Despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts Yemen’ war has become the subject of much talks and debates over the past few weeks. Following months of bloodshed, and one particularly cruel humanitarian blockade not even mainstream media could deny the horrors unfolding in Southern Arabia.
But if Yemen has been in fact talked about at last, this is not to say that truths have sat at the centre of it all – that would have counting without the powerful pull of Saudi propaganda.
Here I will refer to Wikileaks extensive study on Riyadh’s gas-lighting techniques: The initial reaction to any negative coverage in the regional media is to “neutralise” it. The term is used frequently in the cables and it pertains to individual journalists and media institutions whose silence and co-operation has been bought. “Neutralised” journalists and media institutions are not expected to praise and defend the Kingdom, only to refrain from publishing news that reflects negatively on the Kingdom, or any criticism of its policies. The “containment” approach is used when a more active propaganda effort is required. Journalists and media institutions relied upon for “containment” are expected not only to sing the Kingdom’s praises, but to lead attacks on any party that dares to air criticisms of the powerful Gulf state.
One of the ways “neutralisation” and “containment” are ensured is by purchasing hundreds or thousands of subscriptions in targeted publications. These publications are then expected to return the favour by becoming an “asset” in the Kingdom’s propaganda strategy. A document listing the subscriptions that needed renewal by 1 January 2010 details a series of contributory sums meant for two dozen publications in Damascus, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Kuwait, Amman and Nouakchott. The sums range from $500 to 9,750 Kuwaiti Dinars ($33,000). The Kingdom effectively buys reverse “shares” in the media outlets, where the cash “dividends” flow the opposite way, from the shareholder to the media outlet. In return Saudi Arabia gets political “dividends” – an obliging press.
An example of these co-optive practices in action can be seen in an exchange between the Saudi Foreign Ministry and its Embassy in Cairo. On 24 November 2011 Egypt’s Arabic-language broadcast station ONTV hosted the Saudi opposition figure Saad al-Faqih, which prompted the Foreign Ministry to task the embassy with inquiring into the channel. The Ministry asked the embassy to find out how “to co-opt it or else we must consider it standing in the line opposed to the Kingdom’s policies“.
The document reports that the billionaire owner of the station, Naguib Sawiris, did not want to be “opposed to the Kingdom’s policies” and that he scolded the channel director, asking him “never to host al-Faqih again”. He also asked the Ambassador if he’d like to be “a guest on the show”.
The Saudi Cables are rife with similar examples, some detailing the figures and the methods of payment. These range from small but vital sums of around $2000/year to developing country media outlets – a figure the Guinean News Agency “urgently needs” as “it would solve many problems that the agency is facing” – to millions of dollars, as in the case of Lebanese right-wing television station MTV.
The “neutralisation” and “containment” approaches are not the only techniques the Saudi Ministry is willing to employ. In cases where “containment” fails to produce the desired effect, the Kingdom moves on to confrontation. In one example, the Foreign Minister was following a Royal Decree dated 20 January 2010 to remove Iran’s new Arabic-language news network, Al-Alam, from the main Riyadh-based regional communications satellite operator, Arabsat. After the plan failed, Saud Al Faisal sought to “weaken its broadcast signal“.
The documents show concerns within the Saudi administration over the social upheavals of 2011, which became known in the international media as the “Arab Spring”. The cables note with concern that after the fall of Mubarak, coverage of the upheavals in Egyptian media was “being driven by public opinion instead of driving public opinion”. The Ministry resolved “to give financial support to influential media institutions inTunisia“, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”.
The cables reveal that the government employs a different approach for its own domestic media. There, a wave of the Royal hand is all that is required to adjust the output of state-controlled media. A complaint from former Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi citizen Saad Hariri concerning articles critical of him in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat newspapers prompted a directive to “stop these type of articles” from the Foreign Ministry.
This is a general overview of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s strategy in dealing with the media. WikiLeaks’ Saudi Cables contain numerous other examples that form an indictment of both the Kingdom and the state of the media globally.
Now that I established just how “influential” Saudi Arabia has been when it comes to the press allow me to delve into another worrying matter: the criminalization of Resistance.
Resistance as a natural right
Resistance remains a natural, and therefore inalienable right – beyond that the right to resist tyranny and oppression stand at the core of Islamic principles as they are enshrined in the Quran as part of Men’s religious duty. Resistance was best embodied and expressed by both Imam Hassan and Ima Hussain in their struggle against injustice and state-sanctioned oppression.
Civil resistance – popular nonviolent struggle waged by ordinary people against dictatorship, foreign intervention, colonial occupation, corruption, or injustice with the use of diverse methods of nonviolent action – is by no means a new phenomenon. It has been practiced in a strategic manner for at least two centuries, going back as far as the American colonists’ mass boycotts and refusal to comply with the orders of the British crown that won them de-facto independence even before the American Revolution began. Today both the frequency of instances in which civil resistance is waged and the knowledge of how it is effective are now accelerating.
Consequently, civil resistance has a chance to overtake violent resistance as the global default method for grievance and rights-based struggles in the twenty-first century. At the same time, these positive developments are paralleled by the determination of autocrats and their enforcers to use every means at their disposal, not least violence, to crush civil resisters. This violence, far from showing the weakness of civil resistance, is to be expected precisely at a time of high apprehension that the walls of fear around their populations are actually crumbling. Regimes will then reflexively resort to such an action. For civil resisters, this reactive use of violence can create as many opportunities as dangers. It then depends on the skills of nonviolent challengers, such as their unity, planning and nonviolent discipline, whether they are able to counter violence with actions that raise the cost of maintaining autocratic control while, at the same time, minimizing the risks for themselves.
No longer can political power be seen as a constant, unchanging physical ability and material capability of rulers to exercise top-down control over their people: but rather a much more diffused, immaterial force shaped by the readiness of the great majority to accept that control or to withdraw their consent and start resisting oppressive structures.
In that sense, political power derives from a social contract or a transactional relationship between rulers and ruled whereby the latter agrees to be bound by the contract so long as the government exercises just authority, provides security and people feel that the benefits of accepting state legitimacy are proportionate to the loss of rights that, in a non-democratic society, are likely to be entailed. In this bottom-up process of give and take, when the conventional means of influencing politics such as elections, political parties or interest groups are not available, people can exercise intrinsic political power through nonviolent collective action, with the goal of building a just and popular sovereign order through representative government and accountable civil institutions. In that sense, civil resistance is a merely practical illustration of the exercise of the authority of the people. It aims to advertise and lay claim to the source of both legitimacy and power where it has always lain, though not always visibly – with themselves.
In this people-driven change, the nature of the state is shaped and defined by the extent to which its internal sovereignty stays representatively ‘popular’ and the degree to which a resort to resistance methods that aims to expand this ‘popular’ dimension of government remains within the boundaries of nonviolent defiance – e.g. actions that are not physically harmful even though they may compel compliance. The refocusing of the purpose of the state through the practical lenses of popular or people-centric sovereignty, which both legitimizes and is built on the practice of civil resistance, should have tremendous implications for global politics and its underlying international legal framework that has been constructed around states but has evolved in practice to incorporate human-centric principles. Civil resistance and an emerging notion of a “people polity” may represent a decisive force for a final push away from traditional state-driven discourse and practice, represented, by the idea of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, towards people-oriented, popular sovereignty based on the rights and responsibility to uphold them.
If ever there was more brilliant example of civil resistance Yemen quite simply tick all the boxes: one of the poorest nations in the world pitted against one of the richest and most violent theocracy in existence.
Yemen of course was never given the courtesy of its truth – rather it was talked over, and talked at, denigrated and belittled for its people’s blood have mattered little to the grand tyrants of this world.
It is Yemen’s dignity now that the press would like to reclaim away from its people.
In recent reports several Saudi-bought outlets have postulated that the Houthis aka the Resistance Movement have given into to child soldering to sustain their war efforts – a crime they have warned only serves to highlight the bestiality of the Resistance fighters.
The right to self defence
It is really Yemen’s right to self-defend which is being challenged. The Middle East Eye, a UK-based online media which journalistic objectivity is spotty at best, selective always, made a case earlier this August against Yemen Resistance Movement by decrying child soldering and other war abuses.
It wrote: “There is abundant evidence of Houthi atrocities. Earlier this year a UN panel, leaked to the press, accused Houthi rebel forces of committing a “systematic pattern of attacks resulting in violations of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, including carrying out targeted shelling and indiscriminately aimed rocket attacks, destroying homes, damaging hospitals and killing and injuring many civilians.”
The panel report also accused Houthi rebels of having used African migrants and refugees as human shields, and blocking access to food, water and medical supplies in Taiz. For more than a year, the city has been relying on young boys and women carrying food and life-saving supplies on the backs of donkeys via a long and treacherous journey.
In Taiz, both the Houthis and the resistance fighting against them have fought with no regard for civilians, shelling homes, hospitals, schools and heritage sites.
Human rights organisations such as HRW and Amnesty have also documented international humanitarian law violations by the Houthis, such as the recruitment of child soldiers (who were plentifully in evidence on the streets of Houthi-controlled cities), the imprisonment of journalists and activists as well as the shelling of civilian areas in Taiz, Aden and elsewhere.”
While I refuse to address claims that the Resistance Movement have used human shields … some allegations are too crude and baseless to waste time debating, I would like to get into this child soldering business, and the case of Taiz.
Taiz sits today under the thumb of al-Qaeda militants which the Resistance Movement has attempted to break so that civilians could be let go of. I would like to remind readers that Syria has suffered similar accusations of wrong-doings, only for the media to be proven shamefully wrong.
Yemen Resistance fighters are not looking to massacre their people, they are fighting a foreign invader who has exploited Terror and terror militants to erode at Yemen’s territorial integrity.
Yemen is fighting for its very survival and to do that a nation has had to recruit all the arms which dared volunteered. I will no excuse child soldering, but I will make a case for self-defence, for it is an inalienable human rights.
I would argue that blame lies not with the Resistance Movement but with those officials in Riyadh who have pushed an entire nation to the brink of annihilation so they could claim control.
Do not be so naïve as to believe that wars are honourable … Wars are ignominious in nature, and Yemen is doing the best it can under abominable circumstances.
Yemen did not call for its skies to be set on fire. Yemen did not call for its children and its future to be forfeited by Saudi Arabia’s grand criminals of war.
As you debate Yemen’s right to self-defence and right to resist tyranny ask yourself just how far you would go to protect your family and everything you hold dear.
Islam teaches us that there is no greater duty but that to oppose tyranny. Yemen has risen against tyranny do not sully its name by denying it is.
By Catherine Shakdam for the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies