The humble little solar power system and small TV my elderly mother and her friends gather around every night in Wadi Bana, their village in Ibb in the midlands of North Yemen, provides them – for the single hour the power lasts – with a tiny daily window for entertainment and laughs amid the misery of the war. Now, when I call from Sana’a to check on my mom, she complains that she can no longer watch her favorite programs: All the channels have replaced her shows with special coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder case. My mother has become an expert. When I ask her about her health, she responds instead with all the latest updates and breaking developments.
It’s not just that the overwhelming number of Yemenis are left wondering why the whole world cares so much about this one man while thousands upon thousands of Yemenis have been killed and the whole country destroyed by the US-backed Saudi- and Emirati-led war. Long before Jamal Khashoggi began writing newspaper columns for The Washington Post – long before he fell out with the Saudi regime, to which he had once been a loyalist – Khashoggi had a complicated and in many ways negative history with respect to Yemen, rendering our reaction to his terrible murder a more nuanced one.
For many years, Khashoggi was only known to top political elites in Yemen who followed his writings, interviews and tweets because they saw him as being close to top decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia – an intimate of Saudi intelligence – and as such, a good source for trying to predict whatever new Saudi tempest towards Yemen lay on the horizon. He was associated with Saudi interference in Yemen’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic affairs, part and parcel with Saudi propaganda, and reflecting official Saudi policies towards Yemen.
At the beginning of the current war, in March 2015 (and even few months before that, around the end of 2014), Khashoggi was a supporter and defender of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s catastrophic military intervention. In tweets, writings and televised interviews before the war, he pushed the exaggerated Saudi propaganda narrative about a “dangerously expansionist” Iran and the need to convince allies like the United States to join Saudi Arabia in confronting Iran regionally. He cited what was in reality dubious Iranian support for the Houthis, warning that supposedly Iranian-supported Houthi fighters in Yemen would take over Sana'a, Yemen’s capital, "establishing a new revolutionary reality," as he wrote in a tweet on Feb. 2nd, 2014. Such tweets reflected the policies of Saudi intelligence and were a beacon to pro-regime media that this was the official line to be followed. What had been in reality a Yemeni sociopolitical conflict became, through Khashoggi’s pen and voice (along with others), a sectarian proxy war that demanded a global military response. It became clear, in watching his tweets and interviews, that a decision had been made by the Saudi regime to launch a war in Yemen, and Khashoggi helped lay the groundwork.
He continued to push the party line once the war was underway, talking tough in a more recent English language interview on the BBC’s Hard Talk in January 2016:
“The Iranians support a sectarian party that hijacked the political process in Yemen. All of that led to a falling-apart Middle East,” he said in an interview from Jeddah. “We need to fix the Middle East. It would be much better if the Iranians pull out their militias, their hatred, out of Syria [and Yemen], sit with us, the Saudis, and talk peace. If they cannot do that, just get out of the Middle East. Go back to Iran and let us fix the Middle East.”
When he was a loyalist, he sounded not so unlike Fox News when its commentators promote the policies of Trump and the Republicans.
Only when Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia, finding a safe haven in the US, did he start to reshape his position on "Saudi’s negative involvement in Yemen," calling on Saudi Arabia, in his tweets, "to end that as soon as possible." However, even in this phase of interaction with the Yemen war, his criticisms were mild, shying away from full condemnation, seemingly at least as concerned with Saudi Arabia’s international standing as with the tens of thousands of Yemenis killed. As he wrote in a September 11, 2018, column in The Washington Post: “The kingdom cannot afford to have an open war zone at its southern border, the confidence of international markets and the moral high ground.”
Putting the war aside, Saudi Arabia’s strategy towards Yemen has always been one of divide and conquer. The notion of the Saudi Kingdom occupying the high ground, for us, is laughable.
Yemenis still remember Khashoggi’s tweets and writings against Yemeni laborers in Saudi Arabia, in which he sided with the Crown Prince’s policy of expelling Yemeni workers, long a source of cheap labor in the Kingdom and often a scapegoat for Saudi Arabia’s unemployment problems. As many as one million Yemenis live in Saudi Arabia, remitting several billion US dollars each year, truly a lifeline for the population; Yemen was poorest and least developed country in the Arab world even before the Saudis pummeled Yemen into the current humanitarian crisis that is our grinding reality. "Saudi Arabia should not backpedal from its decision to impose new fees on the foreign labor working in Saudi Arabia,” he wrote in a Sept. 7 2018 tweet. “We should continue to ‘Saudi-ize’ and nationalize the jobs and labor market. We should even criminalize all who cover up such illegal phenomena [of hiring foreign workers] in our country.”
This has long been the attitude towards Yemen workers. The Kingdom expelled one million Yemeni workers in 1990, after the Yemeni government supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In 2013, Saudi Arabia started deporting as many as two thousand Yemeni workers a day as part of new labor laws at the time. Lately, as part of MBS’ “Vision 2030” reforms to modernize the country and solve Saudi unemployment, more than 100 thousand Yemenis have been deported to date, cruelly kicked to the ruins of a country destroyed and fragmented by the Saudi-led Coalition (ironically spurring Saudi fears that these new throngs of Yemeni unemployed would take up arms on the side of the Houthis). Thus, thousands upon thousands of Yemenis and their families have been affected by regime policies supported and amplified by Khashoggi’s commentary, both before and after his self-imposed exile from the Kingdom.
The only ray of light we Yemenis see in the massive coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is that maybe the tiny percent of the commentary mentioning Yemen – the shyest of whispers – may call into focus Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s criminal war in Yemen (and the reality that the violence, disasterous for civilians, is armed, aided and abetted by the United States).
The world now has an inkling of a dynamic we Yemenis know all too well vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia: what it’s like to live under the smothering blanket of Saudi lies. Will this new and undeniable global awareness of the Kingdom’s modus operandi lead to a change in the crushing humanitarian crisis comprising our daily reality in Yemen? One can only hope.
Ahmed Hazem is a socio-political researcher, writer and analyst based in Sana'a, Yemen.