The Khashoggi Effect? Understanding The West’s Sudden Shift On The War in Yemen

A recent France 24 television debate, “Khashoggi effect? U.S. calls for ceasefire in Yemen,” discussed the impact of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on the recent decision by Western leaders to refocus attention on the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. At the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. on October 30, U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis said, “This has got to end, we’ve got to replace combat with compromise.” The same day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a 30-day cease-fire. In a statement on the State Department website, Secretary Pompeo said, “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction.” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest Western ally, the United Kingdom expressed similar sentiments. Its Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said that the call for a ceasefire was “an extremely welcome announcement.” Another Briton, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, said, “I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity [the ceasefire].”

For Saudi Arabia’s continental European partners, pressure against Riyadh has also been mounting. French Defence Minister Florence Parly told French channel BFM TV and RMC radio, “It is more than time that this war ended, and it is also important—even France’s priority—that the humanitarian situation must improve, and that humanitarian aid can get through.” This statement comes on the heels of a statement by French President Emmanuel Macron that arms sales to Riyadh should not be mixed up with the Khashoggi affair. Germany, for its part, has backed the U.S. call for an end to hostilities. Even before the recent turn-around, Germany suspended further arms exports to Saudi Arabia due to Khashoggi’s murder.

These rapid changes in Western policy towards Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni conflict possibly highlight a fundamental shift in Riyadh’s relations with its Western allies. It is notable that the Khashoggi affair may have been the catalyst for this seemingly out-of-the-blue ceasefire call by Western countries. After more than three years of conflict, with tens of thousands of deaths and millions facing cholera and starvation, why is Yemen suddenly on the political map for Western leaders? Have the actions of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman—who is likely to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder—and the resulting international outrage finally made the ongoing Yemeni crisis a matter of attention?  It seems so.

As the Syrian conflict appears to be winding down, it is likely that the world’s focus on the Middle East will shift towards Yemen. There will be greater pressure on all sides to end the conflict. Though Western leaders are now denouncing the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Yemen—the world’s largest humanitarian crisis according to the United Nations—it is peculiar that they are bringing up Yemen now. While there have been attempts at peace talks between the Saudi-led pro-government coalition and the Houthis, there has been no breakthrough in resolving the conflict.

Peace has been difficult to achieve because of both the regional and international political dynamics. The conflict continues largely due to the intense rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels, has been eager to spread its influence in the region and counter Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, for its part, responded to the fall of Yemeni interim President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government, which it backed, and, together with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar (until 2017), and Bahrain, formed a coalition to restore Hadi to power and defeat the Houthis. It also seeks to limit Iranian influence. Western powers have continued to support their Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Opposing Iran and Hezbollah have certainly been foreign policy objectives of the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus, the regional proxy-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Western interests have largely prevented any sort of peace agreement.

Another reason attempts at conflict resolution has failed thus far has been the lack of Western media coverage. There has been much focus on Syria, and to a lesser extent, Iraq. Western news agencies have paid relatively little attention to Yemen. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media criticism organization, MSNBC ran nearly 5,000 percent more news segments in the second half of 2017 on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election than on the Yemeni conflict. FAIR says that while there was coverage of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, the cholera epidemic was ignored. Furthermore, they found that MSNBC only covered American casualties in the Yemeni conflict. Other American and Western news outlets have similarly not covered Yemen to the extent that they have Syria. The little coverage has focused on the geopolitical dynamics of the conflict, not the clear humanitarian crises.

Perhaps the underlying reason there has been little diplomatic effort from the major powers is due to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have long-standing arms ties with Riyadh, being the largest and second-largest arms exporters to the kingdom, respectively. The U.S.-Saudi arms relationship continues due to President Trump’s unwillingness to forego arms sales worth—according to him–$110 billion USD. Other Western countries, like France and Canada, are unlikely to suspend arms sales, even considering the Khashoggi affair and the Yemeni War. Canada, despite a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia in August, looks to continue its $12 billion USD arms sale.

These dynamics suggest that a peaceful resolution to the conflict remains distant. Even though Western countries have begun to call for an end to hostilities, it is unlikely their actions will bring about a satisfactory end for Yemeni civilians.

Thus, it will largely be the responsibility and burden of international humanitarian organizations, news organizations, and Western citizens to push for an end to the conflict and urge all belligerents involved to help in the rebuilding of the country, tending to health concerns, and ensuring stable governance. To start, the Saudi-led coalition must end its blockade of the country, particularly in the vital port of Hodeidah. This port accounts for an estimated 80 percent of food and aid to Yemen and its impact is clear as starvation and disease have ravaged the civilian population. Once the port reopens, both sides must allow unimpeded access to the country, allowing humanitarian organizations and news organizations to survey the situation. Humanitarian organizations should be allowed to provide much-needed food, medicine, and other aid, while news organizations should be free to report on the situation.

These aspects of civil society and Western electorates must work together in convincing the belligerents to lay down their arms and come together to negotiate. Moreover, despite occasional criticism, United Nations peacekeepers should be dispatched to Yemen to ensure conflict does not re-emerge. It is hoped that these first steps will be the catalyst for a peaceful resolution. With Syria on the path towards peace, a peaceful Yemen would further stabilize one of the world’s most violent regions. Will Jamal Khashoggi’s murder finally wake the world up to Saudi Arabia’s actions in the Middle East and induce Riyadh to pursue more responsible actions?  Only time will tell, but for the millions of Yemeni civilians in need of aid, it may be their best hope.