There’s been a flurry of recent news coverage tentatively hailing a possible new era of a liberally reformed Saudi Arabia. The tentativity is appropriate; puff pieces casting various Saudi Royals as the next great reformers have featured in anglophone press outlets for years (David Ignatius, anyone?).
The coverage includes a segment on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. In the introductory segment, presenter Evan Davis remarked that “the vicious war in Yemen might be seen as just one sign that the country is not close to a humane presence in the region”, a “humane presence” being shorthand for the kinds of liberal reforms under discussion. And Davis later posed the following question to one of his guests, Abeer Mishkhas: “Yemen is a blot on the Saudi copy-book of a serious, serious kind. Should we trust the guy who is, kind of, behind that to be the reformer?”
I give credit to Davis’ frank, if brief, description of the moral catastrophe that is the Saudi-coalition’s assault on Yemen. To give only the broadest sense of its severity, their intense bombing, one third of which has struck civilian targets, including an attack on a funeral that killed 140 people; blocking and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including 49 hospitals and schools by 2015 alone; and blocking of fuel to UN humanitarian flights, have left some 17 million Yemenis food insecure, 6.8 million acutely so, and created 2 million internally displaced Yemenis as of March this year; exacerbated a cholera epidemic that has now affected over 820,000 people; and led to around 10,000 deaths by preventing Yemenis from getting necessary medical treatment abroad.
Whether Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen is reason to doubt the latest imminent reform PR struck me as a strange line of questioning. The kinds of largely economic reforms the programme considered—”liberat[ing] the economic power of Saudi Arabia”, as another panelist put it—are clearly compatible with the unconscionable attack on Yemen. After all, as is widely known, the US and UK are supplying vast amounts of weaponry with which it is being carried out. Less known, they are also helping in the day to day operations of bombing Yemen. The US had a large staff tasked with assisting the Saudi bombing campaign, including sitting in the command and control centres from which the war is conducted. This was reduced to only five personnel in 2016, not because of accusations of Saudi war crimes, but because Saudi Arabia hadn’t requested more assistance. Similarly, the UK has deployed military personnel to Saudi control rooms, providing training and assistance to those running bombing raids. The US is refuelling the very planes with which many of the bombing raids are being conducted, ramping this assistance up in 2017 and has contributed some of the bombing directly. The US is also conducting interrogations at facilities in Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates (also allies in the Saudi-led war) where prisoners are tortured by UAE-directed personnel. To top it all, the UK has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in impeding attempts to investigate the extent to which war crimes have been committed in Yemen.
Assuming the US and UK embody the kinds of liberal economic and social policies that the Newsnight panellists wish for Saudi Arabia, then evidently, prosecuting the horrendous war in Yemen is no obstacle to Saudi reform at all. After all, we in the US and UK are prosecuting it too. The temptation to think otherwise is, I suggest, rooted in the widely held and historically inaccurate assumption that broadly liberal societies don’t commit atrocities, at home or abroad.