With America deeply enmeshed in Yemen’s multifaceted civil war, the policy choices of US President-elect Donald J. Trump will have major repercussions for Yemen and the wider Middle East. The question remains: what will Trump’s policies be?
by Adam Baron and Peter Salisbury
Under the Obama administration, United States policy toward Yemen was largely driven by regional concerns and counter-terrorism initiatives, with the drone campaign targeting Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen today remaining among America’s most intense.
The Arab Spring uprisings, which reached Yemen in early 2011, complicated America’s regional relationships and seemed to sour Obama’s appetite for democratization. This became apparent in Yemen when the White House helped install a US-friendly administration in Sana’a after long-time ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted. Saleh was replaced with his own vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who promptly announced plans to rout Al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise.
In 2015, Hadi himself was forced from power by the Houthi Movement, a Zaydi Shia militia allied with Saleh. The Obama administration’s support for the subsequent Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen was largely driven by a perceived need to placate Riyadh following the Iran nuclear deal. This, despite many in Washington regarding the war as ill-conceived and expressing skepticism over the depth of Iranian support for the Houthis, which was the prime Saudi motivation for launching their military campaign in March 2015.
The unknowable Trump
US President-elect Donald J. Trump’s often contradictory and off-the-cuff pronouncements on foreign policy issues have led to bewildered speculation throughout the international community, with his potential Yemen policy amongst the fodder for confusion.
Yemen rarely factored into Trump’s comments on the presidential campaign trail. His most lengthy statement on Yemen was made at a rally at Iowa State University on January 19, 2016. His comments were, to put it charitably, somewhat enigmatic, signaling concern over Iran’s perceived influence in the country and the potential threat Yemeni instability posed along the Saudi border.i In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on January 4, 2016, Trump came out against direct US intervention in the Yemen war – which he cast as an Iranian-backed threat against Saudi Arabia – unless the US stood to benefit financially from its support.ii
During the campaign Trump specifically referenced a September 2014 case where a Yemeni-American immigrant allegedly tried to join the Islamic State with the aim of launching an attack against US military personnel.iii From these and other comments, it would appear that Trump lumps Yemen into what he has referred to as “terrorist nations.” Trump’s campaign statements on blocking either all foreign Muslims, or residents of countries with a history of terrorism, from entering or immigrating to the United States – reiterated since his election win – have thus caused anger in Yemen, which is likely to be on the list of banned countries.iv
Beyond this, however, the president-elect has offered few clear indications as to what his policies might be regarding Yemen – a reticence he shared with his presidential challenger and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who similarly completed the entire campaign cycle without discussing a Yemen policy.v
Reaction in Yemen
Before the US presidential election, condemnation of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was rife amongst the politics-obsessed Yemeni elite who, similar to many Americans and observers around the world, viewed a Clinton presidency as a near-certainty.vi In the wake of Trump’s victory, the most prominent reaction has been confusion. Yemeni politicians and media talk, without any real specificity, about the “earthquake” unleashed by the US election results.vii
Perhaps mindful of the extent to which his position is dependent on international support, President Hadi quickly offered his congratulations to Trump, announcing that he looked forward to cooperating with him — in effect clipping the wings of what his conservative Islamist allies might say.
Former President Saleh also offered his congratulations to Trump, and many of Saleh’s backers have openly celebrated Trump’s victory. This is at least in part due to their distaste for Secretary Clinton, who they criticize for her time as Secretary of State during the Arab spring. But it also reflects an optimism that a Trump administration will shift away from the Obama policy of backing the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, an idea rooted in Trump’s perceived ties to Russia, his frequent advocacy of a comparatively isolationist foreign policy, and his scuffles with numerous prominent Gulf figures, most notably Saudi billionaire al-Waleed bin Talal.viii
Saleh, no stranger to the use of populist rhetoric to achieve his political aims, may also see Trump as someone he can do business with, while many Yemeni elites seem to believe that Trump’s history of investments in Gulf Arab countries may translate into a more nuanced approach to the region than hitherto seen on the campaign trail. This optimism is, however, likely misplaced.
Hawks and hardliners
Trump is apparently considering candidates from across the ideological spectrum for posts in his cabinet, with the most important, from a Yemeni point of view, being the secretaries of Defense and State.
In the case of State, potential nominees that have been discussed ranged from the firebrand John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN and an intellectual leader of the neoconservatives of George W. Bush administration, to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), a noted military hawk and current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, to the relative pragmatist and former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney – until recently a prominent Trump critic.
In regards to Ambassador Bolton, he has advocated a more robust, direct American intervention in Yemen from his post at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, casting – in rather simplistic terms – the Houthis as dangerous Iranian proxies.ix Similarly, Senator Corker has openly opposed moves in the senate to restrict arms sales to the the Saudi-led coalition, framing the military intervention in Yemen as necessary to prevent the spread of Iranian power; Senator Corker has demonstrated a tenuous grip on regional realities though, at one point claiming the Houthis had access to the Strait of Hormuz, which is nearly 1,000 miles from the Yemeni border.x Meanwhile, Trumps’ consideration of Romney for Secretary of State appears to be partly based on the latter’s appearance, according to officials in the presidential transition team, who’ve said that the president elect thinks Romney “looks the part of a top diplomat right out of ‘central casting’.”xi
It is possible that the general tenor the Trump cabinet and his administration’s foreign policy leanings have already been laid in the cabinet selections announced to date. Among them is Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star general who Trump has tapped to be his national security adviser; Flynn has advanced the world view that the US is currently losing a “world war” against radical Muslims and is supportive of a violent reformation of Islam.xii
Trump himself, however, has frequently expressed avowedly anti-interventionist and isolationist sentiments, and thus his deliberations have left analysts and government officials in the US and around the world with few clues as to what his administration’s foreign policy would look like, let alone what policies he is likely to enact regarding Yemen.xiii
Limited humanitarian concern
For Yemenis concerned about human rights issues, including the civilian cost of the Saudi aerial war, US drone strikes, and pre-war allegations of illegal detention of terrorism suspects, Trump offers little hope. As a candidate, he said he would “bomb the hell” out of ISIS-held territory (he stopped short, however, of saying he would “carpet bomb” ISIS, as his rival for the Republican nomination Ted Cruz did), and that he would approve waterboarding and “tougher” interrogation methods.xiv The US, Trump has said, should “take out” the families of terrorists – to the consternation of human rights groups like Human Rights Watch.xv
There is also mounting concern among humanitarians over what a Trump administration might mean for US aid to Yemen.xvi Washington is currently the second biggest donor to Yemen, which the UN says is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The US has given $267 million in 2016 to date, just $30 million less than the biggest donor, the United Arab Emirates, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). The US has historically been Yemen’s largest source of formal foreign assistance, along with Saudi Arabia, but Trump, citing US aid efforts in Iraq, has cautioned against using US taxpayer dollars to fund projects abroad in “countries that hate us,” while US infrastructure and social programs “crumble.”
“I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up… And we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post in March 2016.xvii
Fading peace prospects
In the immediate term, the most likely consequence of Trump’s victory is a sharp decrease in the US role in diplomatic efforts in Yemen and, potentially, an intensification of the conflict on the ground.xviii
Since early 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry has played an increasingly central role in coordinating international diplomacy on Yemen, most notably through the so-called “Quad,” comprised of the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, and the United Kingdom. The current peace plan for Yemen being negotiated by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed is largely based on an initiative put forward by Kerry after extensive consultation with Riyadh. Yet Kerry’s failure to make two announced ceasefires hold in November 2016, and the increasingly dismissive tone of the Hadi government towards the US’ top diplomat, suggest that they and perhaps the Saudis believe if they hold out they will get a better deal with his successor.
Trump’s incoming Secretary of State, who will face a steep learning curve — heightened by likely turnover among senior officials — is likely to be more focused, at least initially, on reassuring foreign allies wary of a Trump presidency than ending wars in the Middle East. A mooted rapprochement with Russia may unlock peace processes in the region, or see the US move closer to the Russian position in places like Syria, with a domino effect on other regional conflicts.
At the time of this writing, Trump’s Yemen policy and wider regional approach is effectively unknowable. Yemenis — similar to people across the region, and indeed, around the world — will have to wait and see how the fallout from the American election will land on their shores.
i – While criticizing the Obama administration as being unable to confront Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East, Trump commented that “Now they’re going into Yemen, and if you look at Yemen, take a look… they’re going to get Syria, they’re going to get Yemen, unless… trust me, a lot of good things are going to happen if I get in, but let’s just sort of leave it the way it is. They get Syria, they get Yemen. Now they didn’t want Yemen, but you ever see the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia? They want Saudi Arabia. So what are they going to have? They’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Iran, they’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Yemen, they’re gonna have Syria, they’re gonna have everything!” For full transcription, please see “Campaign Rally with Donald Trump and Sarah Palin”, C-SPAN, January 19, 2016.
ii – For a transcription of this interview, please see “Trump: ‘I’m Not Going To Tell’ What I’d Do With ‘Disaster’ Iran Deal, People Don’t Have Right To Know How Far I’d Go”, Breitbart, January 4, 2016.
iii – Jenna Johnsen, “Trump now says even legal immigrants are a security threat,” The Washington Post, August 5th, 2016.
iv – Trip Gabriel, “Trump says he’d absolutely require Muslims to register”, The New York Times, November 20, 2015.
v – Jessica Schulbert, “The US is part of a war in Yemen and neither Clinton nor Trump will talk about it”, The Huffington Post, October 11, 2016.
vi – In an election day tweet that expressed a widespread sentiment on Yemeni social media, Southern Movement figure and Secretary General of the South Arabian League party Mohsen bin Farid referenced his US education in the states to state that Trump does not represent “the America I know”.
vii – For a representative article on the elections, see “The Victory of Trump: a surprise earthquake”, al-Shaab News, November 9th 2016,.
viii – Ed Mazza, “Billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Trolls Trump: ‘I Bailed You Out Twice’”, Huffington Post, January 29th, 2016.
ix – For more on Bolton’s views, please see “The Fall of Yemen”, John Bolton PAC, January 22, 2015.
x – Steve Nelson, “Senators Struggle with Geography in Yemen Intervention,” US News and World Report, September 21, 2016. For an extensive take on the Senate Foreign relations committee’s discussion on Yemen — and Senator Corker’s role in them — see Coum Lynch, “US Support for Saudi Strikes in Yemen Raises War Crimes Concerns,” Foreign Policy, October 15, 2015.
xi – Ashley Parker and Maggie Haberman, “High in Tower, Trump Reads, Tweets and Plans,” New York Times, November 19, 2016.
xii – Carlos Lozada, “Trump’s national security adviser says he’s ready to fight another world war”, Washington Post, November 22, 2016.
xiii – The authors have spoken to a number of US and foreign diplomatic officials since Trump’s shock win and have consistently been told that, given the contradictory nature of many of his comments on likely policy overseas, it is too soon to speak to his likely actions with any confidence.
xiv – Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump on waterboarding: ‘Even if it doesn’t work they deserve it’”, The Guardian, November 24, 2015.
xv – Tom LoBianco, “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families’”, CNN, December 3, 2015.
xvi – Personal Interview, DC-based development consultant, November 2016; “Who’s afraid of Mr Trump?”, IRIN News, 14 November 2016
xvii – A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, Washington Post, March 21, 2016.
xviii – While the Kingdom’s public stance has been somewhat conciliatory, in private conversation people involved in the Riyadh-backed war effort suggest that plans are in place for a major new assault aimed at pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance into a peace deal on terms that reflect well on Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the principal architect of the war.