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The Yemen war and how not to criticize Saudi Arabia

June 13, 2016

Readers following news of the war in Yemen may have noticed that various outlets – including “socialist” ones – portray the Saudi bourgeoisie, the Iranian bourgeoisie, pro-Hadi forces, Al Qaeda, the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces as all being more reactionary than the U.$. Democratic Party or the AmeriKKKan working class and middle class. Supposedly, these Amerikans who are exploiters of Third World workers, and have united with u.$. capitalists for wars against Arab or Muslim countries again and again for decades, are more progressive than various Arabs or Muslims in the Middle East. When it comes to saying something about the Yemen war that isn’t just the same old platitudes about peace and unity and opposing the u.$. ruling class, the question arises what can one say that is different.

If it were a simple matter of u.$. imperialism versus a group with anti-Amerikanism emblazoned right in its flag, like the Houthis’, supporting the anti-Amerikans would be obvious. In contexts of being pro- or anti- Amerikan, movements like the Houthis and some forces labeled “Al Qaeda” – which are actually in conflict in Yemen – have to be given some consideration initially if forces more anti-Amerikan and more anti-imperialist don’t show themselves on the international stage. (Even in 2016, some still perceive the united $tates as supporting alleged Al Qaeda forces, particularly in Syria, so it may be possible to be more anti-Amerikan and anti-imperialist as Islamists.) When bourgeois governments in Muslim countries aren’t anti-Amerikan enough, and there is an appearance of Islam being corrupted by neo-colonialism or intra-proletarian fighting, and socialist revolution isn’t yet on the horizon due to u.$. global hegemony, movements like Al Qaeda are predictable. Of course, most Amerikans criticizing Saudi Arabia for its involvement in Yemen support neither the Houthis nor Al Qaeda. They talk about Yemeni suffering as if the Yemeni people just needed some Westerners or unnamed nonaligned forces to rescue them. It seems Westerners could save Yemenis by putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Western and non-Western affiliated forces whom Amerikans view as alienated from and oppressing both ordinary Western people and poor or middle-class Muslims in the Middle East.

Hours after the mass shooting at a gay club in Florida, this is perhaps the least opportune moment to be opposing warmongering against Saudi Arabia, which penalizes people who have sex outside heterosexual marriage regardless of sexual identity. Within minutes of the shootings, Saudi Arabia was accused of causing the shootings via the spread of Wahhabism. It would be a lot easier from a popularity standpoint to just say nothing about Saudi Arabia. However, people in imperialist countries have a responsibility to oppose warmongering against both Iran and Saudi Arabia. U.$. assistance to Saudi Arabia – or to Iran, which is a foreseeable possibility with ISIS if it hasn’t already happened directly – doesn’t suddenly make warmongering tolerable. Yet, when Amerikans criticize u.$.-Saudi relations, Saudi Arabia is almost always treated as if it were oppressing or dominating the Amerikan people – a tail wagging the Amerikan dog or oppressing the Amerikan people jointly with Amerikan rulers – or as if it were some kind of fascist imperialist country the united $tates was unnecessarily backing or allied with. So then even if the u.$. ruling class has responsibility in the war in Yemen, the Amerikan people – who are sometimes portrayed as innocently unaware of what’s going on with wars that don’t involve many Amerikan boots on the ground – are a victim or could start opposing Saudi Arabia as part of some anti-fascist struggle. That is despite Amerikans’ electing Obama in 2012 after Obama had already invaded Libya. (So, contrary to the notion that so-precious ordinary Amerikans were dragged into Yemen, they knew what was coming when they reelected Obama.) Even when the united $tates is said to back Saudi Arabia as an appendage or instrument of u.$. foreign policy, we hear about executions in Saudi Arabia, for example, as if the united $tates didn’t also have executions and a higher incarceration rate as the #1 prison state in the world. In this way, the chauvinist groundwork for more u.$. involvement in the Middle East is laid even in criticism of the u.$. role in Yemen. It seems to Westerners that Arab/Muslim countries are just naturally worse than the united $tates even if the united $tates currently backs “fascism” or “fundamentalism” in Saudi Arabia, or that the West could accelerate so-called progress in those countries and move the world closer to socialism somehow by siding with already-hegemonic u.$. imperialism.

In regard to u.$. interests and Yemen, u.$. imperialism – including AmeriKKKan so-called workers and middle-class people – has an interest in controlling trade of oil and non-oil goods between other countries regardless of its own energy independence. The Bab-el-Mandeb is important to the united $tates as a military and trade choke point as is the Suez Canal near I$rael, as many have noted. What is often not mentioned is that Saudi Arabia, as a distinct country, doesn’t necessarily have an interest in allowing total u.$. control of the Bab-el-Mandeb if it means potentially limiting trade of goods to and from China, for example. There has been discussion of both Iran and Saudi Arabia selling oil to China for yuan. This is why this writer suspects an element of compulsion in the u.$.-Saudi partnership in Yemen despite Saudi leadership. Certainly, the intrinsic interest of Saudi Arabia – as a country with its own capitalists – in an alliance with the united $tates is no greater than, say, France’s. France cooperates with the united $tates in Yemen, but there is a rivalrous aspect to the relationship between those two imperialist countries, as subdued as it is at times.

U.$. troops were in Yemen years before the Saudi-led intervention by multiple Arab countries with Western support. Like Saudi Arabia, Yemen was accused of complicity in terrorism and faced pressures to cooperate with the united $tates and pressures from its own people to withhold cooperation. Ali Abdullah Saleh cooperated with the united $tates before being overthrown and allying with the Houthis whose rebellion the united $tates is helping to put down. One can imagine a future in which Saudi royals have been overthrown and ally with anti-imperialist forces in a context of u.$. rivalry with another imperialist country or u.$. struggle with a proletarian country such as China. There have been indications in the media of China acting on in its own interest in the Bab-el-Mandeb during the Yemen war. Less than two months after Saudi Arabia began air strikes in Yemen, China was in the media as being in negotiations with Djibouti for a military base there.(1) The united $tates, France and Japan already had bases in Djibouti. Then, a year after the intervention in Yemen began, there was news of a planned Chinese naval facility with thousands of personnel in Djibouti.(2) With all of the warmongering against Saudi Arabia in the West and Saudi Arabia’s economic situation caused by the Amerikans and low oil prices, Saudi Arabia would have an interest both in cooperating with the united $tates under duress, and in securing its own influence. It could be a choice between either that or ceding influence over trade routes to the united $tates: allowing the united $tates even more influence in Yemen to the exclusion of China, which has clearly expressed its interest in the Bab-el-Mandeb. In this context, the Iranian-Saudi conflict theme prominent in so many narratives – and the Shia-Sunni sectarianism theme so common with Westerners – is a distraction from the issue of potential u.$.-Saudi conflict over Saudi Arabia’s access to non-Amerikan markets.

To the extent that Saudi and overall u.$. interests in Yemen diverge or different Amerikans have a conflict about Saudi Arabia, it could have to do with a certain group of capitalists – centered around arms manufacturers like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, which employ Amerikan workers and have Amerikan and non-Amerikan investors – supplying Saudi Arabia in contradiction to the interests of Amerikans in general. It isn’t just that the “United States” gives weapons to Saudi Arabia as some are suggesting. Rather, corporations with many Amerikan investors and also international investors, and Amerikan employees who are also voters, sell weapons worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia annually.(3) The united $tates and other Western countries then have an economic interest in the use of these weapons and in having a say in how these weapons are used unless they want to tighten limits on arms exports. If people see the united $tates as giving away weapons, or giving away money for weapons, to Saudi Arabia like it gives “aid” to I$rael, they may be missing an important aspect of the economic ties between the united $tates and Saudi Arabia in the arms trade – ties that actually can obscure the deep hostility between many Amerikans and many Saudis. This matters because the united $tates sometimes tries to confuse the anti-Amerikan world by portraying the united $tates’ enemies or potentially uncooperative partners as less anti-Amerikan or greater (or more reliable) Amerikan stooges than they really are. Saudi Arabia obviously collaborates with the united $tates at this time, but recriminations of collaborating with the united $tates can divide Iran and Saudi Arabia, to the united $tates’ benefit, when they are exaggerated or simplistic.

With France supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen and having an obvious interest in the Bab-el-Mandeb, some are viewing France’s recent initiative on a two-state solution for Palestine as a public relations move and nothing more. If, however, Saudi Arabia and Iran are literally turning the guns away from I$rael and toward each other at this time as has been indicated in the media, in an odd way Saudi Arabia and Iran could both be helping to create conditions for acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative; it would demonstrate more seriousness and be more concrete than some words from duplicitous Westerners against apartheid, colonialism, imperialism, occupation, or Zionism. It is a bloody way to do it, but an opening is an opening; one should be fixated on motivations of France and Saudi Arabia only so much. And not all motivations lead to a pessimistic assessment of the French initiative. In fact, France and Japan as imperialist countries, and China and Saudi Arabia, have economic interests in not allowing the I$raeli-Palestinian issue to result in even more u.$. influence in the Middle East. With another u.$. invasion may come greater ability to exclude non-Amerikan competitors. Almost by definition, an international united front to overcome u.$. obstruction of Palestinian advancement will involve bourgeois economic interests. Expecting it not to, or for everyone’s interests to be purely “humanitarian,” is unrealistic in the extreme. Nobody has shown that France’s image-related interests in supporting a two-state solution are more important than its economic interests, and neither set of interests would preclude an earnest effort toward the solution.

The recent addition of the Saudi-headed mostly-Arab coalition fighting in Yemen to the UN children’s rights violators list is interesting in the context of Palestine. Somehow, the intervention in Syria involving both Saudi Arabia and u.$. leadership and a greater number of child deaths didn’t merit similar condemnation. Ban Ki-moon kept I$rael and Hamas off the blacklist last year probably for political reasons,(4) but now Ban plays dumb and acts like Saudi Arabia, in response to being placed on the UN list initially, would be the first country to exert pressure in UN decision-making.(5) Supposedly, putting more than a third of the Arab League on the blacklist for actions in Yemen, and then publicly accusing Saudi Arabia of threatening to withhold funding from UN programs for Palestinians, isn’t political days after the Middle East peace conference in Paris. Saudi Arabia attended the June 3 conference, which issued a statement supporting the Arab Peace Initiative. The multilateral conference was opposed by I$raelis and others who emphasized direct talks. Ban Ki-moon apparently thinks the world is too disorganized or occupied to notice the connection between Ban’s treatment of Saudi Arabia and the intervention in Yemen supported by France, and the French initiative involving Saudi Arabia and the Arab Peace Initiative. John Kerry attended the same conference in Paris and like Ban has said some words favoring a two-state solution, but the united $tates is the main obstacle to peace and ending oppression in the Middle East. Selectively criticizing Saudi Arabia right now plays into the Amerikans’ hands despite the pro-Amerikan stooging by some Saudis. ◊

1. “China ‘negotiates military base’ in Djibouti,” 2015 May 15.
“Djibouti president: China negotiating Horn of Africa military base,” 2015 May 10.
2. “Chinese Navy logistics base in Djibouti will drive other investment, says adviser,” 2016 May 30.
“China military to set up first overseas base in Horn of Africa,” 2016 March 31.
3. “Saudi Arabia’s weapons imports lead surge in global arms sales,” 2016 June 12.
4. “UN’s Ban leaves Israel, Hamas off children’s rights blacklist but slams IDF,” 2015 June 8.
“UN chief leaves Israel and Hamas off children’s rights blacklist,” 2015 June 8.
5. “UN’s Ban Ki-Moon says Saudi Arabia ‘pressured’ him for blacklist removal,” 2016 June 10.

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