Will The Assassination Of Jamal Khashoggi Have Implications On The War In Yemen?

The Yemeni Civil War, described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, has largely gone unreported by Western media and unaddressed by governments. The civil war has raged since 2015 when Houthi rebels seized power in the capital, prompting a Saudi-led Sunni coalition to launch a military offensive to restore the government there. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition has been supported with US weapons and advisers, which have aided in the bombings of civilians and hospitals. US involvement in Yemen has received little attention, instead is just one country in a long list of wars the US is fighting in. The occasional news story, such as the Saudi bombing of a school bus full of children in  August, received worldwide criticism but no change to US policy was made. In spite of bipartisan outrage over rising reports of civilian casualties in Yemen, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed his support for the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in September, fearing that any criticism would negatively impact arms sales.

Those in the US and around the world are beginning to reevaluate their attitudes towards Saudi Arabia after the assassination of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on the 2nd October. The brazenness of the attack and the stream of lies that have come from the Saudi government in the aftermath has drawn more attention to Saudi Arabia’s aggressive and repressive policies.

Major US news corporations have failed to cover the Yemen and generate a public consciousness of the civil war. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), between July 2017 and July 2018, news network MSNBC aired zero segments on the war in Yemen. FAIR contrasted the dearth of Yemen coverage with the 475 segments on Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels within the same period. CNN meanwhile adopted a largely pro-war stance in Yemen, making note of its economic benefits. In 2016, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Senator Rand Paul about his opposition to US involvement in Yemen. Blitzer responded to Paul’s assertions that thousands of civilians have died in Yemen due to US involvement by highlighting defense industry profits: “for you, this is a moral issue, because you know, there are a lot of jobs at stake. Certainly a lot of these defense contractors stop selling warplanes, other sophisticated equipment to Saudi Arabia, there is going to be a significant loss of jobs, of revenue here in the United States. That’s secondary, from your standpoint?”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a warm welcome when he visited the United States in March. He marketed himself as a young and progressive reformer in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince visited Hollywood celebrities such as Morgan Freeman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and was hailed in a 60 Minutes piece as a “revolutionary”, working to emancipate women in his country. In June, the media praised the Saudi regime for making it legal for women to drive. At the same time however, Mohammed bin Salman was actively repressing the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia. Over a dozen of the same women’s rights activists who campaigned for the right to drive were arrested in June, where some will be tried as terrorists and may face the death penalty. While Saudi reforms have received headlines, its human rights abuses have been largely been ignored by media outlets.

The US government has also been unwilling to rock the boat with its Saudi allies. Saudi Arabia, representing Sunni Islam, has long competed with Iran, representing Shia Islam, for dominance in the Middle East. The two powers continually fight proxy wars in the region, supporting governments and funding rebel groups in the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and in numerous other conflicts within and outside of the Middle East. The United States and its ally Israel have deemed Iran the greater enemy, and have thus developed a common goal with Saudi Arabia. US-Saudi relations has proved to be mutually beneficial, with the United States receiving billions of dollars in exchange for weapons and military personnel used by the Saudis against enemies in the Middle East.

Jamal Khashoggi’s death has begun to thrust Saudi Arabia and its crown prince into the spotlight. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan remains adamant that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the assassination. The Saudi regime has attempted to distance itself from the assassins, but has been forced to change its story multiple times as more intelligence has proved them to be false. It is highly unlikely that Khashoggi’s killers were rogue assassins, or did not enter the Istanbul consulate with the intention of carrying out a murder. Evidence shows that the killing was well planned and well funded, with assassins covertly arriving and leaving on a jet, and bringing with them a forensic expert and a bone saw.

The gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi is a diplomatic and a human rights violation by itself, and should met with serious consequences from the United States and the international community. However, the daily killings in Yemen are also a major humanitarian crisis, and should be met with equal, if not greater consequences.

Since Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist and worked for the Washington Post, the media has taken a stronger tone against Saudi Arabia.

It is often easier to empathize with the death of one man than it is to comprehend war and death on a large scale in a distant land. For this reason, it has been easy to ignore the Yemeni War. Jamal Khashoggi’s death is harder to ignore. The brazenness of the attack and the gory details slowly leaked by Turkish authorities has gripped the world. The brutality and the disregard for international law shown by Saudi Arabia has drawn the eyes of the world towards the Saudi regime. How the world responds to the Khashoggi killing has greater implications on journalists and critics of authoritarian regimes, and therefore the media has covered the issue in detail. In contrast, the US media has no personal stake in the war in Yemen, and as a result rarely focuses on the atrocities there. Khashoggi’s death is harder to ignore. Hopefully the media and governments around the world will take this opportunity to pressure the Saudi regime into effecting real change in its country.

Khashoggi’s death has forced the US government to adopt a harsher tone with Saudi Arabia. On the 10th November the White House announced that it would halt the refueling of a Saudi-led coalition aircraft in Yemen. The Saudi embassy in the US released a statement that it had requested this decision as the coalition now had its own means of refueling and no longer needed help. Still, the move represents a step towards US withdrawal from Yemen and an acknowledgement that the war is deeply unpopular, especially in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. Furthermore, a bipartisan group of US senators has recently announced a legislation aimed at imposing sanctions, prohibitions, and restrictions against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The legislation would completely halt offensive weapon sales with Saudi Arabia. “This bill makes clear that Congress demands an immediate cessation of hostilities, urgently calls on all parties to prioritize protection of Yemeni civilians, and makes certain that only a political settlement will end this war,” Senate cosponsor Robert Menendez stated, “we are putting teeth behind these demands with regular oversight, sanctions, and suspension of weapons sales and refueling support.”

Hopefully Khashoggi’s death will effect change in United States-Saudi Arabian relations. The Saudi government must understand that its brutality will not be tolerated by the international community. The USA, as the most powerful ally of Saudi Arabia, has the ability to influence Saudi policy. Arms sales and support for the regime in the Middle East are a large bargaining chip that the US government can use if it is willing. The media must also draw more attention to the suffering in Yemen on a daily basis. A consulate killing should not be required to scrutinize the Saudi regime. The media has a responsibility to report on war and suffering around the world, because the public should be informed on these issues. In turn, as the public becomes more informed and engaged with foreign policy, governments and politicians will feel pressured to fight for real change instead of maintaining a brutal but convenient status quo.