communicable diseases are killing more people in Yemen than bullets and bombs because the health system has virtually collapsed.”

The Saudi-led coalition is currently debating whether to bomb Hudaydah, the one semi-functioning port through which humanitarian assistance can enter Yemen. Doing so would effectively stop imports of food and medical supplies, arguably the two most crucial needs right now to keep people in Yemen alive.

Late last month at a donor conference, the United States pledged $94 million for humanitarian assistance to Yemen in recognition of the enormous humanitarian need and the U.S. interest in helping address it. Nonetheless, the United States continues to negotiate multi-billion dollar arms deals with the Saudi government, a primary actor in the conflict that has killed or injured tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Repeated attempts by policymakers, humanitarians, and human rights groups to stop or limit arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have not been successful. Global humanitarian aid from the U.S. government is uncertain as the FY18 budget process progresses, but weapons sales to those helping to create the humanitarian need appear to have a brighter future.

According to the White House Press Office, “The visit will reaffirm the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and allow the leaders to discuss issues of strategic concern.” President Trump needs to recognize that humanitarian assistance and support for human rights are the most important strategic concerns in the region and that the bold new steps he will encourage Arab and Muslim partners to take in the service of stopping the suffering must be those that protect innocent people and allow them a peaceful and dignified life.