Saudis Face Foreign Criticism But No Domestic Backlash over Yemen

by Thomas W. Lippman

In many countries, 19 months of war against an impoverished neighbor that rained death on civilians to no apparent gain might provoke widespread public protests. Not in Saudi Arabia. No one in Riyadh is marching around the Ministry of Defense calling for peace or even writing newspaper columns asking for a review of Yemen policy.

On the contrary, interviews this month with Saudi business executives, academics, government officials, and political commentators made clear that the people mostly regard the Yemen campaign as a war of necessity, not a war of choice. Even those who deplored the collateral damage to Yemeni civilians mostly agreed that Saudi Arabia was obliged to take action to protect itself against further encirclement by its archenemy, Iran. Some said they understood why the bombing campaign started and don’t worry much about it because it doesn’t affect them.

“I’m busy with my own work” and hardly paying any attention to Yemen, said a Ministry of Planning official. “People know about the war, but there has been very little in the local media about civilian casualties,” a young journalist said.

Real Target: Iran

On the surface, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of countries battling Yemeni rebels known as Houthis who last year seized control of the capital, Sanaa, and drove out the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis have been allied with troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, although that relationship is showing signs of strain. In reality, the campaign is about Iran, which in Saudi Arabia’s view is not just supporting the Houthis, who practice a form of Shia Islam, but is a hostile force encircling Saudi Arabia through Arab proxies. If the Houthis succeed in taking over Yemen, Saudis argue, a hostile Iran will have de facto control over Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The government here has also had some success in depicting the Houthis as enemies not just of Saudi Arabia but of Islam. When the Houthis in early November fired a missile in the general direction of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal region, Riyadh said it was aimed at the Holy City of Mecca. That claim drew considerable skepticism from sophisticated Saudis, but it was persuasive to the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, which issued a strong denunciation. “It is an attack on all Muslims around the world because of the reverence and status of the holy city for all Muslims,” OIC Secretary General Iyad Madani said. The OIC resolution received extensive coverage in the Saudi press.

The official Saudi Press Agency also distributed a statement by the Federation of Universities of the Islamic World condemning the “heinous crime committed by Houthi coup leaders, and their supporters, armed sponsors and instigators.” It was hardly necessary to spell out who those might be.

At its first weekly meeting after the episode, the Saudi cabinet—the official governing body, with King Salman presiding—denounced the “dangerous development” and said that whoever “supports this transgressing group, provides it with weapons and smuggles ballistic missiles and weapons to it is considered a firm partner in the attack on the sanctities of the Islamic world, a clear party in planting sectarian strife and a key supporter of terrorism.”

Moreover, according to Maj. Gen. Ahmed Al-Asiri, the coalition spokesman, the Houthis themselves are responsible for much of the civilian suffering in Yemen. He said they were “starving the Yemeni population besieged by war by having held up 34 humanitarian aid ships carrying medical and urgent assistance for more than 186 days.”

Humanitarian Disaster

Human rights groups and United Nations officials have confirmed that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Yemen, where hunger is spreading, cholera has broken out, more than one million people have been displaced, water is scarce, and hundreds of buildings have been destroyed, including hospitals. The government, or what is left of it, has been unable to pay most salaries since August. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the bombing campaign. Whatever regime emerges after the war eventually ends will be dependent on assistance from outsiders, including Saudi Arabia, for years to come.

In addition, the war is costing the Saudis tens of millions of dollars a month at a time when low oil prices have forced the government to cut domestic spending, including the salaries of the government workers who make up the bulk of the labor force. But except in a few communities along the border, the war has had little direct impact on the Saudi population, and there is little sign of any popular backlash.

The man who is known as the architect and driving force of the Yemen campaign, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the young son of the king who is minster of defense, is the target of considerable criticism in private conversations here and on anonymous social media postings, but not because of Yemen. He is also in charge of economic policy, which, unlike the war, is hitting Saudis directly in their pocketbooks.

In fact, the strongest criticism of the war has come from outside the kingdom, from two countries that have provided logistical and material support for it, Great Britain and the United States.

After the Saudi-led coalition bombed a crowded funeral hall, killing more than 140 people, the British government said that its controversial policy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia and some of its partners was “under careful and continual review.” And the White House, in the person of National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, issued a statement saying that U.S. support for Saudi Arabia was “not a blank check.” Price’s statement said that “In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led Coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”

In diplomatic terms, that is strong language. The statement was issued more than a month ago, but up to now the Saudis have been undeterred. Yet another cease-fire agreement collapsed this week even before it went into effect, reports from Yemen said, after the Hadi government rejected it. The Saudi Press Agency reported without comment on Wednesday that Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dhagr restated the exiled government’s support for peace, but only on terms that the Houthis have previously refused to accept.

Photo: Muhammad bin Salman

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.


One Comment

  1. Mr Lippman what you neglected to say is who dares to challenge the dumbos in charge of Saudi Arabia! No one likes to be beheaded publicly in front of their family if they spoke or wrote against the war crimes these dumbos are committing in Yemen. What goes around comes around and the Saudis will eventually pay for their crimes!

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