Yemen in Focus: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia aggravate Gulf tensions

Yemen in Focus: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia aggravate Gulf tensions
This week we look at the increasing number of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, the repercussions facing journalists who are covering the conflict and more.
6 min read
24 May, 2019
The rebels have increased attacks on the neighbouring kingdom [Getty]

Tensions in the Gulf between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been exacerbated this week with the deployment of Houthi strikes on the neighbouring kingdom.

Yemen's Houthis launched two attacks on a Saudi airport within 24 hours, the rebels said, just hours after Riyadh confirmed the group had targeted the Najran airport on Tuesday.

The Iran-linked faction targeted "hangers containing war planes" at the airport in southwest Saudi Arabia, the Houthi-linked Al-Masirah television station reported early on Wednesday.

Najran, 840 kilometres southwest of Riyadh, is near the Saudi-Yemen border and has repeatedly been targeted by the Houthis over the past four years.

The Houthis said on Tuesday they had successfully targeted an "arms depot" at Najran Airport.

A Saudi coalition spokesperson later confirmed Tuesday’s attack, but claimed that the group had attempted to attack a "civilian target" at the airport, which hosts both civilian and military airports.

On Monday, Saudi media accused the Houthis of launching ballistic missiles at the Mecca area – an attack strongly denied by the rebels.

The Saudi newspaper Okaz reported Saudi air defences had shot down the missile over Taif “with extreme precision” while people were having suhur, the meal which precedes the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast, and that the attack was evidence of “Iran’s plan to threaten the safety and security of pilgrims [to Mecca] during the nights of Ramadan”.

However, no evidence was provided to back claims that the missile was heading toward the holy city, which hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims around the year, especially in the month of Ramadan.

“The Saudi regime is trying, through these allegations, to rally support for its brutal aggression against our great Yemeni people,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said on Facebook.

Deadly backfire 

But despite the Houthi denial, the rebel group has no doubt ramped up attacks against the kingdom in recent weeks, targeting a key oil pipeline.

The rebels said their attack on the Saudi pipeline was a response to "crimes" committed by Riyadh during its bloody air war in Yemen, which has been criticised repeatedly by the United Nations and human rights groups for targeting civilians and children.

But the attack shortly backfired and the Saudis unleashed their anger on yet more civilians in Yemen, killing five children, among whom the the son of the leader of Yemen's journalist syndicate.

Abdullah Sabri, chief of the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate, and his family were among estimated 50 people wounded in the attack that also destroyed their home.

An entire family was killed in the same wave of strikes. 

The syndicate condemned the raids as "barbaric" for targeting civilian families in their own homes. In a statement on Thursday, they demanded an investigation into the incident, and called for the perpetrators could be punished.

The group stressed that the targeting of journalists and civilians was a violation of international law.

The Saudi-led coalition, which has been battling the Houthi rebels since March 2015, confirmed that its warplanes were carrying out multiple strikes across rebel-held territory in Yemen.

Missing journalist

Meanwhile, news surrounding the Marwan al-Muraisy’s fate proved to be a double edge sword this week after the prominent Yemeni journalist who has been missing for more than a year was revealed to be imprisoned by Saudi authorities in the kingdom.

Muraisy’s wife in a tweet confirmed her husband was alive after receiving a brief phone call from him after year since his disappearance.

RSF, along with five other NGO's, wrote a joint letter in September 2018 demanding Saudi authorities explain Muraisi’s disappearance.

He is being held with Abdel Rahman Farhaneh, a Jordanian journalist that has been missing since February.

It is unclear where the two journalists are being held. RSF called for the release of 29 other detained journalists and bloggers, noting 2 other journalists are still missing in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record, especially as pertains to journalists, entered the international spotlight after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi – a US-based journalist critical of Saudi Arabia who was later found to be murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi and believe his body was dismembered and removed to a location still publicly unknown. After first denying Khashoggi's murder, Saudi Arabia later said rogue agents had carried out the operation. A trial of 11 suspects opened earlier this year in Saudi Arabia.

But this week has proven to be bad for many journalists covering the Yemen conflict.

French repercussions

In France, reports this week said three French journalists who exposed their country’s involvement in the deadly Yemen conflict could face potential jail time in what has been described as an unprecedented case.

Geoffrey Livolsi and Mathias Destal, co-founders of Disclose, a Paris-based investigative news organisation that published a report detailing France's complicity in the Yemen conflict, as well as Benoît Collombat, a reporter from Radio France, were summoned for questioning by the General Directorate for Internal Security [DGSI], according to a report by The Intercept.

The agency, much like the FBI in the United States, handles terrorism and espionage cases as well as domestic threats.

The journalists were questioned for an hour after French authorities claimed they had compromised “the secrecy of national defence” following the publication of a report sourcing a “classified document” that demonstrated France’s complicity in the war in Yemen.

The report said French weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE – both of which lead the coalition battling the Houthi rebels in Yemen – have been used to kill civilians in the war-torn country.

Luckily though, a Saudi ship that has faced indiscriminate protest for attempting to deliver French weapons to the kingdom has suffered yet more anguish at another European port.

The 50,000-tonne ship which has already called at several European ports, reportedly to pick up weaponry, docked at the Italian port of Genoa on Monday, despite protests by harbour workers.

Italian unions refused to load electricity generators onto the ship carrying weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen.

It had faced similar obstacles in France earlier in the week, with French officials confirming a scheduled loading of arms at Le Havre was cancelled following protests by activists.

The issue of Saudi arms sales divides European governments, with French President Macron defending such sales as part of "the fight against terrorism".

Germany however suspended arms sales to Riyadh after the killing last year of Khashoggi in Istanbul, posing a problem for European partners as this could affect joint weapon production.

Obstruction of aid

Finally, and back on the ground in Yemen, the World Food Programme threatened to suspend aid to Houthi-controlled areas after accusing the rebel group of obstructing aid distribution.

The UN agency said said on Monday that its "greatest challenge" in Yemen came from "the obstructive and uncooperative role of some of the Houthi leaders in areas under their control."

It also noted humanitarian workers were being denied access to the hungry, aid convoys have been blocked, and local authorities have interfered with food distribution.

Some rebel leaders have repeatedly obstructed the agency's ability to choose how to distribute the food aid, it also claimed.

More news from Yemen, same time, same place – next week.


Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

Click below to see the full archive.

Yemen in Focus