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Paul Vallely on Saudi Arabia: First the statistic, now the tragedy

26 October 2018

Saudi Arabia’s crimes, large and small, should elicit a response, says Paul Vallely


The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (centre) at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (centre) at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week

IT IS puzzling that the death of one man should have triggered such outrage and disgust at the regime in Saudi Arabia, when three years of ruthless bombing in Yemen — and the death of more than 10,000 men, women, and children — failed to generate a similar ire.

The international response to the death of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi tells us something about our politics, and perhaps something deeper about human nature.

There can be no doubt about the callous and inhuman character of the air attacks launched three years ago by Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, against the rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Yemen.

Apparently, he was under the illusion that devastating bombing would bring the conflict to a speedy end. He is not the first politician to have made such a poor military calculation. As well as the thousands who have died, five million people are starving in Yemen, in what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Global strategic politics lie behind the war. The rebels are backed by Iran, whose Shia Muslim government is seen by the Sunni Muslims of the Saudi regime as a rival for regional supremacy. The United States and its allies, including the UK, back the Saudis in that power struggle. The Saudis still have vast quantities of oil, though it is diminishing, and they buy huge quantities of Western weapons: 60 per cent of them from the US, but more than 20 per cent from the UK.

Politicians are normally coy about making public the private calculation that political and economic interests outweigh ethical concern for those who suffer as “collateral damage”. President Trump is a different kind of creature. He openly admits that Saudi Arabia’s status as a strategic and economic ally tempers his response to the regime’s savage and premeditated murder of Mr Khashoggi. Every time he speaks, the number of American jobs at stake goes up: first 40,000, then 400,000, then 450,000, 500,000, 600,000, and now a million.

Others do not imitate the President’s response. Dozens of governments and business leaders have pulled out of the prestigious Saudi “Davos in the Desert” investment conference. Germany and Spain have stopped weapons exports to Riyadh. Opinion polls show that most British people want to do the same, even if our Foreign Secretary is equivocating.

It was Stalin who infamously said that the death of one man is a tragedy, while the death of one million is a statistic. With the interrogation, torture, murder, and apparent dismembering of a critical journalist, the Saudis have crossed a red line. Bombing campaigns can be morally ambiguous; the cruel murder of one man is black and white.

We can imagine ourselves in his place, and we can empathise with what his relatives are going through, especially when hearing that the whole grisly affair was recorded on Skype and intercepted by Turkish intelligence — even down to the hit-squad’s doctor’s suggestion to the killers that they listen to music while he attacked the corpse with a bone saw.

We do not have such vivid detail about the death of the 10,000 civilians in Yemen. But we would do well to exercise our moral imagination and our indignation on them, too.

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