Saudi Arabia May Want The World to Focus on The Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

While the present crisis in Yemen has raged since 2015, western corporate and state owned media outlets have long been accused by Yemen watchers of having scant coverage of the war which has led to a UN condemned humanitarian disaster. It appears though that this lack of coverage may be changing as recent events including a Saudi missile strike which hit a bus filled with Yemeni school children have captured the attention of some prominent western media figures.

The Canadian-American actor and more recently social commentator Jim Carrey felt compelled by the missile strike on the school bus to draw a political art piece and post it on his Twitter expressing his anger at the fact that the Saudi armed forces who killed those on the bus are largely armed by the United States and its closest allies. The fact that the very missile which killed the school children was confirmed as being US made further contributed to the outrage of many of Jim Carrey’s online followers.

While Riyadh has claimed that the attack on the school bus was collateral damage stemming from a “legitimate military action”, the incident has brought about a wave of condemnation from western sources that have typically paid little attention to the conflict in Yemen. While received wisdom would indicate that the Saudi authorities are displeased with the negative press they are now at least partly receiving from sources like Jim Carrey, this may only paint a portion of the story.

The biggest victims of the Yemen war are without question the ordinary Yemeni civilians, primarily in the north of the country who have been killed in the crossfire of the war while those not yet dead have been largely starved by the Riyadh instigated blockade of Yemen’s ports and shipping routes. But while a grave humanitarian crisis continues in much of Yemen, for Saudi Arabia the war remains a lingering failure as in spite of superior fire power, the Saudis and their allies have yet to achieve anything close to a victory against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement that controls the capital Sana’a and much of the territory that corresponds to the borders of the former North Yemen.

It is an open secret that while Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman’s domestic reforms remain largely popular, especially among young Saudis, the war he directed in Yemen continues to be a lingering source of national embarrassment. The trouble is there is scarcely an easy way out for Saudi Arabia, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who just before his death in late 2017 appeared to be on the verge of brokering a deal between Houthi forces and Riyadh. Compounding matters for Saudi Arabia is the fact that in the area that roughly corresponds to the borders of the former South Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council has become more influential, particularly in Aden than the internationally recognised and Saudi backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Because Saudi Arabia’s partner in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates is largely supportive of the Southern Transitional Council which favours the restoration of an independent South Yemen, Saudi Arabia is now faced with the prospect of a perpetual stalemate in the former North Yemen. The only other short term option would be for Riyadh to sue for peace with a Houthi movement which receives political support from Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Iran.

From the Saudi perspective, Riyadh is there for ‘damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t’. The fact that this lurking reality of lose-lose damnation is the result of Saudi Arabia’s own making is a strong foundation for a moral analysis of the conflict but means little in practical terms.

Against this background, it could well be that Saudi Arabia hopes to outwardly internationalise the conflict in Yemen by passively facilitating the western media promulgation of the dire humanitarian situation in the country. Under such a strategy, some sort of ceasefire could eventually take place that would allow the Saudis to slip out from under the conflict which they stirred and then be replaced by international peace keepers whose presence would largely be acceptable to Riyadh so long as they were comprised of Riyadh’s American, European and African allies rather than Iran and its allies.

Such a scenario would see Saudi Arabia outsourcing its stalemate next door to international forces who would then have to contend with organising a political settlement that Riyadh would at this stage likely accept so long as it would not give Iran a foothold in Yemen. As this comes at a time when the United States is looking to outsource its own stalemate in north eastern Syria to Saudi troops, the world could well be on the verge of a grand stalemate swap wherein Saudi Arabia would occupy north eastern Syria in exchange for the US and its partners occupying northern Yemen under the guise of being “peace keepers”.

This is not to say that western media reporting on the horrors in Yemen is to Saudi Arabia’s liking, but since Riyadh can still exert a great deal of control over western corporate media’s editorial policy, the danger of such media coverage getting out of hand can be easily minimised.

Taken in totality, it can therefore be reasonably surmised that even if not by design, Saudi Arabia may be content by default with western media raising the humanitarian issue in Yemen, not least because individuals like Jim Carrey are prominently blaming the US for arming Saudi Arabia rather than blaming Saudi forces for launching the US made missile in question.

No one can win the war in Yemen, certainly not the war in the northern part of the country. Therefore, if this fact is tacitly acknowledged behind closed doors in Riyadh which it almost certainly is, a defeat disguised as a western led Saudi friendly peace process could be the next best thing to a formally defined victory. This way Saudi Arabia escapes from its own quagmire while also largely escaping from any responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. From Riyadh’s perspective this would not be a bad deal by any means.

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