RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (Analysis) — Saudi Arabia — one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East — has spent nearly the last three years bombing its southern neighbor Yemen, the poorest nation in the region, with U.S.- and U.K.-supplied weapons, refueling, and training.
Over 10,000 civilians have lost their lives in Yemen, according to official numbers. The siege has triggered a cholera outbreak and put millions at risk of famine. It is also estimated that over 50,000 Yemeni children are expected to die by the end of 2017 as a result of hunger and Saudi bombing.
This war against Yemen would not be possible without military support from the United States and other Western allies. It also would not be possible without political and financial power to control the media while exploiting every organization and country imaginable to control the official narrative of the war. Fortunately for Riyadh, they have these factors covered.
Riyadh’s control over the media’s narrative
Many Americans are already aware of the effective Saudi lobbying efforts in Washington. Between 2000 and 2010, Riyadh paid roughly $100 million to various U.S. lobbying firms and has invested $18 million to influence U.S. policy since 2015 alone.
The extensive power Riyadh holds through its manipulation of the media on the other hand typically goes unnoticed.
On the surface, it’s easy to see how and why media outlets use Saudi sources for their reporting: Washington and Riyadh share strong military ties, so why wouldn’t U.S. outlets rely on information from their ally? But Riyadh’s control of the media runs much deeper than this. In fact, some of the wealthiest people in the world include members of the Saudi royal family with significant investments in social media and news outlets.
Waleed Al Ibrahim founded the Middle East Broadcasting Center in 1991 in London, and later moved the company’s headquarters to Dubai. This media conglomerate controls about a dozen outlets — including Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab television news channel broadcast throughout the Middle East and regarded as a competitor to Al Jazeera.
When Al Ibrahim launched Al Arabiya in 2003, his stated goal for the station was to be “the CNN to Al Jazeera’s Fox News.” Indeed, Al Arabiya is the go-to source for Western outlets such as CNN for news coverage of the Middle East.
When Yemen’s resistance forces launched a long-range ballistic missile at the King Khalid International Airport in early November, CNN reported, “the missile was intercepted over northeast Riyadh,” the Saudi Ministry of Defense said in a statement carried on government-backed Al Arabiya television. Despite media outlets absorbing Riyadh’s official line, footage from the ground indicates that the missile did, in fact, hit its target.
Another influential Saudi tycoon, Al-Waleed bin Talal, is the grandson of the first Saudi king, Ibn Saud. He also happens to be the second largest voting shareholder of 21st Century Fox. Subsidiaries of this conglomerate include the Fox News network, National Geographic, Star TV, Regency Enterprises, and even Hulu. In late 2011, Al-Waleed invested $300 million in Twitter, which amounted to over a 3 percent share at the time. It’s no surprise then that anti-Saudi and pro-Yemen Twitter and Facebook accounts are chronically disabled or silenced.
In June of 2017, Saudi investor Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel purchased a stake of between 25 percent and 50 percent in London-based outlet The Independent.
Outside the public eye, Riyadh utilizes various embassies and subscriptions to guide the narrative wherever possible. Through embassies, the Saudis can monitor local media agencies to spot outlets ripe for manipulation.
The “Saudi Cables,” published by WikiLeaks, display how precisely the kingdom takes a systemic approach to projecting a positive — or at least neutral — image across the Arab world and beyond. The cables refer to the Saudi strategy as either “neutralizing” or “containment.” Once Saudi authorities select an outlet to target, they will either purchase thousands of subscriptions at inflated rates or merely funnel money directly to the outlet. In exchange, Riyadh expects favorable, or at least neutral, coverage.
In other cases, Riyadh will simply sanction media outlets that provide damaging coverage. In 2012, Riyadh attempted to blackmail London-based Financial Times, demanding it close its Saudi bureau and fire its correspondent for publishing what Riyadh called “lies.” The cable went on to state that if the Financial Times did not adopt an “objective” approach, Riyadh would consider legal action.
These subscriptions and threats are nearly impossible to track. Whereas outright investments are relatively public, subscriptions take place behind closed doors.
Due to Saudi Arabia’s combination of financial contributions and outright extortion, media coverage of Yemen that portrays Riyadh in a negative light is hard to come by.
Instead, the media has painted the crisis in Yemen as one in which Saudi Arabia is protecting itself from expanding Iranian influence, claiming Iran is funding and arming the Houthi resistance, despite no evidence to back the claim. The media frames the crisis in terms of a Sunni-Shiite proxy war to justify Saudi Arabia’s war crimes.
Exploiting nations to do their dirty work
Other than Yemenis, no country’s people are more exploited by the war in Yemen than are Sudan’s. Crippled by sanctions, Khartoum jumped at the chance to join the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition in 2015. Sudan currently has at least 1,000 fighters stationed inside Yemen and recently promised another 6,000, despite heavy losses at the hands of Yemen’s Army and Popular Committees. In fact, over 400 Sudanese troops have lost their lives on the front lines in Yemen, according to Khartoum’s own admissions.
Saudi Arabia does not have much in the way of trained ground forces, and the United Arab Emirates is not much better off. As a result, they instead outsource the dirty work of combat to poorer nations like Sudan. Why send your own men to die when you can pay others to take the heat?
In some respects, this has paid off tremendously. Upon committing to the war, Sudan’s central bank received two deposits totaling $2.2 billion: $1 billion from Riyadh and another $1.2 billion from Doha, Qatar. Although Qatar is no longer a participant in this war, Sudan is still very much involved. As Qatar pulled out its small number of troops, Sudan’s involvement became even more vital to the coalition’s health.
The war in Yemen has also allowed Khartoum to forge a stable relationship with Dubai, which it appears has used its lobbying power in Washington to Sudan’s benefit. In October, Washington announced the lifting of the sanctions that had plagued Sudan for over two decades. In addition to that, the U.S. is also considering removing Sudan’s label as a “state sponsor of terror.” To top it off, the Trump regime’s updated travel ban included additional countries such as North Korea and Venezuela, but at least one country was missing: Sudan.
Sudan isn’t the only nation exploited by the Saudi-led coalition, but it’s the easiest to track. Blackwater mercenaries are a little harder to monitor since the very nature of the job is secretive. At least 1,800 fighters from Mexico and Colombia traveled to the UAE for training before heading to the front lines to battle Yemenis in their own country.
“We are called mercenaries, traitors, cowards, and opportunists. We are nothing like that. We are men who made a decision in response to the lack of [financial] guarantees [at home],” an unnamed fighter told the Colombian outlet El Tiempo in 2015.
Economic blackmail in the United Nations
Targeting noncombatants, including women and children, Riyadh gets away with bombing markets, farms, homes, factories, shipyards, schools, hospitals, water treatment facilities, and everything else, however and whenever it pleases. Other than the occasional scolding over restricted aid shipments, Yemen’s cries to the U.N. for help fall on deaf ears plugged by Saudi Arabia’s political and financial extortion. For Yemenis, the U.N. offers absolutely nothing beyond empty promises.
In 2016, about a year after the Saudis launched their war against Yemen, the United Nations published a blacklist of child-killing nations. Of course, Saudi Arabia made this list courtesy of its indiscriminate bombing, shelling, and siege of Yemen that explicitly puts children’s lives at risk.
Just 72 hours after this document went live, however, then-U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-Moon removed the kingdom. Why? Saudi Arabia provides substantial amounts of money (totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars) for aid programs throughout the region. U.N. food programs rely on this money to assist civilians living in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria, and especially Palestine.
Immediately after the U.N. published their blacklist of child killers, Saudi officials commenced a harassment and extortion campaign. An anonymous source, speaking to Reuters, said Ban’s office received threatening phone calls from Gulf Foreign Ministers and officials from the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The source indicated that government-appointed clerics in Riyadh were discussing the possibility of issuing a fatwa against the U.N. that would prohibit all OIC contributions, support, and relations.
It’s no surprise Ban quickly caved to Riyadh’s pressure to cut funding. What else can one expect from an organization that welcomes a kingdom known for beheadings to chair the Human Rights Council?
Top photo | Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in Saudi Arabia. (Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP)