The spectre of defeat hangs over the Saudi war on Yemen

This month marks one year – October 2 to be exact – since the grisly killing of dissident Saudi journalist and political figure Jamal Khashoggi. His murder, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was particularly gruesome, and attests to the barbaric lengths to which the Riyadh monarchy will go to silence its critics. The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the heir apparent and the ‘power behind the throne’ so to speak, has denied ordering the Khashoggi assassination. However, evidence is emerging that he ordered the killing.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, is demanding answers about her partner’s killing. Cengiz held a vigil outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the anniversary of his death. Thus far, no-one has been tried or held accountable for the assassination. There is no doubt that US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have enabled the Saudi campaign of denials and obfuscation regarding the Khashoggi assassination. They have supported Riyadh public relations efforts to absolve the Saudi monarchy of criminal responsibility for that crime.

The Crown Prince has carefully cultivated the image of a reformer and moderniser, cancelling the ban on female drivers, curtailing the power of the religious police, and relaxing laws on public gender segregation. The US and Britain have facilitated this image makeover of the Riyadh monarchy. The Saudi Crown Prince has been given a lavish welcome in the corridors of power in London and Washington.

In the immediate aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi monarchy faced criticism for failing to pursue and prosecute the perpetrators. However, a year later, numerous American and British CEOs and corporate executives are gathering for the ‘Davos in the Desert‘ – the Saudi-hosted Future Investment Initiative. Corporate investment and business trading will continue as though the Khashoggi murder never happened.

The Saudi war machine takes a beating

The one area where the Saudi monarchy has received the full backing of the United States and Britain – with Australia tagging along – is its war on Yemen. Make no mistake; since March 2015, the Saudi military has waged an unrelenting war on Yemen, unleashing an orgy of destruction. The Saudis and their Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, are responsible for numerous war crimes, bombing hospitals, schools, water facilities, factories and bridges.

Two events over the month of September however, demonstrate that the Saudi war is not going according to plan. The Yemeni Ansar Allah movement, popularly known as the Houthis, struck the Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq, causing the vital oil industry in Saudi Arabia to reduce its output. Saudi oil production was cut in half after the attack. Targeting the oil industry is something that the Ansar Allah movement was thought to be incapable of doing.

In addition to this attack on oil production, the Ansar Allah successfully invaded the southern Saudi Arabian province of Najran, capturing hundreds of Saudi soldiers and seizing military equipment. While all claims of military incursions and prisoner capture need to be treated with caution, there is credible evidence to support the Houthi version of events. Since the beginning of the Saudi-Gulf invasion of Yemen, Riyadh has consistently underestimated the resilience and military capabilities of its opponents.

These two events represent a serious defeat for the Saudi Arabian military, and its American and British supporters. Far from being the quick and easy victory that Riyadh expected when it launched this war in 2015, Yemen is turning into a quagmire out of which Saudi Arabia is finding it difficult to extricate itself. Despite the fact that the Saudis are the militarily stronger power, enjoying the support of regional allies, it is plausible to discuss the real possibility of Saudi Arabia losing this war – because the spectre of defeat is looming large over Riyadh.

It is worth noting that despite the asymmetrical nature of the conflict – the Saudis have imposed a full land, sea and air blockade on Yemen, given their naval and aerial superiority – the Saudi monarchy has little, if anything, to show as tangible results on the ground. The Saudi offensive – codenamed Operation Decisive Storm – was launched to impose the Yemeni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi as a Saudi proxy. Currently, Hadi is still living in exile with his Saudi patrons.

Britain plays along

Let us not forget the role of Britain, and its armaments exports, to the Saudi and Emirati military forces in helping to sustain the attack against Yemen. While the Khashoggi killing attracted media attention, the complicity of the UK (and Australia) in the ongoing mass slaughter in Yemen requires consistent and passionate outrage. David Wearing, lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, notes that it is British-made bombs and warplanes wreaking death and destruction in Yemen.

Let us dispense with the absurd notion that the armaments exports to regimes like Saudi Arabia provide jobs for workers back in Britain. The excuse of ‘job provision’ is regularly trotted out whenever the UK-Saudi relationship comes under close scrutiny. The only beneficiaries of the armaments exports industry are the owners of those narrow industries, not the working community nor the wider economy. Trade with Saudi Arabia may accrue benefits for the English ruling class, but the arms exports trade is only a minuscule percentage of Britain’s total exports worldwide.

We require a decisive break with Trump-Brexit parochialism that seems to dominate much of official politics in the English-speaking nations, and rediscover a politics of proactive solidarity and cooperation. While the Yemeni Ansar Allah movement are capable of inflicting defeats on the Saudi military, the ongoing pipeline of armaments to the Saudi war machine from Britain and the United States must be stopped.

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