Yemen: Behind Saudi Arabia's largely unreported brutal war

Body of a child killed by Saudi bombing in Yemen.

French President Francois Hollande awarded his country's most prestigious award, the Legion of Honour, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on March 4 for “countering extremism and fighting terrorism,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

This understandably received criticism from Human Rights Watch, but its grisly irony passed was largely shrugged off by the Western media and political establishment.

The HRW statement referenced Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record. But it did not mention the year-long Saudi-led air war in neighbouring Yemen that has killed thousands.

That the Saudi Kingdom's human rights abuses closely resemble that of the extremists and terrorists it is supposedly fighting is well known. Public beheadings and displaying decapitated corpses is the penalty for infringement of puritanical moral codes, political opposition, ordinary crimes and less ordinary crimes like witchcraft.

In fact, Saudi Arabia publicly beheads significantly more victims than ISIS and began the year with the January 2 beheading and gibbeting of 47 political opponents.

Also well known is that the “extremist” ideology of terrorist groups like ISIS is shared by the Saudi Kingdom. Most Salafi terrorist groups in the world are either supported by Saudi Arabia or breakaways from Saudi-mentored groups — even those that are now hostile to the kingdom.

It is also well known that the West turns a blind eye to these crimes. Instead, it rewards Saudi Arabia with arms sales and political and military support. The kingdom is a military and diplomatic asset of the West in the Middle East and a huge source of oil and gas and an asset of Western Big Oil.

Bombing Yemen

However, much less reported than Saudi links with terrorism and domestic repression, but considerably more violent, is its war on Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition, mainly members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), began its campaign of air strikes against the fellow Arab nation on March 26 last year.

The bombing campaign was launched in an attempt to reverse the overthrow of the Yemeni government by an insurgent alliance led by the Houthi movement. The air strikes have been combined with ground operations by GCC special forces.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on March 4 that 3081 civilians had been killed in Yemen. Associated Press said on March 10 that the overall military and civilian body count was at least 6200. Press TV said on March 9 that it was more than 8400, including more than 2200 children.

Starvation and preventable diseases are adding to the toll due to damage to infrastructure caused by air strikes and a Saudi blockade on most of Yemen, which is outside the control of the Saudis' Yemeni allies.

On February 5, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) received a diplomatic note from Saudi Arabia saying “all the international organisations working in Yemen” needed to relocate “away from regions where the Houthi militias and the groups belonging to them are activating”. Vice News reported on February 12 that the note said employees' safety could not be guaranteed if they remained.

Vice News said: “Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh control areas where the majority of Yemen's population lives, including the capital Sanaa, where most aid organisations and UN operations are head-quartered …

“OCHA has reported that more than 21 million people in Yemen require some form of humanitarian assistance. That's most of the country of 24 million.”

Air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have caused the majority of civilian deaths. On October 26, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) clinic. MSF had already condemned the targeting of hospitals on July 30, TeleSUR English said.

West's role

These air strikes are carried out with aircraft and munitions supplied by the West. The Saudi Kingdom has long been a major customer of Western powers. Since the war on Yemen started, the West has stepped up arms sales to resupply Saudi Arabia and its allies.

A February 26 Amnesty International statement said Saudi Arabia received more than US$25 billion worth of arms last year, with the US the largest supplier. British exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia between January 1 and September 30 last year were worth $4.16 billion.

Particularly devastating have been US-supplied cluster bombs. The US and Saudi Arabia have refused to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which most Western countries have endorsed. Cluster bombs explode in the air dispersing smaller bombs, or bomblets, to cause simultaneous explosions over a wide area of ground.

Some bomblets fail to detonate, meaning they can kill long after the initial attack. Children are particularly vulnerable to unexploded bomblets.

Australia is involved in the war against Yemen as an exporter of mercenary officers. On December 9, the Guardian reported that an Australian was killed leading a group of between seven and 14 mostly Colombian mercanaries.

The Guardian said they were working for the private US mercenary corporation Blackwater. However, while Blackwater was linked to their recruitment, the mercenaries were actually fighting as part of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Just as the UAE's economy is dependent on highly paid Western expatriates in the professional and managerial sectors, and a predominantly low-paid migrant workforce from Third World countries, so is the UAE's military. The December 26 Middle East Eye reported a high proportion of Australians serving as UAE military officers and Colombians in the rank-and-file.

Mike Hindmarsh, the commander of the UAE's elite Presidential Guard special forces unit, is a former commander of Australian Special Forces and was the commander of Australian forces in the Middle East from 2008.

“In October 2009 it was announced that the Australian government had approved Hindmarsh's retirement from the army to take up a new role commanding the UAE Presidential Guard,” Middle East Eye said.

Saudi Arabia's role as a major regional diplomatic military enforcer for the West became significant after the 1979 Iranian revolution overthrew the pro-West monarchical regime that had previously fulfilled the role.

'Arab Spring'

Since the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia led the 2011 GCC invasion of Bahrain to put down a mass democratic uprising there. It also armed, trained and financed Islamist militias fighting in Syria's multi-sided conflict.

In 2012, Saudi Arabia and the GCC brokered a “peace process” in Yemen to forestall a democratic uprising and older insurgencies. This US-supported “peace process” merely involved the replacement of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh with his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The corrupt Saleh regime had been backed by the US on the pretext of being an ally in the “war on terror”. US economic, political and military aid was exchanged for Saleh approving US drone strikes.

These strikes targetted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), a group of 100-200 mainly Saudi jihadis responsible for a largely ineffective campaign of terrorist attacks against the US and Saudi Arabia.

Not seeing AQAP as a big threat, the Saleh government used US military aid to deal with more serious insurgencies — that led by the Southern Movement and the Houthis. The Southern Movement was a secessionist movement based in South Yemen, which was absorbed by North Yemen in 1990.

The Houthi insurgency began in 2004, based on the Zaydi religious community in the north. It began partly in response to the growing influence of intolerant Salafi Islamism, but was fuelled by economic and political marginalisation of the movement's rural base.

The Saleh regime fought six wars against the Houthis, but failed to crush the insurgency. Between October 2009 and January 2010, Saudi Arabia deployed air strikes and ground forces to join Saleh's fight against the Houthis, but suffered a humiliating defeat, despite using US-supplied cluster bombs.

The US continued military aid to the new government of Hadi as well as drone strikes. However Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen since 1978, resented his ousting by the US and the GCC, and made common cause with his former enemies, the Houthis.

The Yemeni military split between pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi elements. The conflict became one between the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces on one side, and an even more unstable alliance between pro-Hadi military, Southern Movement forces and Islamists on the other.


In September 2014, the Houthis took the capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led intervention on behalf of the overthrown Hadi regime reflected a GCC perception, encouraged by the West, that the Houthis were Iranian-aligned. Ironically, before last year, Iranian links to the Houthis were limited, but Iranian material assistance greatly increased after the Saudi-led intervention.

Iran is too caught-up in its military interventions in Iraq and Syria to militarily intervene in Yemen. At the same time, the Saudi Kingdom, caught up in its war in Yemen that has failed to defeat the Houthi-Saleh alliance, has limited its capacity to intervene in Syria.

Meanwhile, the US, while replenishing the munitions of the Saudi-led forces in Yemen, has continued to launch its own drone strikes against AQAP in Yemen. This is despite AQAP being a de facto ally of the Saudi-backed anti-Houthi forces. Like the Saudi strikes against the Houthis, the US drone strikes against AQAP mainly kill civilians.

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