Yemen pays the price of Saudi succession

Many people in Saudi Arabia must think that the war in Yemen is going very well. Those relying on state-controlled media messages must be proud of their wise rulers, making such an effort with humanitarian assistance to their Yemeni brothers. Of course they are also a little bit afraid. It has been made clear to them that the real danger comes not from anybody in Yemen itself, but from the evil Iranians, who are once again taking advantage of a local conflict to threaten the safety of the Kingdom.

Flowers are seen on a chair during a visit by human rights activists to a community hall that was struck by an air strike during a funeral on October 8, in Sanaa, Yemen, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Flowers are seen on a chair during a visit by human rights activists to a community hall that was struck by an air strike during a funeral on October 8, in Sanaa, Yemen, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

The Kingdom does have a lot on its plate. King Salman is not only Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, he is also responsible for a damage control exercise across the Arab world to contain the chaos engendered by the Arab Spring. Money is no problem, of course, but the scale and the complexity of the problem are challenging. Derailing democracy in Egypt when it threatened to bring the Muslim Brothers to power. Making delicate decisions in Syria and Iraq. Torturing and executing anyone stupid enough to speak out domestically. Being the dominant Arab superpower is not easy.

But the main thing is palace politics. That is the inevitable fate of an absolute monarchy. And so the single most important issue in Saudi Arabia is securing the succession of the Sudeiri clan now that Salman, the 25th son of the first king, Abdulazziz, and the last of that generation, has to decide what to do about passing the throne to the grandsons. The war in Yemen can be seen from various angles, but what counts in Riyadh is that it is cementing the position of Salman’s favourite son, Muhammad, not just as Minister of Defence, but also as the leader of the first war the Kingdom has waged since its foundation, and therefore as the standard bearer of the jihad on which not just the Kingdom, but the whole al-Saud dynasty, is founded.

It is a strange jihad, though. The Sunnis that the Saudis are officially backing in Yemen are not the local Wahhabis (they are in a branch of Al-Qaeda, and therefore enemy combatants), but what they call the ‘legitimate government’ led by Field Marshal Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is supported by Al-Islah, which is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood: which Saudi Arabia treats as an enemy organization in Egypt and elsewhere. They don’t really want him to win. The Iranian support for the Houthis is similarly compromised, as the Houthi rebels they are arming and supporting do not come from the Iranian branch of Shiism, but from the Zaydi sect, which denies some central teachings of the Iranian Ayatollahs. The direct religious justifications for the war are almost non-existent, then. It is war for its own sake now: just because war is more convenient to the Saudi king than any of the possible alternatives.

The war is being carried on with a cheerful disregard for the consequences. The richest Arab country at war with the poorest: what fun! Drugged-up rich boys deciding they want to be military pilots fly the latest American fast jets and get to operate unopposed. Not only that: once they come back from murdering some poor people with inaccurately launched precision munitions, everyone treats them as national heroes, however many people they have killed through their inexperience and incompetence.

Outside the bubble of palace politics, the war in Yemen is joining the other Saudi/Iranian conflict zones (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, mainly), all in fact complicated messes of tribal, religious and political issues, as vectors for the much more dangerous proxy war of America vs. Russia. Eastern Europe used to be the battleground. Now it is the Arab world. There is no real logic to it. The Russians have no particular reason to favour one faction over another, and America, which has zero undertanding of the cultural issues, is nevertheless increasingly embarrassed about having to maintain a partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that was founded in the 1940s and which has not turned out so well. Executing people in public for witchcraft? But American munitions, sold for profit, and being used for the mass murder of poor people have a kind of symbolic meaning that the neutral observer cannot avoid absorbing. It may be that the programme of training the great hope of the Sudeiri ascendancy within the palace politics of the Saudi royal family and letting him practise in Yemen is so important that a few thousand dead peasants just don’t matter. This seems to be the view from Washington. But giving an inexperienced young man a modern air force to play with has not turned out so well. America demonizes Russia for its general attitude: Russia can with every justification point to actual human remains as its explanation for its dislike of the American version of international relations.

Christopher Lord has lived in nine countries and speaks seven languages. His books include Politics and Parallel Cultures, and his journalism has been published world-wide.

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