February 14, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Must Put Pressure on Saudi Arabia to End War in Yemen

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On Feb. 5, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would finally withdraw American support for the war in Yemen, effectively ending American support for the Saudi-led coalition that has been committing genocide upon the Yemeni people. In addition, Biden announced that he would suspend arms trades to the Saudis as punishment for the 100,000 civilian deaths (as well as 85,000 children), caused by the coalition’s blockade of the country, the intense bombing of civilian locations such as hospitals and a man-made famine.

The civil war in Yemen has been ongoing for close to seven years, starting between the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel movement. Tensions were precipitated by the 2011 Yemeni Revolution, part of the Arab Spring, where rebels led by Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi boycotted a single-candidate election orchestrated by Hadi. Soon, Houthi’s movement had launched a full revolution and taken the capital, Sana’a. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, chose to side with Hadi, and America became intertwined in the war as a close ally of the Saudis, especially under the Trump administration. 

America began providing intelligence and logistics to the Saudis, and therefore became complicit in the war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition. All previous attempts to end American support for the war were prevented by President Donald Trump, who infamously vetoed a bipartisan War Powers Resolution that would have ended support in 2019. Instead, America remained involved for the remainder of the Trump presidency — and those who invest in and collaborate with the Saudis will bear responsibility for crimes committed in this time. 

Thankfully, Biden has made the right decision in his first major foreign policy move to end American support for a criminal war. He should go even further and fundamentally question the necessity and morality of the American-Saudi alliance that has existed in the Middle East since the 1980’s. In the 80’s, the US became deeply involved with arms trading and defense investments in Saudi Arabia, viewing them as an ally against Iran and a source of oil. Now, we see the product of this alliance: death and destruction in Yemen, rapidly escalating tensions in the Middle East, and abysmal human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia, evinced by the death of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi. It begs the question of whether we should remain such enthusiastic supporters of the Saudis. 

In 2018, Cornell professors and faculty asked this same question of the University, writing a letter in The Sun and to Cornell President Martha Pollack encouraging the University to scrutinize ties with the Saudis. They pointed to the genocide and famine in Yemen, as well as the death of Khashoggi, as evidence that the University’s engagement in Saudi Arabia was equal to American complicity in Saudi human rights violations. The signatories wrote that they could not “endorse any form of academic support and/or collaboration with the current regime. To do so is to support injustice and undermine the purpose and integrity of Cornell’s mission.” 

They went on to urge Pollack to discontinue Cornell’s institutional and financial collaboration with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “We further ask that you disclose to the Cornell community all grants and gifts received from the KSA, in addition to programmatic collaboration such as academic exchanges,” they wrote.

Finally, the 37 petitioners pointed out the relationship between the S.C. Johnson College of Business and the KSA Global Business School in Jeddah, one of two University ‘collaboration partners.’ 

“Cornell’s engagement with the Global Business School allows the KSA to profit from the status of Cornell faculty and to boost its reputation in the international community,” they wrote. “We note with equal concern that the KSA Global Business School lists among its clients the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Ministry of Defense.” 

Three years later, few of these demands have been met. The fact that President Biden has acted to end American support for the Saudi’s war, while Cornell has taken virtually no action to punish the Saudis for their crimes should be a major concern for every student at this university. Instead, Cornell remains deeply involved in Saudi Arabia, with the most notable example being the $25 million Cornell University-KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) Center for Research and Education in Thuwal. The money given by the Saudis to Cornell for the KAUST Center, even if it was given before the war began, is stained with Yemeni blood as long as this war continues and we are not doing everything in our power to force the Saudis to disengage. 

We as students must follow the example of our preceding generation that fought against the Vietnam War with every fiber of their being. That means scrutinizing how our university is invested and potentially complicit in war crimes in Yemen. Now that the pro-Saudi Trump administration has ended, and Biden has been forced by activists to finally challenge the American-Saudi alliance and our role in the Yemeni genocide, Cornell University has no more excuses. 

It is time to agree to the demands laid out by the 2018 letter and fully divest from our complicity in Saudi human rights violations. The Cornell Board of Trustees, especially our student-elected trustees, should take this up immediately. This is a pressing issue: a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen, the United Nations has reported. The longer we as a university take to hold the Saudis accountable, the more blood we have on our hands. 

Joseph Mullen is a freshman in the college of Arts and Sciences and a campus organizer with Students For Yemen, an international student group against the war in Yemen. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.