Photo: Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, 16 March 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2017

Yemen War Brings Saudi Policies under International Scrutiny

Analysis by Emad Mekay

CAIRO (IDN) – As the then 29-year old young prince Mohammed bin Salman started to prepare himself for the eventual ascension to the throne of Saudi Arabia, his retainers advised him to give TV interviews to win public support. When he did, many Saudis were disappointed. Instead of reigniting pride, the young prince came out bland and unimpressive. His retainers had to find a way to re-catapult him. The Yemen war was hatched.

The young Salman’s self-styled “liberal” marketers came up with the idea of a war that the young prince would win quickly. They tried to sell the young royal as a gallant fighter who does not flinch on using Saudi military muscle, buttressed by decades of costly Western arms purchases that former senile rulers balked at using. So, with much fanfare at the time, they chose to introduce a war on – of all countries – Yemen, the region’s weakest and poorest nation.

Operations started in March 2015. The public justification for the war was that Saudi Arabia needed to remove Yemeni Houthis, who are aligned with Riyadh’s arch-foe, Iran.

Military operations were sold to the Saudi public as a would-be two-week springtime road picnic for their well-funded and technology-equipped military. Mohammed bin Salman, who is also defence minister, would soon be greeted by thousands in an arch of triumph parade in Riyadh after the quick war.

The United States and the United Kingdom, both with large arms sales to the rich kingdom, gave their full backing to Saudi Arabia’s massive bombing campaign against Yemen, a country of 27 million people.

But more than two years down the line, Saudi Arabia is suffering an international PR debacle for the humanitarian catastrophe its operations have brought to its neighbours to the south. The war itself is nowhere near over. Saudis are left with the bitter taste of an incompetent military and the hefty treasure and blood cost while a smaller oil-rich country like the United Arab Emirates seem to be outmanoeuvring the Saudis for influence, especially in Southern Yemen.

The international community now more than ever notices what a humanitarian crisis Yemen has become. On Oct. 5, the United Nations blacklisted the Saudi Arabia-led coalition for killing and injuring hundreds of children. The United Nations found in a new report that more than 1,340 children were killed or maimed.

Earlier the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to send an international independent inquiry commission to investigate war crimes in Yemen.

Even in the United States, Saudi Arabia’s traditional protector, momentum is gathering to oppose U.S. aid for the Saudi war in Yemen. Anti-war pressure groups are urging members of the House of Representatives to support a bi-partisan resolution to end all U.S. aid in the war which has caused famine, spread of cholera and lack of services.

U.S. Representative Ro Khanna tweeted on October 5 as he introduced the bill that “it is time to end the United States military involvement in Yemen.”

War crimes expert Federica D’Alessandra said atrocities in Yemen make it urgent for many countries to restudy the sale of weapons that are used in the war in Yemen.

“All governments currently selling weapons to Said Arabia, including the U.S., should launch independent inquiries of how their weapons are being used, whether at all in Yemen, and under what rules of engagement,” said D’Alessandra, who is a Harvard Fellow and a Visiting Scholar with the Harvard Law School. “In December of last year, in fact, the U.S. called off the export of some precision guided-munitions to Saudi Arabia because of concerns about their targeting practices.”

D’Alessandra referred to the 2013 UN Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in 2014, as the basis for such investigations. She explained that the treaty prohibits the transfer of all weapons, in all forms and through all means, which are at substantial risk of being used in causing violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, crimes against humanity or acts of genocide.

The rise in international condemnation of Saudi atrocities in Yemen may not have been part of the calculations the young Salman had made. Riyadh has assumed that arms purchases from Washington would tame any U.S., and by extension international, opposition to the war in Yemen.

In July, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a 110 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The proposed arms deal alone would benefit U.S. defence companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. The sales to the world’s largest oil exporter include Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD) Patriot missiles, 150 Black Hawk helicopters, four frigates (called multi-mission surface combatant vessels) and billion-dollar sales of more munitions the Saudis say they need in their two-year old war in Yemen.

Moreover, through a media blitz, Saudi Arabia counters that it had to side with the government forces in Yemen facing the rebel Houthi group to prevent the rise of a religious theocracy backed by its arch-foe Iran. Saudi officials claim that the Houthi forces are nothing more than Hezbollah-type militias that could bring terrorism to the region and to the world. According to the Saudis, the Houthis believe that power in Yemen should be in the hand of Iran’s supreme leader.

But despite Saudi justifications, the unfolding humanitarian tragedy is starting to cost the Saudis internationally.

In his pursuit to appear as the next strong man of the Arabian peninsula, Mohammed bin Salman in his role as defence minister may have approved tactics that could be war crimes. For example, according to several international human rights organisations, the Saudi-led coalition blocks imports to Yemen such fuel, live-saving goods, medicine and even aid including food supplies.

According to Human Rights Watch, as a result of the war some 1.8 million children are acutely malnourished. Half the country’s hospitals are closed, 15.7 million people lack access to clean water, and the country has over 700,000 suspected cholera infections, increasing by about 5,000 cases daily.

Internally, the Yemen war is not faring any better for Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Quietly or on social media, some Saudis have questioned Mohammed bin Salman’s policies in Yemen. His response was an unprecedented wave of mass arrests that saw dozens of public figures, intellectuals, scholars and even poets sent to unknown locations in Saudi prisons. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 October 2017]

Photo: Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, 16 March 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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