By Jamal Khashoggi
September 11, 2018
Saudi Arabia must face the damage from the
past three-plus years of war in Yemen. The conflict has soured the kingdom’s
relations with the international community, affected regional security dynamics
and harmed its reputation in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is in a unique
position to simultaneously keep Iran out of Yemen and end the war on favourable
terms if it changes its role from war-maker to peacemaker. Saudi Arabia could
use its clout and leverage within Western circles and empower international
institutions and mechanisms to resolve the conflict. However, the window for
achieving a resolution to the conflict is rapidly closing.
The-U.N. sponsored Geneva peace talks that
were scheduled to open last Thursday have practically collapsed, in part because Houthis rebels who control
the capitol (and most of western Yemen) were afraid their return would be
halted due to Saudi Arabia’s control of Yemen’s airspace. The Saudis could
provide their enemy and the U.N. officials with travel support — or perhaps
they could even offer them a Saudi plane. Even better, Saudi Arabia could
announce a cease-fire and offer peace talks in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif,
where previous peace talks with Yemenis have taken place.
Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen were driven
by national security concerns due to Iranian involvement in the country.
However, Saudi Arabia’s war efforts have not provided an extra layer of
security but have rather increased the likelihood of domestic casualties and
damage. Saudi defence systems rely on the U.S.-made Patriot missile system.
Saudi Arabia has been successful in preventing Houthi missiles from causing
substantial damage. Yet, the inability of Saudi authorities in preventing
Houthi missiles from being fired in the first place serves as an embarrassing
reminder that the kingdom’s leadership is unable to restrain their
Each missile fired by Houthi forces poses
both a political and financial burden on the kingdom. The cost of an Iranian
missile supplied to the Houthis is uncertain, but one can speculate that each
missile does not compare to the cost of a $3 million Patriot missile.
Unexpected costs associated with the
conflict in Yemen means Saudi Arabia has increasingly been borrowing funds in
international markets without clearly saying what the funds are for. The
kingdom has reportedly raised $11 billion in a loan from international banks.
Furthermore, the political costs associated
with the loss of innocent life cannot be tabulated. Lapses in Saudi intel led
to the deployment of a bomb to target a bus suspected of carrying Houthi
forces. Instead, the missile struck a school bus carrying children. The kingdom
cannot afford to have an open war zone at its southern border, the confidence
of international markets and the moral high ground.
Mistakes and risks associated with
long-term conflict diminish Saudi standing internationally and increase the
chances of a confrontation with traditional allies. Defense Secretary Jim
Mattis recently stated, “We support our partner Saudi Arabia’s right to
self-defence.” The Saudi media ran Mattis’s statement and quoted him with great
enthusiasm but selectively omitted the portion that stated American support was
“not unconditional” and that he urged Saudi authorities to “do everything
humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life.”
Mattis’s remarks should serve as a reality
check to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is defined and
represented by its Islamic stature. We should not need to be reminded of the
value of human life. Muslims around the world deserve to see birthplace of
Islam represent the ethics of Islam.
Saudi Arabia does not deserve to be
compared to Syria, whose leader seemingly did not hesitate to use chemical
weapons against his people. But further continuation of the war in Yemen will
validate voices saying that Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen what Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranians are doing in Syria. Even
the south of Yemen that has been “liberated,” protesters are currently staging
a civil disobedience campaign, chanting slogans against the Saudi-led
coalition, which is seen as the actual power on the ground, rather than Yemen’s
Peace talks will provide Saudi Arabia with
a golden opportunity. Riyadh will almost certainly find international support
if it enters into a cease-fire as negotiations take place. It must utilize its
global clout and incorporate international institutions and allies to
financially pressure Tehran to stand down in Yemen. The Saudi Arabian crown
prince must also accept that the Houthis, the Islah (Sunni Islamists) and the
southern separatists should play a future role in the governance of Yemen.
Obviously, Riyadh will not get all of what it wants and would leave Yemenis to
sort out their differences with their fellow Houthis in a National Congress —
instead of on bloody battlefields.
The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen,
the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy
fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The
crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the
birthplace of Islam.