The Real Victims in the Latest Spat Between Saudi and Iran? Civilians in Yemen

Published November 14th, 2017 - 07:00 GMT
 Mohammed Huwais/AFP PHOTO
Mohammed Huwais/AFP PHOTO


  • As the world watches the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Yemen undergoes one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world
  • The Lebanese PM's resignation on Saudi-stat TV received far more attention than Saudi's air and sea blockade of Yemen
  • As the war in Yemen rages, the conflict is treated as a political tool for Iran and Saudi to prove that they are tough on each other
  • The real victims from all of this are Yemeni civilians, who silently bear the brunt of each countries' sabre rattling


By Ty Joplin 

“We are weak, our children are weak and we have nothing left to give. We can’t even feed our animals anymore,” Nor Rashid, a Yemeni civilian trapped in the wartorn country, told reporter Iona Craig in Yemen.

“Only God can help us now.”

More than 70 percent of Yemen’s inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance and/or protection. Last month, Yemen’s cholera epidemic became the worst ever recorded in history with almost one million cases reported.

But as the war in Yemen promises only to get worse, political and media attention is focused on the ongoing tensions between Saudi and Iran. Many are asking if the growing tensions between the two regional powers will spell a new war in Lebanon.

Saudi reportedly pressured Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign for not putting enough pressure on Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political and militant group controlling much of the country.


Lebanese PM Hariri, Joseph Eid/AFP

Lebanon is now plunged in political paralysis, and with Iranian militias gaining power throughout Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, many are wondering what will break. When will Saudi, and perhaps Israel--who is as threatened by Iran as Saudi-- decide that direct military confrontation is necessary? Will that decision come in Lebanon?

Dr. Neil Partrick, author of "Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict & Cooperation," explains that a military escalation in Lebanon is highly unlikely.

“The Saudis could not, even if they wanted to, push their Lebanese allies toward armed conflict with Hizbollah at this stage due to the domestic factors mitigating against it.”



Nevertheless, speculation drags on about the potential for a new conflict between Iran and Saudi, and one country has been suffering all along from that exact tension: Yemen.

Saudi’s bombing campaign of the country began in 2015 thanks to an initiative by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, then Saudi’s Minister of Defense. The U.S., U.K., and the UAE quickly got behind Saudi, citing fears that Yemen would become a safe haven for extremists.

The U.S. and U.K. have consistently supplied Saudi with lucrative arms deals, despite being alerted to the fact that the weapons they are selling to Saudi will likely facilitate war crimes. The U.S. has been refueling Saudi jets in mid-air to keep up the high-tempo bombing campaign, making Saudi’s air power an ever-looming threat to civilians.


Mohammed Huwais/AFP

Fighting against the Iran-backed Houthi group, Saudi and Iran are now entangled in a war that has no foreseeable end. Bin Salman privately “wants out” of Yemen, but is publically taking a hardline stance against Iran, seeking to counter the influence of the Shi’a-led country.

“This is a low cost conflict for Iran but quite a high one for the Saudis in terms of their national security,” explains Dr. Partrick.

Much of Saudi’s current budget deficit and economic difficulties can be pinned to its ever-growing involvement in Yemen in addition to the global decline in oil prices.

Last week, Saudi imposed a naval and air blockade over all of Yemen, preventing millions of civilians from getting aid by groups that were stopped and turned away at Yemen’s borders.

“If we can’t get people in, if we can’t supplies in, that strangles our ability to run medical programs, and has a similar effect on humanitarian activities across the country,” Justin Armstrong, Yemen’s country director for Doctors Without Borders in Sanaa told PBS.

The blockade, now partially lifted, received far less attention than Lebanese PM Hariri’s resignation and what it could mean for a potential new conflict in the region.

A Houthi rebel examines the site of an air strike in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on Sunday. Saudi Arabia says Iran provided the Houthis with a missile fired at the Saudi capital on Saturday. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS, AFP/Getty Images

Mohammed Huwais/AFP

Yet while Lebanon is still far away from all-out war, Yemen continues to reel and is on the brink of a famine outbreak.

The blockade, which has undoubtedly accelerated Yemen’s collapse towards famine, is a retaliatory move to the Houthis launching a missile towards Riyadh, Saudi’s capital. The decision to block medicine and food from entering Yemen for a missile firing explains how Saudi views Yemen.

More than anything, the war in Yemen is treated as a political tool by Saudi and Iran. Iran can tie up Saudi’s military and economy, while Saudi can prove it is getting tough on its Shi’a counterpart by bombing the ravaged country.

Media coverage of Yemen’s war remains scant.

Beyond Saudi’s attempts to blackout the media from accessing the country, it continually receives a lower priority to other regional developments.

“Syria is at least vaguely known about in the West; it's a Mediterranean country; historically it has been part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been part of attempted peace talks,” Dr. Partrick says. The flow of refugees, including many from Syria, into Europe also makes that development a “live, domestic political issue.”

“By comparison Yemen just doesn't register.”

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