On Aug. 9, the civil war in Yemen attracted the attention of international media outlets after Saudi Arabia and its allies admitted to wrongdoing in a conflict where both sides have committed a number of human rights abuses.
Last month, a coalition of Saudi-backed forces conducted an air raid in North Yemen, striking a school bus and killing at least 43 people, mostly children. After originally calling the airstrike a “legitimate military operation,” the Saudi-led coalition responded to widespread international backlash by admitting that the attack was unjustified and vowing to hold “anyone who contributed to the error accountable,” according to a New York Times story published on Sept. 2.
International organizations generally recognize March 25, 2015, when an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched an airstrike against Houthi rebels, as the day when the low-grade conflict became a full-blown war.
According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Hart, Saudi Arabia’s admission of wrongdoing in this conflict is unusual and unexpected.
“I have to say at first I was a little surprised,” Hart said, adding that he would not have expected Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who Western experts suspect to be the key Saudi actor overseeing the campaign in Yemen, to relent from his heavyhanded approach to the conflict.
“[MBS] is concerned about Saudi power, and this is a temporary backstep to make sure his power is consistent and strong,” Hart said.
To Hart, Saudi Arabia’s admission of wrongdoing seemed to be in the interest of perpetuating its campaign in Yemen rather than relenting in any sort of meaningful way.
Hart explained that American perceptions of Saudi Arabia matter because it is the American government that provides much of Saudi Arabia’s firepower in the conflict. MBS is opting to backtrack now for the sake of preserving the influx of supplies Saudi Arabia needs to continue waging war.
“[Saudi Arabia] not backtracking,” Hart said, “if it’s going to risk your political relationship potentially with at least some parts of the United States, that could have material consequences.”
Hart emphasized that the specific act of striking a school bus is one of many in what has been a “brutal, brutal campaign.” Both the Saudi-backed forces and the Iran-supported Houthi rebels have been accused by the United Nations of war crimes, ranging from the strikings of residential areas to enlisting child soldiers as young as eight years old.
Hart explained that the reason why such brutal acts have by and large continued without either side facing major consequences is that neither Saudi nor Iranian lives are at stake. This means any sort of pressure for these governments to change their ways must come indirectly and externally, which is what happened in the case of this most recent Saudi strike.
“[It is] the proxy nature of this conflict — in which the people who are dying are not really the citizens of Iran or Saudi Arabia — that makes both of those governments so willing to do dastardly things, to do things that lead to the deaths of many, many citizens, because they don’t face those costs,” Hart said.
Hart is not optimistic that Saudi Arabia’s admission of wrongdoing will lead to more international accountability in the future.
“As long as Saudi Arabia is willing to apologize for at least some of the terrible things … my intuition is that that provides them enough cover to keep this war very intense,” he said.
Even so, Hart added that the bellwether for Saudi behavior in Yemen is their continuation of the blockade of humanitarian aid from coming into the country that they began last year. The statements made by the Saudi government in the next few weeks could be the deciding factor between change and more of the same in one of the world’s most devastating conflicts.