Khashoggi fallout finally highlights Yemen tragedy

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

There are no positives to the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside his own country’s consulate in Istanbul in October, but the relentless media coverage of his case may have inadvertently highlighted a greater human tragedy: the Saudi war in Yemen.

The conflict, which began in early 2015, was the first sign of the now signature adventurism of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After nearly four years, the war has become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in a century, with thousands of civilians dead and millions facing starvation.

During the war, school buses have been targeted and food storage facilities bombed by the Royal Saudi Air Force, yet the international community has kept the conflict on a back burner, allowing Riyadh and its ambitious leader to push the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink of famine. In fact, the international outcry over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been much larger in scope than any attention paid to Yemen over the past few years.

Agnès S Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, points to the disparity in the coverage between the murder of Khashoggi and the mass killings in Yemen. ‘I’ve worked for the last two years in Yemen as a special rapporteur and I can assure you I have documented a range of attacks against civilians by Saudi coalition forces. None of them has generated any kind of interest or very little reaction. So that’s the reality of the world we live in. I am very saddened by it,’ she says.

But there are several reasons why the murder of one man has received more attention than four years of war.

For one, the slowly emerging details of the brutal murder of Khashoggi, which included leaks that his body was dismembered with a bone saw and then possibly drenched in acid at the hands of 15 Saudi agents close to the Crown Prince, have horrified the world. The shock was compounded because Khashoggi was a non-armed, non-violent journalist who mildly criticised the Saudi regime and never called for it to be ousted.

Moreover, Turkey’s artful drip-feeding to the media of a series of hair-raising tidbits about how the events inside the diplomatic office took place kept followers on their toes for more.

On the other hand, the Saudi war in Yemen, despite daily atrocities and utter destruction of Yemeni infrastructure, still enjoyed some international backing, mostly for financial benefits. France, the UK and the US, for example, provide arms, intelligence and aerial refuelling to the Saudis.

Even though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates block access to Yemen’s ports and prevent humanitarian aid from coming in, harming thousands of civilians on the way, the well-greased Saudi public relations machine has been more effective in Yemen than with the Khashoggi case.

Riyadh succeeded in portraying opponents in Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthis, as pawns for anti-Western Tehran, whose victory will embolden a regional meltdown under Iranian hegemony that has already expanded to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Like other regimes in the region, Riyadh too used the ‘terrorism’ card effectively to scare off Western countries, pointing to its human rights abuses in Yemen. Riyadh maintains that the war in Yemen is necessary to ward off international terrorists from taking control of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, which could threaten countries like Egypt and Israel. ‘We don’t want another Hezbollah at the Red Sea,’ Saudi officials often said.

On the other hand, the Saudis couldn’t easily portray Khashoggi’s murder as an attempt to go after a terrorist. Khashoggi was an international journalist who travelled extensively, enjoyed wide contacts both inside and outside the Middle East, and worked for The Washington Post, an influential United States newspaper.

In fact, Khashoggi himself was part of the Saudi government media until his departure away from the official line starting in 2013, as Riyadh supported anti-democratic forces trying to roll back the Arab Spring, the wave of street protests that sought to win more freedoms for the oft-repressed populations of the Middle East. The real break came in December 2016, when Riyadh publicly rebuked Khashoggi for criticising the virulent rhetoric of the then US President-Elect Donald Trump.

Spooked by a campaign of mass arrests of reformists, scholars and activists, Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia for the US in June 2017, becoming a columnist for The Washington Post. He wrote a series of articles criticising the lack of freedom of the press and rights abuses in his native country and across the region, which added to his international standing and attention.

Riyadh misstepped repeatedly in its handling of the news of the murder. Saudi officials initially denied involvement and unleashed a media blitz against such accusations, only to later admit that the 59-year-old former editor-in-chief died in a brawl that led to a ‘fist-fight’ – a statement that was ridiculed both in the region and internationally.

However, the outcry over the Khashoggi saga focused new attention on the adventurism of the Crown Prince, the viciousness Riyadh can dispense to wipe out opposition, and by extension, their current disregard of human life in Yemen.

The UN estimates that nearly 14 million Yemenis, nearly half the country’s population, could be on the brink of starvation as a result of the Saudi-led war

As the coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, advances towards the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, fear is intensifying that a more terrifying humanitarian crisis in Yemen is about to unfold.

Callamard, who is also the Director of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression project, says there is ‘a compassion fatigue’ around Yemen but that the way Saudi Arabia has conducted itself over the killing of Khashoggi has given the international community a good reason to work towards a better situation in the country.

‘It’s now up to us human rights defenders and activists to: (a) ensure that we have a strong international response to the killing; and (b) use the feeling of impunity within Saudi Arabia – that we use the proof of it – for greater purposes. One of them must be the war in Yemen,’ she says.

The UN Refugee Agency Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie, recently said the international community had been ‘shamefully slow’ in Yemen. The UN estimates that nearly 14 million Yemenis, nearly half the country’s population, could be on the brink of starvation as a result of the Saudi-led war. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, reiterated warnings recently that within the space of only three months, Yemen will become ‘the worst famine in the world in 100 years’.

In the US too, the Khashoggi murder served to help shift opinion, including in the House of Representatives, with some Congressmen saying they will work to stop US participation in the war. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said all sides in the war needed to engage in UN-sponsored peace talks.

The Khashoggi murder still has missing links. What happened to his body? And, as reports emerge of orders by a close aide of Prince Mohammed bin Salman being given over Skype, who exactly ordered the assassination? Such questions are likely to keep the murder in the spotlight for some time. All indicators point to the direction of Mohammed bin Salman, who is, of course, also the main force behind the Yemen war.

The impunity the Crown Prince has enjoyed over Yemen has been exposed by the attention to the impunity he thought he could also have with the Khashoggi killing. And if Yemen is given a fraction of the media coverage of the Khashoggi murder as a result, a looming humanitarian catastrophe impacting millions of people may yet be mitigated.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at emekay@stanford.edu