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Don’t dare mention Yemen

Updated January 06, 2018

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AS an occasional guest on one of the dime-a-dozen talk shows that Pakistanis watch avidly every evening, I remarked that Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem was certainly condemnable. But shouldn’t Pakistanis be more concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen — and Pakistan’s murky role in it? The other guest ‘experts’ froze and the anchorperson turned speechless; she subsequently called for a commercial break.

This is typical of how public discussion on Yemen is avoided. A glance at Pakistan’s TV channels and Urdu newspapers confirms the absence of news or critical discussion. While English language newspapers occasionally take a potshot, our obedient media generally echoes the civil and military establishment — which fully sides with fabulously rich Saudi Arabia against its desperately poor neighbour, Yemen.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office made its position perfectly clear on Dec 19. Just hours after Houthi rebels failed to target a royal palace in Riyadh, it rushed to offer congratulations: “The attack was successfully intercepted by the Saudi-led Coalition, by the grace of God Almighty, before it could cause any damage”.

The communique went on to condemn the “increasing frequency and ferocity of the missile strikes, targeted at innocent civilians by Houthi rebels” and declared that Pakistan stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia.

Siding with those who deliberately seek to starve Yemen’s children has degraded Pakistan’s moral status.

Whether the credit actually goes to God Almighty or to Raytheon’s Patriot missile system — in which the Saudis have invested a few billion dollars — the fact is that primitive rebel rockets have done little damage to a country fortified by the US and UK defence industries. Yemen no longer has an air force or air defences left; Saudi-directed aircraft roam its skies at will.

In the last year, Yemen’s markets, schools, and hospitals have been bombed and famine is around the corner. Even sanitary systems have been destroyed and nearly a million cholera cases have been reported. According to the UN, at least 10,000 have died, with air strikes responsible for 60 per cent of casualties. Over 2.5m Yemenis have been internally displaced.

We can be amazed by Theresa May criticising Saudi Arabia for using the £4.6bn worth of weapons Britain sold to it after the Yemen war began. And it’s almost unbelievable that Donald Trump had actually demanded that Saudi Arabia end its blockade of Hudaydah port. Even this vicious white supremacist does not relish starving Yemenis en masse. These might be pangs of guilt or perhaps a reluctant move to appease international opinion.

Trump and May are, at best, hypocrites. But what shall we say about Pakistan’s damning silence on Yemen’s grade-3 humanitarian catastrophe (Syria and South Sudan are also grade-3)? The Foreign Office has not condemned Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that have deliberately targeted food and water supplies, considered a crime under the Geneva Convention. Nor has it demanded an end to the food blockade. Only the threat to Saudi royal palaces and princes has mattered.

What explains Pakistan’s support? That puny Yemen somehow threatens Saudi territorial integrity, although a claim sanctimoniously repeated from time to time, is unbelievable. The Houthis are unknown to Pakistanis. While there is some vague belief that they are Shia, orthodox Shias refuse to accept them as their own. Back in the 1960s, Saudi forces backed the Zaydi Shias — now part of the Houthi rebel forces — against pan-Arab nationalists.

Most Pakistanis neither know nor care about Mansour Hadi, the recently murdered Ali Abdullah Saleh, or Yemen’s countless tribal rivalries. They also know that Saudi Arabia does not bomb countries for the sake of democracy or human rights. A kingdom that chops off heads and hands publicly every Friday has little use for either.

Pakistan supports Saudi hegemony simply because bags of riyals will buy you everything, including the allegiance of politicians and generals. The Sharif brothers have just returned from Madina, delighted at their ‘victory’ of being allowed to pay homage to the king. And, even if they are not directly involved in combat, thousands of soldiers of fortune — including Pakistan’s ex-hero general — are at the beck and call of Saudi rulers. Religion is used as convenient rhetoric but everyone knows how fake that is or pretends blindness.

Cash is really what speaks. Notwithstanding low oil prices, there’s still plenty floating around. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the architect of the Yemen war — will soon become keeper of the Holy Places. He has just bought the world’s most expensive home, says The New York Times. The $392m Chateau Louis XIV near Versailles, France, is said to have the world’s best bar. It puts to shame the Surrey Palace or the Sharif properties in London. Salman also bought a 440-foot yacht — this $500m vessel has two pools and a helipad. His worthy daddy’s recent travels were with a 1,500-strong entourage, two Mercedes Benzes and 459 tons of luggage.

Those on our TV channels who daily rail against the United States for invading Iraq conveniently ignore that KSA poured $20bn into Iraq’s war against Iran, or the $40bn dollop it gave to the Americans to chase Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But after Saudi Arabia’s muted response on the Jerusalem issue, parts of the Arab world are aflame. Posters displayed at a football match in Algeria depicted President Trump and King Salman as “two faces of the same coin”. After Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, Palestinian protesters in Gaza set fire to pictures of Trump, King Salman and Salman Jr.

Remaining a Saudi vassal state and siding with those who deliberately seek to starve Yemen’s children has degraded Pakistan’s moral status. Who will take Pakistan seriously when it talks of the plight of Kashmiris, Rohingyas, or Palestinians? Worship Mammon if you will and become mercenaries without conscience. But there’s a price to be paid.

The Yemen conflict is said to be a religious proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Maybe it is. Still, there is no reason for Pakistan to take sides. It must stay clear of a messy, bloody war that has no bearing on its security. It is time to bring our troops, retired or serving, back home from Saudi Arabia.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2018

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