It must have taken considerable depth of perception for anyone to discern Mohammed bin Salman’s passion for reform of more than his fiefdom’s image, though there seems to be not a few such sharp characters around, including the inevitable Thomas Friedman, New York Times’ Middle East Expert, who observes a “significant reform process” and even a Saudi “Arab Spring”; and a notable slim customer called Emmanuel Macron who defended his Altitude bin Salman last April while securing deals for French companies worth $18 billion. It has to be admitted they have something of a point as bin Salman has been taking progressive strides towards the 22nd century, in permitting the building of cinemas and in allowing women to drive (while understandably imprisoning miscreant women’s rights activists who made the mistake of demanding the privilege before he pioneered it).
However, something more important has now happened – a death that matters – and there’s a big fuss about Khashoggi, hyped in the western media as a critical journalist and democracy lover, but in reality a propagandist for a repressive regime with a few polite reservations about how to keep the dynasty going.
A footnote to the really important matters has been the slaughter of Yemeni civilians by our Saudi friends which has taken three years to get serious media attention, now after reports by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on what Amnesty called the “forgotten war”. For the western media these have been insignificant deaths crossing no moral line. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing and their lives threatened by famine resulting from the war and the bombing of food supplies by Saudi forces in a coalition of nine countries, backed and actively assisted by the US and UK. Obama authorized 37 drone attacks on Yemenis in 2016. Taking a leaf out of his predecessor’s book Trump had added 105 more by October 2017.
In western capitals the question of aiding and abetting war crimes has been an issue lost in a fog. The best explanation for US direct military involvement in Yemen that can be fathomed out of the murk seems to be that – when Obama started it he wanted to reassure the Saudis that they needn’t worry about his deal with Iran, that they (the Saudis) were still his friends and he was willing to prove it by supporting them in a war against the Houthis in Yemen who the Saudis believed wrongly to be fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran against the Yemeni government it being in reality a more or less purely local affair and Saudi involvement would actually strengthen Iran’s influence, the opposite of what Saudi Arabia wanted, which Obama being a lawyer could or may have thought through but probably hadn’t.
This kind of mental fog can hide anything and certainly has been successful in helping to hide US war crimes. What the eye doesn’t see can’t be a problem. It has also helped to hide US government intentions in Yemen from the media (not difficult), from nearly everyone else, and (only slightly more difficult) from itself…unless we take the one consistent strand in all this: the continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis was likely to strengthen the (small) Iranian presence there, that might prolong the war and make the Saudis more persistent thus making their acceptance of the $115 billion arms deal offer more likely.
The real problems start to arise when the trompe l’oeil ceases to work and there’s too much clarity. They did arise with the Khashoggi murder and they seem to be twofold.
As Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times it’s “an unfathomable violation of norms of human decency, worse not in numbers but in principle than even the Yemen war”. Friedman always did have a knack for capturing nuance, an intuitive sensibility for stylistic niceties.