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The Way Forward for America’s Foreign Policy in Yemen


Yemen’s civil war began in 2014, when the Zaydi-Shiite Houthi rebels toppled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government after four years of political unrest in the country. Riyadh found the new situation in Yemen intolerable and asserted that a Houthi victory would lead to a government in Sanaa that would be allied with Tehran. Riyadh, together with the UAE and other GCC states, formed the Arab Coalition that launched a military operation claiming success would be achieved in two weeks. Iran, which, until then, had only a minimal relationship with the Houthis, escalated its involvement. For a relatively small investment Tehran has mired Saudi Arabia in a costly and fruitless six year war.  Qatar withdrew when the Gulf Crisis erupted in 2017 and the UAE and Saudi Arabia have found themselves at cross-purposes in South Yemen.

In 2015 U.S. President Obama agreed to provide U.S. intelligence and logistical support for the coalition in return for Saudi acquiescence to the JCPOA, but even with U.S. support, the coalition has been unable to overcome Houthi resistance. President Trump initially increased U.S. support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE but without much result.

The Trump Administration announcement that it would designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization on January 19, 2021 — one day before the inauguration — presents a host of issues. Humanitarian organizations and many foreign countries have denounced the designation as threatening aid to a population on the verge of starvation.  Many U.S. government officials have called the decision a mistake that could undermine the negotiations to end the fighting and limit the Biden Administration’s policy options in the region, especially with regard to Iran and reentering the JCPOA.

How could designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization impact the Biden Administration’s foreign policy? Could the designation hinder peace negotiations to end the Yemen War? Will the designation prevent humanitarian organizations from averting a famine and mass starvation? How might the designation impact U.S. counter-terrorism campaigns in Yemen? Could Saudi Arabia and the UAE thwart any effort by the Biden Administration to rescind the decision?

Featured speakers: Ambassador Patrick Theros (moderator), Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, Mr. Abdulghani Al-Iryani, and Professor David Des Roches.

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