Is the West Prejudiced Against the Saudi-Led Coalition in the Yemen War?
By Jonathan Gornall
To better understand the dynamics of the war in Yemen, look closely at an instance of manufactured anger that emerged last November. True, no one could fail to be moved by the photographs of an 11-month-old Yemeni child suffering from malnutrition. Issued by the charity Save the Children, the pictures accompanied a press release suggesting that “an estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger since the war in Yemen escalated.” The “risk of famine,” it added, had “increased dramatically since the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition imposed a … blockade of Yemen.” The implication, echoed in multiple news reports, was that the villain of the piece was the coalition, which in 2015 had responded to a call for help from Yemen’s legitimate government.
In keeping with the accepted Western narrative, the role of the Houthi insurgency that had plunged the country into a bitter civil war escaped any serious examination, despite its indiscriminate use of landmines, artillery bombardment of communities, rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia and forced recruitment of child fighters. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the one-sided Western coverage of the war reveals an eagerness to think the worst of the wealthy Gulf states, and that this attitude is fed by an undercurrent of prejudice.
Its roots lie, perhaps, in the envy generated by the discovery of oil, a blessing that liberated the Gulf states and left all Western economies dependent upon the suddenly wealthy Arab nations. The British have never quite shaken off the belief that all that oil, “left behind” in the humiliating retreat from east of Suez, was somehow theirs.
From behind the barricades of this post-imperialist resentment the British media maintains a steady fire, never missing an opportunity to snipe at Gulf institutions and customs. Sometimes the criticism is relatively subtle – “Brit facing Dubai jail for Facebook posts.” At other times, less so. To one British newspaper columnist the tragedy of the 2015 Hajj stampede, in which as many as 2,000 pilgrims died, was an excuse to launch an extraordinary attack on “the evil empire of Saudi Arabia … the West’s real enemy.”
Save the Children’s “conservative” estimate that 85,000 children “may” have starved merited close examination but was bound to receive none – it dovetailed too neatly with the accepted narrative.
In fact, the estimate was just that, based on a “modification” of a methodology developed by a UK public health consultancy to gauge the effectiveness of a nutrition program in Nigeria. According to a technical note, which went unreported, the estimate relied on “the accuracy of the input numbers and is therefore limited by the quality and accuracy of that data.” The grand total was based on an “extrapolation” from guesstimates “not verified through any direct data collection.”
No one, in other words, had seen 85,000 dead children.
Coverage of the Yemen conflict has been informed by other unverifiable statistics, including that generated by the Yemen Data Project, founded in 2016 to gather data on the war “with the purpose of increasing transparency and promoting accountability of the actors involved”.
The project’s own transparency leaves something to be desired. Its tally of the number of coalition air raids and resultant casualties has been accepted at face value and used around the world exclusively as a stick with which to beat the Saudi-led coalition, in debates in the UK parliament and US Congress and coverage in international media, from The New York Times and the Guardian to NBC and Al Jazeera (which has condemned Saudi Arabia and its allies for “waging a ruinous war on Yemen”).
Yet the political allegiances and identities of the “trained Yemeni data collectors” who, says a spokesperson for the project, “for their own security [must] remain anonymous,” are unknown. The views of one of the project’s funders, however, are clearer. In a statement in July last year, the New York-based Open Society Foundations declared Yemen’s “atrocities” were “fueled by outsider powers with little concern for the Yemeni people.”
It would be naive, of course, to suggest that the coalition has not made mistakes in Yemen, and that these have not led to grievous loss of life. War is always hell. But it should be remembered not only who started this war, but also that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not acted alone, but in concert with nine other Arab states who responded to the Yemeni government’s plea for help.
The disturbing events in the Gulf over the past couple of weeks underline the schizophrenic nature of the West’s relationship with its Arab allies. Even as politicians in Washington continue to clamor for an end to American support for the war, a ratcheting of tensions in the Gulf by Iran and the despatch of US forces are a reminder that, in confronting the malign influence of Tehran in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition is doing the dirty work of an ungrateful world.
In that light, a paper by three heavyweight US academics published this month in the journal of New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, made a refreshing and counterintuitive change. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael Knights, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and his two co-authors shed light on the generally ignored complexities of the regional situation and argued that the only way to end the war in Yemen was for the US to “keep supporting Saudi Arabia.”
Victory in Hodeidah “would allow the Saudis and Emiratis to signal to their regional rival, Iran … that they are strong and should not be provoked,” while “losing the city should convince the Houthis that they cannot win.” The fact that Iran would probably encourage the Houthis to keep fighting a lost battle “should help them understand that Tehran’s interests are not their own.”
To this sound conclusion might be added another — that in this fight, Saudi Arabia’s interests are everyone’s.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.