Tomorrow, the young Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, will visit the United Kingdom for the first time since he dramatically escalated his reform agenda. The visit is shrouded in secrecy since protests have been threatened in response to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen conflict.
No one doubts that the situation in Yemen is a tragedy, with 60 per cent of the country’s population facing severe food shortages. Protestors are right to be concerned with the humanitarian situation and the continuation of a devastating conflict. The United Kingdom, as well as the countries fighting in Yemen, should be doing, and I am sure are doing, absolutely everything they can to bring this terrible war to an end.
I am quite confident that Saudi Arabia wants to get out of this war as much as, if not more than, anyone else. It is spending around $200m (£144m) every day on the campaign, and is acutely aware of how the war is eroding its international diplomatic standing.
Like many conflicts in history, the war, when it began three years ago, was intended to be a decisive and surgical operation. It was designed to restore the internationally recognised government in Yemen and provide stability on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The Yemeni government had been overthrown in a coup by a rebel tribe with no legitimate claim to power.
What no one anticipated at the time was the extent to which Iran would get involved directly in the conflict, sending heavy weaponry and financial assistance to the rebel Houthis in an apparent “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” alliance. Iran seemed to be trying to enmesh its Saudi rival in a prolonged conflict in order to destabilise the southern Gulf.
The collapse of the Yemeni state following this Iranian intervention has fractured tribal alliances and divided the country to the extent that it might now be impossible for it to put itself back together again without further bloodshed and instability. Worse still, the political vacuum has allowed al-Qaeda to move in and establish itself in the more remote areas of Yemen. Estimates of their fighting force are in the thousands, and despite a determined campaign by the Saudis and the UAE to drive them out, they still retain the capacity and territory to be able to plan international attacks.
So the real question for the protesters this week is: what are you asking Mohammed bin Salman to do, actually? Do you want the Saudi-led coalition to withdraw from Yemen unilaterally? The immediate consequences of this would be catastrophic for the country, Gulf region and perhaps wider world. Iran would build its Houthi clients into the predominant force in the country, turning them into a Hezbollah-style group with missiles lined up along Saudi’s long border with Yemen.
It would also give al-Qaeda, which is biding its time until Isis fully collapses, a de-facto country the size of Switzerland in the Middle East. When the terror group decides the time has come to take action again, they will be able to do so from their strongest and most strategic territorial position ever. Al-Qaeda was able to plan and launch devastating attacks from the distance of Afghanistan, consider what they might accomplish from the proximity of the Gulf.
Or are the protestors simply asking for more humanitarian assistance? This is not an unrealistic demand given the Saudis last month announced they were increasing aid to Yemen by $1.5bn, as well as giving $40m to the expansion of ports, $30m to cover non-humanitarian transportation costs, $2bn for humanitarian fuel costs and $2bn in urgently needed financial assistance to the Yemen Central Bank. The UAE has been giving at a similar rate, and in many instances actually providing essential public services themselves, taking the total amount of aid from the coalition to a level approaching the UK’s entire overseas aid budget. Indeed, the worst humanitarian crises are occurring in rebel Houthi-controlled areas, which the coalition cannot access.
If the demonstrators cannot clearly articulate what they want from the Crown Prince, then there is a risk of damaging diplomatic relations with a key intelligence and security ally. As the Prime Minister said last week, it is a relationship that makes both of our countries safer through “intelligence sharing which has saved British lives”. The Saudis will not forget who their friends were when they needed them most.
Mohammed bin Salman is beginning the demanding process of modernising Saudi society and economy at a breathtaking pace, introducing in six months the freedoms and equalities that most analysts thought would take decades to emerge – and which many of the same protestors have long called for. Those exercising their rights next week should reflect upon what Iranian success in the Gulf might mean for the people there. And the people here: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are our greatest Middle East partners in the fight against terrorism and extremism. On that basis the Crown Prince should be supported, not undermined.
Geoff Hoon is a former Defence Secretary and Foreign Office minister
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