On October 26th, the New York Times published this image of Amal Hussein, a seven-year-old Yemeni girl suffering from severe malnutrition. Yemen is starving; dependant on whatever foreign aid manages to creep past the trigger-happy Saudi blockade. The Houthis, aligned (by most accounts) to Iran, have similarly targeted aid workers seeking to administer assistance to civilians not aligned with the rebels.
There’s a convention amongst the hereditary dictatorships on the Persian Gulf: maintaining a standing army of ground forces is a sure fire way to get yourself couped. Saudi Arabia is no exception. Despite having the third highest military expenditure in the world, the country is believed to have deliberately understaffed the Royal Saudi Land Forces. On the ground, the organised and infinitely better resourced Saudis have been struggling to make headway against a ragtag group of fighters, despite being supported by a coalition of Arab states and, crucially, the United States and its allies. Poorly trained militias, funded by Western petro-dollars, do much of the dirty work in Yemen. Interestingly, as is a bit of a theme with Saudi Arabia, many of these groups are believed to be al-Qaeda affiliates. Go figure.
In lieu of progress on the ground, Saudi Arabia has relied on its vastly superior air and sea forces to cripple the Houthis. It is in this fashion: the blockading of foreign aid and commercial vessels, the indiscriminate bombing of non-military targets, and the funding of anti-Houthi fundamentalist forces, that a picture begins to emerge of one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. Saudi Arabia seems to have lost interest in liberating the country from rebel control. Yemen in 2018 resembles a country under siege, the victim of a war of attrition. Irrespective of the near 15 million Yemenis (half the country’s population) enduring famine like conditions, the Saudi stranglehold over Yemen will not loosen until every last suggestion of Iranian influence is snuffed out. They will burn the country to the ground and rebuild it to the kingdom’s specifications.
That is, unless certain friends of Saudi Arabia were willing to have a stern word.
Hard cut to the 2nd of October, when friend of the regime turned dissident journalist in exile Jamal Khashoggi visits the Saudi Consulate in İstanbul, invited under the pretence of securing a marriage licence. He tells his Turkish fiancé to wait outside, which she does, for three hours, and enters the consulate. What happened to Mr. Khashoggi when he was received inside by a gang of 15 Saudi stooges, including a forensic scientist, has been so thoroughly reported on that it is easy to lose sense of the violence of his murder. All evidence, including a recording of the event taken by Turkish intelligence and subsequently shared with its Western counterparts, points to a conspiracy to torture and dismember Jamal Khashoggi, orchestrated on behalf of the heir apparent and public face of the KSA, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudi Consulate is located in the affluent Levent neighbourhood of İstanbul, certainly not the post-code you’d expect a journalist to be beheaded in. When I visited the scene a few days after the killing, I managed to get as close as the nearby kindergarten, some two hundred metres away from the consulate. The street was packed with police, media, and curious onlookers. A steady crowd of people wielding ‘Justice for Khashoggi’ signs had emerged, although they couldn’t get anywhere near the building. After I left, the Saudis announced that they would be co-operating with Turkish law enforcement, but only after they completed a much-needed renovation of the consulate. Apparently there was painting that had to be done.
The sequence of Saudi denial went like this:
- Khashoggi isn’t dead, he left the consulate
- Khashoggi might be dead, he left the consulate
- Khashoggi is dead, he left the consulate
- Khashoggi is dead, it was a group of rogue killers (This was the story initially accepted by the Trump administration)
- Khashoggi is dead, he tried to attack the fifteen people sent to interrogate him, apparently still in pursuit of his marriage license
- Khashoggi is dead, and two low level advisors to the royal court of Saudi Arabia have been dismissed from government for having orchestrated the killing
The brutal murder of Khashoggi should have accomplished what thousands of dead in Yemen could not: worldwide recognition of the crimes of Saudi Arabia. This was not merely the execution of a critical voice in a country devoid of critical voices; it was the dismemberment of a resident of the United States, in the consulate of one of America’s most important allies, within a NATO country. Had it been orchestrated by any other state, the consequences for this behaviour would have been astronomical.
Instead of meting out a punishment fitting the crime, the White House announced that they were preparing limited economic sanctions against Saudi Arabia, in addition to ending refuelling flights for the Saudi air force in Yemen. This has widely been seen as a cynical attempt to head off more serious sanctions from Congress, which has been increasingly critical of the US’ support role in the Yemeni conflict. The grizzly charge of murder has been met with the international equivalent of a slap on the wrist and a week without TV.
Central to the complicity of the United States in Saudi behaviour is the cozy relationship between the Crown Prince and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor. Salman has spent the last few years quietly cultivating an image for himself as the reformer-to-be of Saudi Arabia. He overturned the ban on driving licenses for women, and wound back some of the strict ‘guardianship’ laws that have been synonymous with Saudi Arabia’s brand of ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam. His flagship infrastructure project ‘Neom’ has been hailed as the first step towards reducing the kingdom’s dependency on oil revenue. Salman’s promise of closer ties with Israel has been a direct outcome of his relationship with Kushner, an orthodox Jew with aspirations to play peacemaker in the Middle East.
But while the world cautiously applauded Salman’s progressive posturing, his autocratic streak was hiding in plain sight. In 2017, he staged a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ style purge of wealthy businessmen and fellow princes in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. He conspired to abduct and force the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, because of suspected links to Iran. His carefully calculated dalliance with Arab feminism was quietly undermined by his arrest of Samar Badawi, a prominent women’s rights activist. When the Candian government took to Twitter to criticise the arrest publically, Salman threw an unprincely fit, demanding the Canadian ambassador leave within 24 hours, suspending all trade, and advising Saudi students studying in Canada to return home immediately. Bafflingly, a Saudi government account also tweeted out this image, seemingly intended as a possible terror threat against Canada.
If the US were looking for an acceptable face for their relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Khashoggi killing has shattered whatever illusion of respectability Salman presented Kushner with in their first meeting. But Salman is only 33, and will most likely outlive half a dozen US administrations. By failing to respond adequately to any of these outrages: the consulate in İstanbul, the war in Yemen, the consolidation of power, the funding of terror groups, the US is effectively presenting Salman with a blank cheque.
And what about us? When the LNP declares that Australia should become a major arms exporter, are they happy for Made in Australia to be printed on the side of the bombs dropped on Yemeni hospitals and schools? Anything to bring manufacturing jobs back to Geelong, I suppose.
This is not (?) a satire piece