Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: June 14, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

It helps to have friends in international politics and currently there are many examples of how it trumps any other principles. Saudi Arabia is blockading humanitarian aid to Yemen, dependent though it is for 90 per cent of its food on imports. It is also intensively and illegally bombing its impoverished neighbour. Realising, perhaps, that an action replay of Israel devastating Gaza is not good public relations, the Saudis offered to bankroll the entire $274 million United Nations appeal for humanitarian aid to Yemen. However, there is no sign of the money, while its promise might well have dissuaded other donors who thought that if the Saudis broke Yemen, let them fix it.

There is an amazing silence about the Saudi blockade of Yemen. In fact, one of the few to raise the issue, even obliquely, was the new United Nations humanitarian head Stephen O’Brien, the former Tory MP. (Incidentally, showing that friendship does not cure all, David Cameron had tried repeatedly to foist his  utterly unqualified chum Andrew Lansley for the job but even mild-mannered Ban Ki-moon stood his ground and refused.)

Visiting Yemen is disconcerting. The habit of chewing qat has the locals’ cheeks puffed up like a hamster’s pouch, but the local politics are hard to swallow as well. The Houthi “rebels” are neither Shi’a nor Iranian stooges, but have legitimate grudges against the former government in Saana. But then almost any Yemeni who was not being cut in for the president’s corruption had a grudge.

Which is one reason why what the Saudis are doing there is not only illegal and immoral, it is a mistake, compounded by all the other countries mesmerised by Saudi money who, even if they have not joined in the Saudi assault, are not striving to restrain them. To be fair, it is not just the Saudis. They have learnt from their new allies, the Israelis, that all one has to do is to make the equation that Shi’a equals Iranian equals Muslim extremism and terrorism, and everyone shuts up.

Hence one of the more bewildering couplings of the decade – Israel and Saudi Arabia. One of the few times that the Israel lobby was defeated in Washington was by, of all people, US President Ronald Reagan, who wanted to sell advanced surveillance aircraft to the Saudis. It was an exercise in reflexive anti-Arab prejudice by the lobby, since the Saudis were no military threat to anyone. Reagan won because he marshalled the military-industrial complex lobby to fight for their

right to amass petrodollars by selling unnecessary but prestigious and expensive hardware to the sheikhs.

Fast forward to the present, and we have an Israeli-Saudi axis banging the war drums in syncopated harmony against Iran, and conspiring to subvert the White House’s efforts to come to a deal with Teheran. One does not have to be a fan of the ayatollahs to wonder at the strange partnerships here.

Iran has many faults. But it has fewer than the Saudis by any standards. Iran’s Jews might have a hard time. Saudi Arabia’s don’t since there aren’t any. There have been questions raised about the standards of Iranian elections, but when did anyone last question the results of a Saudi election. Yes, Iranian women have to wear a headscarf, but when they do they can go to work – and drive there. Saudi money was deeply involved in bankrolling the World Trade Centre attacks. It has bankrolled the most primitive and recidivist fundamentalists from Afghanistan to Syria . And while we rightly deplore Iran’s emulation of the United States and China in executions, Saudi Arabia’s 88 public decapitations seem to have avoided the obloquy that Islamic State’s showier practices attract.

Saudi Arabia has come of age. It joins Israel as a country totally dependent on US military back-up while cocking a snook at the US President and getting protection at the UN. And to show the benefits, repeated lobbying by Samantha Powers, US Ambassador to the UN has secured the deletion of Israel from a report listing Israel as a maltreater of Palestinian children not least during the Gaza assault. However, it is a mixed victory: UN officials point out that the elbow twisting meant Hamas, which was also listed, is now dropped off as well, but that the actual annexe to the report details all the evidence which supported the listing. Who knows, someone might have the courage soon to point a finger at the Saudis’ blockade as a reason for Yemeni suffering.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent