By Irfan Husain
THE UK has recently announced an extra 37 million pounds in aid to Yemen, taking the total to 100 million pounds for the year. I wonder if Britain’s international aid secretary, Priti Patel, saw the irony in her announcement: last year, the British government approved sales of 3 billion pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has been using weapons bought from the United States and Britain to pound Yemen, the poorest Arab state in the Middle East, to rubble.
As a result of this relentless, if poorly directed, air campaign, over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed, with hundreds of thousands wounded and millions displaced. The infrastructure, already woefully inadequate, has been largely destroyed. Incompetent Saudi pilots have blown up schools, hospitals and markets with sickening regularity. One study shows that one out of three bombs dropped has hit civilian targets. Around 330,000 homes have been destroyed, along with some 684 mosques, 630 schools and other educational institutes and 250 health facilities. According to the UN World Food Programme, the population in nearly half of the country’s 22 provinces faces starvation.
It would seem that after more than a year of slaughter and wanton destruction, some people in the West have discovered their conscience, and have begun asking questions about their governments’ complicity in the Saudi-led carnage in which the UAE has been a junior partner. This bombing campaign has been actively supported by the UK and the US, with both supplying intelligence and targeting data. American mid-air refuelling tankers have extended the range and flight time over victims of the coalition air fleet.
A recent move in the US Senate to halt arms supplies to Saudi Arabia was defeated 71 to 27. While the outcome was predictable, the fact that 27 senators voted for the proposal is significant, given the millions the kingdom spends on lobbying and public relations in Washington. Five of the US capitol’s top lobbying and PR firms are on lucrative Saudi contracts. The objective of all this spin is to change the focus of the American perspective from the kingdom’s appalling human rights record to its usefulness as an ally in a troubled Middle East.
But despite all the money spent on buying influence in Washington, Congress voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill that would make it possible for the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government. Although President Obama has vetoed the bill, both houses of Congress have vowed to send it back. This requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and those pushing the legislation might struggle to find the number of senators needed in the face of fierce resistance from the White House.
Nevertheless, the vote is a sign of serious slippage in Saudi support in Washington. In a bid to stave off the vote, the kingdom has made it known that if the bill is made law, it will sell off $750 billion in US bonds it currently holds. Saudi Arabia used a similar threat recently when it was placed on a UN blacklist of countries responsible for child casualties in conflicts around the world. The kingdom and several Arab camp followers threatened to withdraw funding for various UN humanitarian programmes if Saudi Arabia’s name was not removed from the list. It was duly removed after what one diplomat called a campaign that was “bullying, threatening, pressurising … real blackmail”.
Money is Riyadh’s weapon of choice when it engages with the outside world on controversial issues. When Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, was in London recently, he urged the UK to continue supporting his country in Yemen to prevent if ‘from becoming a terrorist state under Iran-backed Houthis’. As a carrot, he told the British government that the Saudi Vision 2030 plan contained projects worth two trillion dollars, and that cooperation between the two countries would take their relationship ‘to another level’. Bribes are seldom promised as openly as this.
The Saudis were made aware of their declining influence in Washington when President Obama ignored their protests and signed the nuclear deal with Iran. According to Wikileaks, a senior Saudi prince had earlier urged America to ‘cut the head off the snake’ when there was loud talk of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. But as Riyadh’s bellicose advice was ignored and the US went ahead with negotiations, its new royal hierarchy decided to effectively ally itself with Israel, knowing that Tel Aviv loathed the ayatollahs of Iran as much as the House of Saud did. Also, no other country has as effective a lobby in the US as Israel does.
Nevertheless, the current oil glut and the emerging fracking industry, combined with the rapid growth of alternative energy sources, have all converged to reduce Saudi Arabia’s clout in Washington and elsewhere. Increasingly, people are seeing the country for what it really is: the epicentre of the Wahabi/Salafi ideology that is driving the jihadist agenda, and destabilising many Muslim states. In a long and controversial interview published in The Atlantic magazine a few months ago, President Obama characterised the Saudis as ‘free riders’, a comment that raised hackles in Riyadh.
This rising crescendo of comments and criticism against a country that had long been considered a sacred cow should be a cause for concern in the House of Saud. After all, their policies are ultimately designed to keep themselves in power, and in this strategy, the US has a major role. Earlier, the country’s importance in meeting the global energy demand placed it beyond serious scrutiny. This is now changing, and the Saudis are scrambling around to find ways of dealing with new realities.
Published in Dawn September 26th, 2016