Diplomatic hiccups are one thing — an awkward handshake or quibbles between French and Iranian diplomats over whether the banquet table will feature a few bottles of Château Latour.
It’s quite another for a prominent journalist, editor and political adviser to be ambushed inside his country’s embassy and butchered by a high-level hit squad.
That’s what Saudi Arabia is accused of having done to Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi embassy in Turkey on October 2.
Even in an age of anti-diplomacy when protocol is subsumed by late-night Twitter tirades, what Saudi Arabia is accused of is unprecedented.
The kingdom has denied involvement but hasn’t offered a credible explanation for Khashoggi’s disappearance either. It has led to a rising chorus of condemnation and a boycott by major investors of an upcoming Saudi business conference dubbed the “Davos in the Desert”.
All this, however, occurs against the backdrop of an endless war in Yemen, which the United Nations warned this week could plunge 13-million people into a famine. It would be the world’s worse famine in 100 years. And it would be avoidable, but for Saudi ambition and the rest of the world’s disregard.
The war and the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East’s poorest country have always been given short shrift by the international media, despite Yemen topping several of the “world’s worst” categories, including the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the world’s worst cholera outbreak.
Media reports cite a figure of 10 000 killed in the conflict. But, in what may signal a lack of international interest in it, this figure has not been revised for the past two years even though the fighting has continued. A less conservative estimate put the figure at 50 000.
Before direct Saudi military involvement, Yemen was already in a precarious state, with armed parties vying for power and influence — Houthi rebels, a secessionist movement in the south, nebulous formations of al-Qaeda-linked militants, tribal militias shifting with crisscrossing and fluid tribal alliances and a weak central government. Added to that is a secretive and widely despised United States drone campaign.
When the Saudi-led coalition stepped in, in March 2015, on the side of Yemen’s internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to thwart Houthi advances, things rapidly deteriorated.
An aerial bombing campaign was followed by ground incursions and a naval blockade that makes aid delivery a “logistical nightmare”, according to Anas al Hamati, a Yemeni aid worker with the South African nongovernmental organisation Gift of the Givers. “Our resources are limited. The fighting parties prevent us from reaching so many areas and there’s no political common ground for a solution.”
Al Hamati says his organisation funds three hospitals in Yemen, provides 20 000 litres of clean water a day and, since May, received more than 25 containers of food, clothing and medical supplies from South Africa.
“But the needs are huge,” he adds.
Although the South African public has proven willing to support humanitarian intervention, the government and the South African arms industry have been fuelling the fires in Yemen.
The Houthis are said to be backed by Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in the region, Iran. South Africa and Iran, which have close ties, signed a memorandum of understanding on defence co-operation in late 2016. Last year, the South African government sought United Nations Security Council permission to sell Iran R1.5-billion of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles, according to local media reports.
But, although evidence shows that the Houthis enjoy some Iranian backing and that Iranian materiel is finding its way into Houthi hands, the extent of that support is ambiguous and was “hugely exaggerated” by the Saudis in the lead-up to the war, says Na’eem Jeenah, the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre.
What is clear, however, is that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are almost entirely dependent on foreign arms for their offensive in Yemen, including an aerial bombing campaign described as “indiscriminate” by Doctors Without Borders, which was forced to evacuate staff after its medical facilities were hit.
There’s no telling who will end up as targets. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and has used these weapons in Yemen.
“We have documented the use of cluster munitions in various occasions in the areas of Amran, Hodeida and a lot in Saada”, said Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for emergencies, Priyanka Motaparthy.
Saudi Arabia is the third-biggest arms buyer in the world. It is also, with the United Arab Emirates, among South Africa’s main weapons customers, with a taste for armoured personnel carriers, mortar bombs, high-tech equipment and ammunition.
According to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee reports for 2016 and 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accounted for between R3-billion to R3.5-billion worth of sales. This included 230 armoured personnel carriers and millions of rounds of ammunition.
According to Defenceweb, in 2014 South Africa concluded a major contract for Yemeni-assembled armoured vehicles.
South Africa delivered four artillery systems to Saudi Arabia, according to Defenceweb.
South African artillery and military hardware, including the G6 howitzer made by Denel, have been spotted on Yemeni battlefields. In 2015 footage showed what appeared to be a Denel-made Seeker II drone shot down over Yemen.
By supplying weapons to the coalition, South Africa may be in breach of its own Conventional Arms Control Act, which states that the government should not export arms to “governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and should “avoid transfers of conventional arms that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts”.
Foreign arms from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and South Africa have helped Saudi Arabia to cement its status as a rogue state with an appalling human rights record, armed to the hilt and eager to flex its muscles. In Yemen, the coalition has attacked not just with impunity but also with encouraging nods from its powerful Western backers.
The Khashoggi saga may have sent chills down the spines of the kingdom’s international backers, but any line in the sand is unlikely to outlast the lure of arms deals.
Saudi Arabia, flush with petrodollars and lacking in transparency, has long been a magnet for weapons dealers who, says Jeenah, “thrive in opacity”. Its al-Yamamah arms contracts with the UK, initiated under Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s, makes South Africa’s controversial arms deal look like a jumble sale.
The cash paid in bribes alone exceeded the total value of the South African deal, which in part explains why the ruling elite in the kingdom is so enamoured with arms companies.
Money from arms deals flow through the royal family — a bureaucracy of thousands of princelings, which is more a ruling caste than a “family”. Khashoggi’s uncle, Adnan Khashoggi, was a notorious arms dealer.
The country’s rulers “never bothered with a big manufacturing sector”, says Jeenah. “They have been happy living off the oil they have as if it will last forever.”
The country has also used its massive arms expenditure — projected this year to be the biggest line item on its budget — to gain diplomatic leverage.
According to Jeenah: “The purchasing of arms is also a way for Saudi to exercise control over the US, UK, and to a lesser extent France.”
The sums involved and the jobs at stake for exporter countries are reasons that countries such as the UK, the US and France, which all have a lot to lose, are reluctant to halt the arms flow to Saudi Arabia.
Spain and Germany publicly announced that they would curtail arms sales to the kingdom but later made U-turns on those decisions.
“In the case of Spain, it was a labour issue — workers for the state-owned ship-builder Navantia raised concerns about job losses,” said Motaparthy.
This, and the fact that arms deals are so thoroughly entwined with high-level diplomacy and alliance-making (and breaking), gives the Saudis leverage.
The Saudis have such a thirst for armaments that often, before getting bogged down in Yemen, their purchases did not make strategic sense.
Now, with a détente between Iran and some Western countries, and increasing global criticism of Saudi Arabia, its hawkish crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — the real power behind his father’s throne — seems more interested in a homegrown arms industry.
This equation has led the Saudis to explore partnerships with Ivor Itchikowitz’s Paramount Group and a possible equity stake in Denel.
For South Africa, a much-needed cash injection in the struggling state-owned weapons manufacturer is a tempting offer — but at what cost?