Boys play amid the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen. (Hani Mohammed / AP)
Saudi King Salman decided that a 10-vehicle motorcade in Washington, D.C., was too small for his needs, so his people rented 400 black Mercedes S-class automobiles to make it bigger. There was no place to put them all, so the White House housed them at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland until they were needed. Wall Street Journal correspondent Carol Lee snapped a picture. Salman was in D.C. earlier this month for a meeting with President Obama. To house his retinue, he rented the entire Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown. The lavish hotel evidently wasn’t decorated up to his standards, so gold furniture and red carpets had to be wheeled in to spruce it up.
Salman does live large. At the end of July he vacationed on the French Riviera at his royal villa in Vallauris. The public beach was fenced off for the occasion and a temporary elevator built to bring the 79-year-old ruler down to the sand. As big as the mansion was, it couldn’t contain his entire retinue. Forbes reported that the 1,000-strong collection of officials, aides, “courtiers, hangers-on, and wannabes” had to be housed elsewhere.
In Yemen, where the monumental vanity of the Saudi regime caused it to interfere and invade, conditions are far less opulent. UNICEF said in August that 10 million children need urgent humanitarian assistance. “Ten million children” is an abstraction, hard to understand. Instead think about one child crying all night in pain or hunger and multiply the sound 10 million times.
What a collection of heroes the Saudis have gathered to make war on Yemenis! It includes Persian Gulf monarchs whose construction and domestic work is done under conditions of near slavery, the Egyptian dictator who holds the one-day record for slaughter at a sit-in and the Sudanese president whose travel options are limited because he’s under indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity (think Darfur). Let’s not leave out the U.S president, who has kill notches on his Nobel Peace Prize for missions ranging from Libya to Pakistan.
As Barack Obama met the Saudi king, scores of protesters stood in front of the White House with signs and banners. Among them was a man in striped prison garb with a King Salman mask. The activists were mostly Yemenis residing in the U.S and members of the anti-war group Code Pink. Some had signs displaying the hashtag #KefayaWar, meaning “Enough War.” One photo shows the man masked as Salman giving a mock flogging, a favorite regime punishment. In June, blogger Raif Badawi’s 1,000-lash sentence was upheld by the Saudi Supreme Court. (My interview with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink about the weekend protests are on YouTube.)
The demonstration took place at a time when an effort has started to end the 70-year U.S.-Saudi alliance. A new website was unveiled with that demand on its home page. The initial sponsors of the campaign are the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Code Pink, Massachusetts Peace Action and the Middle East Crisis Committee (which I chair). The site links to a simple petition that says: “The U.S. has spent trillions on military forces in the Persian Gulf. Washington supports tyrannical regimes, wars and cruel occupations without making us safe. Close the U.S. bases and bring the fleet home NOW.”
That phrase “spent trillions” may be surprising. It’s well known that the U.S. sells the regime immense amounts of weapons. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters that Obama and Salman had discussed “fast-tracking of the release of American military technology and weapons systems” at their White House conclave. Arms sales bring in money to the U.S. (or at least to merchants of death who own U.S. weapons factories). However, there’s also the cost to U.S. taxpayers that for some reason is rarely mentioned. Back in 2011, Princeton University professor Roger Stern estimated that since the time of Jimmy Carter the U.S. had spent more than $8 trillion on military measures in the Gulf. An earlier study by the University of California at Davis said that if there was no oil in the Persian Gulf, “defense expenditures might be reduced in the long run by roughly $27-$73 billion per year [in 2004 dollars].” Military bases, soldiers, sailors, contractors, weapons system, fleets, CENTCOM—they’re all financed by a flood of dollars. Without the Saudi-U.S. alliance, there could be an enormous peace dividend.