War in Yemen Tests Influence of Saudi Royal Family

Zenab Ahmed of Souciant.com says while Obama’s decision to limit shipment of armaments may effect the standing of royal family, the prolonged nature of the war and dissatisfaction of its junior partners that’s weakening the family’s influence in the state

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced it would suspend the sale of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia. The decision is in response to Saudi involvement in Yemen where an increase in civilian deaths from the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels has prompted international concerns about Saudi’s tactics in Yemen.

Joining us now from London to address Obama’s decision to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia is Zenab Ahmed. Zenab is Associate Editor of the political and cultural blog and newspaper, Souciant.com. Thanks for joining us, Zenab.

ZENAB AHMED: Glad to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Zenab, what arms or services are being specifically curtailed or reduced, as has been announced by President Obama? And what effect will it have?

ZENAB AHMED: The limitations are mainly centered on armaments that are being used by the Saudi air force, so that largely affects bombs, as well as various parts… it’s basically bombs and fighter jets that carry the bombs that will be affected by the limitations by the Obama Administration. And this makes sense because pressure from civic society in the United States, as well as outside of it — there’s a fairly active campaign against the Saudi air raid bombings on Yemen that’s active here in the United Kingdom, as well — has mainly centered on these bombardments. So, as a result, the limitations reflect that focus of the campaigning.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, give them the very expensive and heavy arms, and keep the bullets. This announcement of course comes a couple of months after the bombing of that famous incident where the funeral was bombed that killed over 140 people. Remind us about that incident, and was that a mistake, or was that a part of Saudi Arabia’s intention to actually do that?

ZENAB AHMED: Well, it’s always politically charged to say that something was on purpose or that it was a mistake. It doesn’t always matter, to be perfectly honest. With that particular bombing that targeted a wedding, there was apparently reason to believe that Houthi leaders were attending that gathering. And the fact that that alleged intelligence report was released in the aftermath of that bombing seems to indicate that the wedding was bombed on purpose — and that the internal claim seems to be that either the commanders of that mission didn’t know that it was a wedding when the bombing took place, or simply didn’t care, because there were high-value targets at the wedding.

The latter would actually make sense given the Saudi air force’s behavior in the conflict until this point, where high-value targets are pursued no matter where they actually are. So, a wedding wouldn’t actually stop a heavy bombardment, even though it’s filled with civilians, in the same way that a hospital wouldn’t stop a heavy bombardment, even if it may or may not have a high-value target inside.

SHARMINI PERIES: Zenab, in the conservative magazine, National Review, Tom Rogan writes that Obama’s decision to suspend sales could actually be damaging to long-term interests of the US in the Middle East via Saudi Arabia. He says that undermining the monarchy of Saudi Arabia could empower hardliners within Saudi Arabia to rise up. What do you make of that statement?

ZENAB AHMED: Well, it’s a ridiculous statement. I know why Tom Rogan would say something like that, but it’s a ridiculous thing to say. First of all, just because of the fact that the Obama Administration is not going to make as critical a role in empowering Saudi hardliners with just one decision, no matter what it is. But the fact of the matter is that it also ignores the complex contours of this war.

The Saudi royal family has lost its influence within the state as a result of this conflict, but it isn’t because the United States is now reconsidering the weapons that it gives it to use in its bombing campaigns — it’s a result of the fact that, one, the war in Yemen wasn’t supposed to last this long; two, it’s getting a great deal of domestic criticism within Saudi Arabia because the war in Yemen wasn’t supposed to last this long, even if that criticism is regulated and even if it is regularly censored in order to keep a control on things. And, three, it’s also getting criticism from its junior partners in the rest of the Gulf monarchies, mainly because they are, for the first time, seeing members of their military forces — you have to remember that these are young countries — they are for the first time seeing members of their military forces dying in large numbers as a result of their involvement with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.

So, it’s absurd to say that the Obama Administration is empowering hardliners as a result of its decision, because the fact of the matter is that if those hardline critics of the regime are able to gain influence at the expense of the current monarch, King Salman and his sons, it’s because those individuals decided to invade Yemen and bomb Yemen in the first place, rather than anything the individual international state does within its relationship to Saudi Arabia — although that doesn’t mean that the international community’s view of Saudi Arabia, which will be affected by the Obama Administration’s decision, isn’t significant.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And Rogan goes on to say that Russia’s grand strategy in the Middle East seeks a displacement of US power and the ascendance of Russian mercantilism in the region and absorb the oil-rich countries. What do you make of that, particularly given that the Trump Presidency might actually entail better relations with Russia, given that he’s appointing all of these generals and oil magnates that have closer relations with Russia?

ZENAB AHMED: Well, I mean, it’s ridiculous. The country where that is happening most obviously is Syria, but Syria is clearly a special case because Assad, and his father Hafez al-Assad, have long-standing ties to either the Russian Federation or the Soviet Union that mean that they’re a bit of an exception to a larger… They’re not proof of a grand Russian strategy in the Middle East as a result of the fact that Syrian-Russian ties and solidarity are simply not new.

Russia, going into other countries in the Middle East, although that’s not exactly new either, would be a step beyond what it has done since the end of the Cold War, and it also simply doesn’t have the resources or the capacity to do that. It’s one thing to intervene in Syria on the side of the regime, which is actually not as complicated and geopolitical a move as it seems. It’s another thing to insert Russian influence into a collection of other countries at the expense of American power. And, even though Donald Trump will have stronger relations with Vladimir Putin, and that will lead to a thawing of American-Russian relations that have been a bit more icy during the Obama Administration, that is likely to simply cool down certain flashpoints of confrontation, such as in Syria. It’s not going to fundamentally transform the nature of American power in the region. Although that could very well happen as a result of this Trump Administration. It’s not going to happen simply because the Russians come in.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Zenab, finally, last time we spoke, we actually talked about the possibility that the Iranians were actually flying in munitions for Houthi rebels in support of them. Is there any more evidence in terms of that statement?

ZENAB AHMED: There have been news reports of Iranian freighters being caught with light and heavy weapons that are headed for the regional black market. It’s difficult to discern whether or not those news reports are particularly truthful, simply because it serves a very obvious propaganda victory for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and its American backers to be saying that Iran is intimately involved in supporting the Houthis — whether materially or logistically. That doesn’t mean that that’s the case, and I encourage your viewers to look at the WikiLeaks Cables once again, and look at the releases from Embassy Sana’a, that deal with the Houthis — particularly before 2009 and 2010, because those cables are very clear about that fact that, at that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former President of Yemen, was repeatedly asserting to American diplomatic staff that the Houthis are receiving Iranian support — but the fact of the matter is that back then the vast majority of the Houthis’ armaments were either coming from the regional black market, without Iranian assistance, or they were simply being taken from the Yemeni army itself. Either because soldiers were simply selling the weapons, or because the Houthis would just seize a cache of weapons and then redistribute them among their own forces.

So there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about the alleged Iranian involvement, but also there is reason to wonder if the Houthis even need it that much.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I thank you so much for joining us today, Zenab. The situation is getting complicated, and I hope you come back very soon, because I think there’ll be a lot more to talk about.

ZENAB AHMED: I’ll be glad to do it.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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