‘If bin Salman could put Yemen under house arrest he would’

Balkans Post has conducted an interview with Professor Alan Nasser, author of United States of Emergency American Capitalism and Its Crises, to discuss the recent developments in the Middle East, especially the situation in Yemen, and the Trump administration’s anti-Iran rhetoric.

Donald Trump and Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in the Oval Office, March 14, 2017

“The West wants the most powerful and influential states in the region to be comprador mini-powers closely allied to the U.S. and its rich friends,” He said, adding, “Currently, Saudi Arabia and Israel fill this role.”

He also said, “If bin Salman could put Yemen under house arrest he would.”

Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

Q: Standing in front of a display of recovered missile debris, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley presented what she called “concrete evidence” that Iran has been arming the Houthis in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia. However, both Iran and the Houthis have rejected the claim, saying Haley’s remarks were “ridiculous”. What’s your take on this issue?

A: The greatest significance of Nikki Haley’s allegation is its attempt to demonize Iran. She claims that Iran is responsible for the Houthis’ attempt to attack Saudi Arabia by means of a missile attack. Haley’s charge is a ruse in service of preparing Americans and the world for possible U.S. military action against Iran. Her “concrete evidence” of Iranian aggression was wreckage of what she claimed was an Iran-made missile. But the U.N. had independent investigators examine the wreckage and published a report of their findings. They identified both Iranian and American parts in the debris, suggesting that the missile was patched together by the Yemenis themselves. And it is not at all clear that the remains pointed to by Haley are in fact the scraps of the missile fired at Saudi Arabia, because the Yemeni military’s stockpiles contain many of its own missiles.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Haley’s allegations by pointing out that “They try to hide their support for the bombardment of the innocent Yemenis through such accusations.” Zarif’s claim that Washington and its Western allies try to hide their complicity in the greatest current act of devastation on the planet is accurate far beyond the missile attack. The New York Times ran a December editorial titled “The Yemen Crucible” in which it accuses the Trump administration of “having nothing bad to say” about the Saudi bombing campaign, but itself says not a word about the massive U.S. complicity in the campaign. The very popular news program 60 Minutes featured a November story titled “When Food Is Used As A Weapon,” which presented in gruesome detail the suffering, death and disease inflicted upon Yemenis by the blockade and the aerial bombings. But there was absolutely no mention of U.S. participation in these atrocities, nor of historic U.S. arms sales to the Saudi regime.    

Both Washington and London have expressed faux outrage at e.g. the U.S.- and London-backed Saudi blockade of seaports, airspace and land crossings into Yemen, and have issued “demands” that these be lifted. These objections are thoroughly disingenuous. If London really wanted the blockade ended it would end its military support for the Saudis until they ended it. If Washington were eager to end the attack on Yemenis it would not be employing its Navy to enforce the sea blockade, nor would it be using its Air Force to refuel Saudi planes bombing Yemen. Former U.S. presidential advisor Bruce Riedel made the point bluntly: “[T]he Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support. If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman ‘this war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow.”

Q: What should we expect from this in the coming weeks or months?

A: It is not unlikely that Yemen will retaliate against continuing Saudi aggression by firing more missiles at Saudi Arabia. It is possible that one of these missiles would kill top government officials. In that case the pressure to declare war on Iran would be overwhelming. What determines whether this outcome happens is the behavior of the Saudis. Yemen’s attacks are in retaliation against aggression dating back to 2015. The Saudis’ rationalizations notwithstanding, Saudi aggression is not defensive. So the danger of a Yemeni missile triggering a war against Iran depends upon whether the Saudis cease their aggression.

I’m afraid there is no indication that Riyadh or Washington and its allies have any intention of ending the carnage. (I will discuss some of the reasons for this in response to a question below.) The hostility of the Arab and Muslim worlds to the U.S., the West and the Saudi regime will surely intensify. Most significantly, in addition to the danger of war with Iran, a terrorist backlash is certain to emerge, as it did in Iraq, as a result of the ongoing devastation. This could provide the aggressors with another pretext for trying to install a U.S.- and Saudi-friendly regime in Yemen. In that case, the aggression would intensify. The region would become more unstable than it is, and the danger of new regional wars would increase.

Q: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has tweeted: “When I was based at the UN, I saw this show and what it begat…”, referring to Washington’s moves before it waged a war against Iraq in 2003. Do you think a war between the U.S. and Iran is on the horizon?

A: The parallels between the abominations perpetrated upon Yemenis and the Iraq war are ominous. In 1990 then-president George H.W. Bush hoped for a multilateral fig leaf for what was to become the unilateral invasion of Iraq, Operation Desert Storm. He tried to compel the U.N. Security Council to ratify the coming war. The poor and/or weak countries on the Council – Columbia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Cuba and Zaire – were offered bribes, such as economic and military aid and access to cheap Saudi oil, for their votes. All but two, Cuba and Yemen, accepted these kickbacks. After the Yemeni ambassador, Abdullah al-Ashtal, cast his vote, a U.S. diplomat approached him and said “That will be the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” The threat happened to be picked up on an open U.N. microphone, and echoed through the meeting chamber. Soon it was broadcast throughout the world. Most commentators wondered at the naivete of the ambassador for neglecting an open mic. But, knowing how Washington operates, one might suspect that the diplomat knew exactly what he was doing, i.e. announcing to the world that attempting to foil a key U.S. objective will incur a heavy price. Three days later Washington cut its entire aid budget to Yemen.

A frightening similarity between U.S. aggression in Iraq and in Yemen is the deployment of disease as a weapon of war. President Clinton’s strategy in Iraq was especially sinister. The details were made explicit at the time on the U.S. Department of Defense’s website, in a document titled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities.” (That document, which I accessed after the war had begun, has since been removed from the Pentagon’s site. Detailed analyses of the document remain available online.) The context was elites’ desire to come up with a strategy that would force Saddam Hussein to toe the American geopolitical line, which included, among other things, reversing his policy of accepting payments for oil in currencies other than the dollar. The document was largely devoted to exploring the consequences of destroying by bombardment of Iraq’s water purification facilities. There was a list of diseases that would be spread as a result. Diseases among children were listed. The large-scale death of children was imagined by American policy makers to be seen by ordinary Iraqis as the outcome of Saddam’s refusal to do Clinton’s bidding. Iraqis were expected to rise up and depose Saddam in order to end the slaughter of their children.

As is – or should be – well known, the destruction of Iraq’s water purification system was in fact pursued by Washington, and 467,000 Iraqi children perished, who would not have died absent the bombings, or, as they were called in the U.S. media, “sanctions.” This was germ warfare on stilts and a major twentieth-century crime against humanity. On the news program 60 Minutes (May 12, 1996), then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary-of-State-to-be Madeline Albright was asked “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” These words were heard around the world. When Saddam finally agreed to Clinton’s demands, originally put forward as the price of ending the “sanctions,” Clinton abruptly changed his demand, and required that Saddam step down as a condition of the cessation of U.S. military aggression.

We must take note that the Saudi-U.S. war against the people of Yemen includes the greatest cholera outbreak in history, affecting now at least a million Yemenis, including hundreds of thousands of children. The Saudis have bombed schools, hospitals, and electricity and water purification plants. At present, about 20 million Yemenis, more than two thirds of the population, do not have access to clean water and sanitation. Germ warfare is once again the order of the day. And mass starvation too threatens, as famine and shortages of medicines result from the Saudi-U.S. blockade of Yemen’s ports, through which 80-90 percent of Yemen’s food imports arrive. All this in the name of defeating, or destroying, an alleged tool of Iran. Is this a prelude to a war against Iran? Because of the unpredictable, incoherent and sometimes unintelligible pronouncements of president Trump, we cannot know. But we can be sure that the danger of war with Iran, North Korea and any other nation that resists Washington’s global agenda will persist as long as the U.S. is determined to remain “the world’s only superpower.”

Q: How do you analyze Saudi Arabia’s aggression in Yemen and the role some Western countries, including the United States and Britain, play in that regard?

A: There are common interests among Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and its allies. The Western powers have an obvious longstanding historical stake in the Middle East, with its rich oil and gas reserves. The West wants the most powerful and influential states in the region to be comprador mini-powers closely allied to the U.S. and its rich friends. Currently, Saudi Arabia and Israel fill this role. The U.S.-Saudi alliance was forged in 1944 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a written agreement with King Abdulaziz, who promised Washington reliable access to Saudi oil in exchange for the U.S. providing military aid to the kingdom and meeting any threat to the rule of the house of Saud with military might. Both powers see Iran’s influence growing in the region and fear the rise of a regional power unfriendly to U.S. imperialism and Saudi predominance. The Saudi regime charges that Yemen represents Iranian expansion to its borders. Mohammad bin Salman’s war against Yemen is claimed to be a response to Iranian aggression. I do not believe that this explains the Saudis’ war.

For reasons I discuss below the Saudis have more recently been especially eager to gain tight control over Yemen. In early December Yemen’s ousted dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been part of a loose and unstable rebel alliance with his former enemies the Houthis, announced that he had repudiated his ties to the Houthis and was now urging Yemenis to support “talks” with the Saudi-led coalition which was at the same time at war with the alliance of which he was a member. The Saudis of course welcomed this overture. Shortly after Saleh’s announcement he was assassinated by Houthi elements. At about the same time, Yemen’s president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi beseeched Yemenis, from Riyadh, where he lives in exile, to rise up against the Houthi rebels and to turn a “new page,” which included an openness to relations with Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman was pulling all the stops in a concerted effort to gain control of Yemen. This has little or nothing to do with alleged Iranian aggression and everything to do with the financial straits the royal family finds itself in.

The Saudis’ financial problems have much to do with U.S. imperial geopolitics. Shortly after Washington began its stepped-up anti-Russia campaign, then Vice-President Joe Biden met with Saudi officials to get them on the bandwagon. Very soon after the meeting Saudi Arabia announced a reduction in oil prices, which forced Russia to lower its prices and thereby reduce one of its principal sources of revenue. Since then Saudi Arabia has been hemorrhaging money and its balance of payments has been hit hard. The kingdom has probably never had a financial crisis this severe. This is the source of bin Salman’s “anti-corruption campaign,” which has included the “house arrest” of countless lesser members of the royal family, princes and ministers, some of whom have been “imprisoned” in the luxurious Ritz-Carleton hotel. Sizable property and other assets have been seized. Fortune magazine estimates that bin Salman’s cash grab could net the kingdom as much as $800 billion.

If bin Salman could put Yemen under house arrest he would. Yemen has considerable oil and gas assets the revenues from which have been historically appropriated by corrupt Yemeni officials, including Ali Abdullah Saleh. More potential booty resides in offshore assets and Yemen’s fisheries and minerals. Considerable wealth from the larger Saleh family and the Al Ahmar clan would also constitute major new sources of revenue, a virtual jackpot, for the kingdom. The war on Yemen, after all, costs the kingdom about $200 million a day.

Let me conclude by stressing that Yemen also suffers from deeper aggressions not directly related to Saudi Arabia. These were first evident in the policies of Mansur Hadi, the handpicked candidate of Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration. He was chosen in order to institute in Yemen an economic regimen that is now the signature feature of international capitalism in its current financialized stage. Not only did Hadi nullify contracts with Dubai Ports and other companies and enter into new contracts with Saudi and Qatari companies, but he initiated the kind of austerity program that has been enforced by the International Monetary Fund and imposed upon countless poor and unstable countries, perhaps most recently in Ukraine. New kinds of taxes were imposed and privatization of lands was mandated. Adding insult to injury, the World Bank insisted that Hadi cut fuel subsidies. Most of these policies force ordinary Yemenis into deep debt. The result is a continuous transfer of Yemeni income to north Atlantic financial interests. Yemen cannot maintain its sovereignty under conditions which appropriate much of its income and steal its richest assets.

One of the developments that spurred an alliance among Ansar Allah and other rebel segments of Yemeni society was the proposed Federation of Yemen, which would create a huge territory, Hadramawt, a functionally independent state placing Yemen’s oil and gas wealth in the hands of Saudi Arabia and some of its allies. It is this kind of project, supported by the IMF and the World Bank, which would spell the end of Yemen’s sovereignty and the transfer of its wealth to Western finance capital. Keep in mind that this is a global project and will plague Yemen even if Saudi aggression ends. This is the long-term struggle Yemen faces.


Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His website is: http://www.alannasser.org. His book, Overripe Economy: American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy will be published by Pluto Press in June.