In a US embassy cable released by Wikileaks, American Ambassador James B. Smith, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, met with Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Khaled bin Sultan in February to relay concerns that the Saudis, battling with a Yemeni separatist group, attacked a hospital in Yemen using American satellite photos.
The cable said that Smith met with bin Sultan “to relay U.S. concerns about sharing USG imagery with Saudi Arabia in light of evidence that Saudi aircraft may have struck civilian targets during its fighting with the Houthis in northern Yemen.”
Bin Sultan did not deny that civilians were attacked but said that the Saudi military “considered it a priority to avoid strikes against civilian targets.”
And based on that assurance, the American government agreed to continue providing the Saudis with US satellite imagery.
The discussion took place after a Saudi missile allegedly struck a Yemeni hospital.
After the ambassador relayed the concerns, bin Sultan remarked that the incident might never have happened if the Saudis had Predator drones with better imaging, renewing the Saudi call for American-built unmanned aerial attack drones.
Smith, in the cable, said he believed bin Sultan was being honest and was neither defensive nor evasive during the meeting. Bin Sultan said their imaging was unreliable and that the Yemeni government’s Houthi targeting recommendations were equally unreliable.
The Houthis are a Shi’ite Yemeni separatist group. The Yemeni government has accused the them of having ties to the Iranian government, because Iran is a Shia majority country. The Houthis have accused, in turn, the Yemeni government of colluding with al-Qaeda.
At the end of the cable, however, Smith hints that Saudi Arabia defeating the Houthis goes hand-in-hand with curtailing al-Qaeda operations in the Saudi-Yemeni border region.
“While the fighting with the Houthis appears to be drawing to a close, the imagery will be of continuing value to the Saudi military to monitor and prevent Houthi incursions across the border as well as enhancing Saudi capabilities against Al-Qaeda activities in this area,” the cable reads.