On October 7, 2016, as hundreds of Yemeni mourners gathered at a funeral hall in Sanaa, a Saudi-led military coalition orchestrated one of the deadliest attacks in Yemen’s civil war to date. Over 140 Yemenis were killed and more than 500 wounded in the resulting carnage.
The attack, dubbed a war crime by many, is not the first time the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, has been accused of indiscriminately and intentionally targeting civilians. According to UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, at least 4,125 civilians have been killed since the bombing campaign began in March 2015.
What was meant to end in a swift victory for the coalition is rapidly turning into a protracted civil war with grave humanitarian consequences. The Saudi-led intervention has wreaked havoc on Yemen and inflamed sectarian rifts across the Gulf region. Eight months after Saudi Arabia said its efforts were drawing to a close, airstrikes are still raining down on the country’s impoverished cities on a near-daily basis. The continuous attacks have inflicted massive destruction on the country’s infrastructure. With almost half a million children severely malnourished, Yemen is on the brink of famine.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to imagine how public support in coalition states (most of which are in the Gulf region) for the war has not waned.
Admittedly, public opinion in non-democratic societies is difficult to measure. The narrative propagated by official, state-affiliated media outlets in Gulf states, like Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates – key players in the coalition – present an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the coalition’s role in the war. At the same time, however, there are those who have publicly opposed and denounced the coalition’s actions in Yemen.
As the situation continues to deteriorate, these critical Gulf-based voices need to be heard. But, as a newly released report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reveals, those who have spoken out have paid a steep price for their dissent. Their situation is a stark reminder that criticism of Saudi Arabia’s reckless crusade will not be tolerated in Gulf countries.
In Bahrain, where the government has wholeheartedly supported Saudi’s intervention in Yemen, political activist, Fadhel Abbas, and human rights advocate, Nabeel Rajab, have both been arrested for tweets criticizing Bahrain’s role in the coalition. Abbas has been sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “spreading false information that could harm military operations” in Yemen. Rajab is currently in solitary confinement awaiting trial. He faces up to fifteen years in prison.
In Kuwait, the case of Abdul Hamid Dashti, a member of parliament, is largely emblematic of the government’s zero-tolerance approach to criticism of its involvement in the coalition. After the Saudi Embassy in Kuwait filed a complaint against Dashti on April 30, 2015 demanding he be tried on charges of insulting the Saudi government, a Kuwaiti court obliged and sentenced him to eleven years and six months in prison, in absentia. Khaled Al Shatty, a lawyer and former member of parliament, has also been targeted for comments he made over Twitter. After repeated harassment by State Security officers, he was detained for five days and placed in solitary confinement in Kuwait. He is currently awaiting trial and could face the death penalty.
The UAE, currently the second biggest force in the coalition, has been similarly relentless in pursuing war critics. Omani citizen Thamer al-Balushi was arrested in March 2016 on charges of mocking the Emirates’ regional policies. Although he was acquitted six months later, his case is a warning to others about the consequences of speaking out against the Yemeni war in the UAE.
In the wake of this latest Saudi-led attack on Yemeni civilians, the international community has finally shown some interest in what has been a largely forgotten war. After international outrage forced Saudi Arabia to admit responsibility, the coalition promised to conduct an immediate investigation into the incident. The United States and UK, both of which have been repeatedly criticized for their role in backing the Saudi-led war, have threatened to review their support of the coalition, but no solid action has been taken yet.