This gun for hire

September 28, 2019

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THOSE who have been watching the Saudi massacre of Yemenis over the last five years with horror and rage can be excused our moment of schadenfreude.

This German expression is used to describe the feeling of joy over the pain of another. I experienced this as I watched the Saudi oil facility and wells in Auqab and Khurais go up in flames recently.

While the world condemned this attack, nobody seemed to have a word of sympathy for the tens of thousands of victims who have been killed and maimed as a result of inept Saudi and Emirati aerial bombardment. Our government, too, was swift to condemn the attack, although it has remained silent in the face of wanton Saudi brutality. Apart from all those civilian casualties, the Saudis have also pushed some 20 million Yemenis close to death by disease and starvation through its naval blockade of ports.

Nesrene Malik, the Guardian columnist, wrote recently: “There is a long-standing joke told in the Middle East about Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to fight its own wars. ‘Saudi Arabia will fight until the last Pakistani’, the punchline goes, in reference to the fact that Pakistanis have long supported Saudi’s military endeavours … Saudi Arabia is accustomed to buying labour that it deems too menial for its citizens, and extends that philosophy to its army…

“…When asked what fighting in Yemen was like under the command of the Saudis, some returning Sudanese troops said the Saudi military leaders, feeling themselves too precious to advance too close to the front line, had given clumsy instructions by satellite phones to their hired troops, nudging them in the general direction of hostilities. When things were too treacherous, Saudi and coalition air forces dropped bombs from high-flying planes, inflating civilian casualties. This is how Saudis fight: as remotely as possible, and paying others to die.”

Saudis have pushed some 20m Yemenis close to death.

There has been an international chorus accusing Iran of being behind these attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Reluctant to do its own fighting, Riyadh has called on its allies to respond to the Iranians in order to protect global oil supplies. Few have made the connection between the Saudi onslaught on Yemen, and the massive damage inflicted on its oil-processing facilities.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack, but it is hardly likely to accept responsibility. Despite the Houthi claim to have acted on their own, it is doubtful if the rebels have the technical capability to launch such a sophisticated operation. In either case, the pinpoint accuracy and range of the drones and missiles used would have given the Saudis and the Americans reason to pause.

Another connection is the direct link between America’s exit from the nuclear deal signed by Obama and the recent attacks. Not satisfied with the existing economic sanctions on Iran, Trump has turned the screw tighter, making it virtually impossible for Iran to export its oil. While Saudi Arabia and Israel have exulted in Iran’s pain, President Rouhani has proclaimed that if his country could not export oil through the Strait of Hormuz, nobody else would be allowed to either.

Meanwhile, America’s highly successful exploitation of its shale oil reserves has substantially reduced its dependence on Middle East oil. This has changed the nature of the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. And with Israel in post-election turmoil, Netanyahu is unable to exert the kind of pressure he could a few months ago.

Many have questioned the utility of Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-dollar arms purchases, especially from the US. When the drones and the missiles hit their targets recently, there was no response from the Patriot defence system. It turns out that this was designed to intercept missiles approaching from a steep angle, and not low-flying drones.

The fact is that over the years, the Saudis have been buying high-tech weaponry at exorbitant prices, with princelings allegedly raking in massive commissions. These weapons are parked in the desert, and are then replaced by the next generation of modern weapons.

I am embarrassed that Pakistanis could be fighting for the Saudis against Yemen. When Gen Raheel Sharif was recruited by Riyadh, there was come confusion about his role. It appears to have become clearer. However, the performance of the coalition forces in Yemen does not inspire much confidence in his capability, if indeed he’s involved in the Saudi misadventure.

In chess, if you push an unsupported piece into your opponent’s territory, it is likely to have a short life. The Americans have scores of bases in the region that can be hit by Iranian missiles in case of hostilities. Similarly, the Saudis have a large number of soft targets. Once seen as assets, they are all now hostage to swift retaliation should Iran come under attack.

It’s time to talk about lifting sanctions on Iran, not escalating the situation.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2019