Can Europe Make It?

Yemen’s war and the blackout in the Spanish press

“Public opinion in western countries has been quite incapable of applying the necessary pressure to cut our ties with the Saudis.”

Isa Ferrero
23 June 2020
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain welcome Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince MBS to the Royal Palace, Madrid in April, 2018.
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain welcome Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince MBS to the Royal Palace, Madrid in April, 2018.
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Borja B Hojas/PA. All rights reserved.

The Coronavirus crisis has once again demonstrated that one of the greatest defects of our democracy is the media. During these months we have heard hate-filled noise and intolerance drawing on fear of the virus to polarize society.

However, the pursuit of political capital from this situation is at its most unrelenting in the Spanish right-wing, where we have witnessed a fierce campaign of harassment and destabilization against the democratically elected government, whose moderate version of Social Democracy, which they label “radical” and “unpatriotic”, is currently in power.

The Spanish government has made mistakes, but the partisan exploitation of these mistakes is wholly hypocritical and cynical, since those who encouraged this campaign of hate are the same as those who have been defending for years the neoliberal dogma that dismantles public services providing a certain protection to the citizens of our country. The most blatant example is public health, but we can extrapolate this to all areas of society in which the great failures of neoliberal plans that began to be implemented gradually more than four decades ago, have now been amply demonstrated.

This said, all the efforts spent by the media blaming the government, has allowed public opinion to focus on the coronavirus crisis, while avoiding other severe crises for which our leaders have also been responsible, primarily in order to defend the economic interests of big business (both public and private). This is the case of Yemen, a country experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The tragedy of Yemen

Since the Saudi coalition launched its military intervention in March 2015 aimed at destroying the Yemeni population with bombings, starvation and disease, the situation has only worsened. Other actors are involved, but Saudi Arabia and its “partners” in the Gulf are the main culprits in fuelling a conflict estimated to have already killed more than 250,000 people[1].

Western countries have not wanted to put an end this barbarism. While their leaders express ‘concern’ about the Yemen crisis and even call for the war to end, they continue to supply the weapons and technology the Saudi Coalition needs to carry out its crimes more effectively. The reason is very simple: Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and is therefore our ally. It does not matter whether it finances schools that promote a radical version of Islam that compromises our own security, or that the Kingdom is an extreme regime where human rights are not respected, where the “persuasive power” of executions are defended, and where women are subjected to the hell chosen for them by their husbands.

Furthermore, public opinion in western countries has been quite incapable of applying the necessary pressure to cut our ties with the Saudis, even when the latest successor to Al Qaeda (ISIS) declared a new caliphate in June 2014 and directly threatened our security by committing terrorist attacks in western countries. The deaths of hundreds of Europeans have not been enough to raise questions about our Middle East policy.

Yemen may seem a distant and remote country to ordinary citizens, but it is not so remote for our leaders. Since 2001, Yemen was one of the countries where the Bush administration chose to launch his war on terror (so successful that is ended up creating the ISIS monster) and Yemen duly suffered US terrorism head on (the drone campaign) with the civilian population bearing the brunt, as always. More than a decade later, as western guardians continued to ensure our safety by killing innocent civilians, our Saudi and Persian Gulf allies carried on destroying this country, with the terrible consequence that jihadism was able to take full advantage of the chaos and misery war had left behind.

Failure to achieve peace

During these years there have been truces and ceasefires that have ended in failure. But with each passing month, the pessimism about achieving peace in Yemen is growing. After more than five years of war, it seems pretty clear that the Saudis want to end Crown Prince MBS’ costly and troublesome war and withdraw. MBS, who had hoped to send a message to Iran by deploying unlawful use of force to provoke the surrender of the Houthis, has achieved the opposite: Iran has managed the situation adroitly and increased its influence in Yemen. The Houthis are stronger than ever and have moved towards Marib in recent months with the aim of taking over an economically strategic site.

This is intolerable for Saudi Arabia; whose solution is to continue bombing Yemen regardless of the terrible consequences – a bombardment that has turned even more cynical after Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire in April due to the Coronavirus Crisis.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Kingdom witnessed another political failure in late April. Its allies, the internationally recognized government and the separatist movement in southern Yemen again came into conflict following the decision of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to declare self-determination. Peace, which seemed a real possibility in late 2019, due to Saudi desires to withdraw (as pointed out by Helen Lackner), seems further off than ever. The situation is critical. The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies has noted that the conflict turn into a perpetual war, and a reminder of the tragic case of Somalia in the 1990s.

However, for our media and politicians it is much more important to focus on fuelling sensationalized debates around the Coronavirus crisis in Spain. The Coronavirus crisis in countries like Yemen does not merit any attention, regardless of the fact that “the United Nations estimates that 16 million Yemenis may ultimately be infected with the COVID-19 virus” in a country without sufficient capacity to face the onset of such a profound crisis, where the majority of the population, cornered between hunger and disease, has already endured a brutal cholera epidemic in the first years of the war that affected one million people.

In a perfect world, media speaking truth to power, should denounce our “democratic representatives”, as responsible for having provided the weapons that have destroyed what was already the poorest country in the region.

The responsibility of western countries for the crisis that is Yemen is clear. You don’t need to be very radical to realize that economic interests have taken priority over the suffering of the Yemeni people. To give an idea of these interests, BAE Systems alone has made nearly 17 billion euros out of the business of war. The sale of French arms is also key, exceeding one billion euros each year, and Spanish sales to the Saudis according to the latest data were worth hundreds of millions of euros. The United States comes top, of course, for having sold arms to Saudi Arabia worth tens of billions of euros – its president, Donald Trump, s soon as he reached the White House, signing off an agreement amounting to 110 billion dollars worth of sales to its Saudi allies.

Crowning shame

Is it possible that the western powers, which have filled their pockets with the deaths of so many innocent people, are unable to provide the massive aid now required to curb the worst humanitarian crisis in the world?

Isn’t it a crowning shame for our democracies that the country that is leading the initiatives to raise funds to ease the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is none other than Saudi Arabia? Obviously, their intention is to whitewash their own image. Saudi Arabia’s representative to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said a few days ago that the “Kingdom and the UN will continue to support Yemen”. Of course, this humanitarian aid is insufficient, due to the continuous cutbacks in the funds destined for the country.

But finally, let us return to the role played by the media. The exhausting effort of NGOs and independent organizations to bring out the truth, is little rewarded by the poor media attention they receive. This has terrible consequences. People are not aware of the crimes that our leaders help to perpetrate and therefore governments have more margin to carry out actions against the majority interest of the country’s citizens. It is vital that people know what is going on. In Spain, there is a scandalous information blackout, which must be addressed if our government is not to have a free path to aiding and abetting the terrible suffering of the Yemenis.

[1] Pardee Center estimates (April 2019 report) and updated ACLED data have been used.

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