Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Yemen War in the US Media: Khashoggi, the Tipping Point

I wrote this piece, titled "Khashoggi Case Puts Light on Yemen’s Plight" for back in November last year during my journalism fellowship (Sep-Nov 2018) at the United Nations office in New York. In the wake of the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, I was fascinated by the remarkably extensive media coverage on Yemen in the U.S. Being in the U.S. during that time really helped me understand the role of the U.S. media, Think Tanks & human rights organizations have played in the course of Yemen war. Most importantly, I realized how the murder of Khashoggi has become a tipping point. The following is a longer version of my initial report for published last month. Here I enclose new paragraphs that were left out of the TruthDig's version due to a words number limit there.

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New York, U.S. - The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has ironically put the spotlight on the suffering of millions of Yemenis through a four year bloody and destructive war. In particular, Saudi and Emirati atrocities in Yemen have been under greater scrutiny, in the media and in U.S. think tank scholarship - given Khashoggi’s tie with the Washington Post and the U.S. media. The murder has been placed in the overall context of MBS excesses in the Middle East.

Media attention played a significant role in the rebuke the U.S. Senate recently delivered to President Trump, whose policy is to stand by the Saudis. The Senate passed a resolution Dec. 13 to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and also blamed Salman, the Saudi crown prince, for the killing of Khashoggi.

The Senate resolution isn’t expected to pass in the House, but the vote was still welcome news to many in Yemen. “This is an overdue vote,” says Sarah Ahmed, a humanitarian worker in the capital city of Sana’a. “It’s been absolutely cruel for President Trump’s administration to assist a military operation, despite all evidence of the humanitarian catastrophe and war crimes committed in Yemen.”

Following mounting media pressure, top Trump administration officials also called for a cease-fire in the conflict, and Yemen peace talks commenced in Sweden. The talks addressed humanitarian concerns, and some steps such as a prisoner exchange were agreed upon, but the parties failed to reach accord on economic and political issues. Another round of peace talks is scheduled for the end of next month.


The war in Yemen has created what the U.N. secretary-general called the "worst humanitarian crisis" in the world now. The conflict began in 2015 as a civil war between the incoming Yemeni government and the Houthi militia group. Saudi Arabia intervened with deadly airstrikes, leading an international coalition into the battle. According to a recent report, the violence killed an estimated 60,000 Yemenis in the last two years. An additional 85,000 may have starved to death, and millions more could face that fate.

During the Obama and Trump administrations, the U.S. has supported the Saudi-led coalition, providing intelligence assistance, selling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and, until last month, refuelling Saudi aircraft during bombing raids. Reports by groups such as Human Rights Watch suggest that if war crimes are committed using these U.S.-supplied weapons—and if the Trump administration doesn’t investigate that issue—the U.S. risks complicity in the crimes. The United Kingdom also has been a key supporter of the Saudi-led coalition and has assisted it with sizable arms sales.

Yet before the Khashoggi killing, the media in the U.S. published only limited coverage of the conflict. “I remember in the very beginning the press used to occasionally cover it and rarely mention the U.S. role,” says Alex Emmons, an Intercept reporter who covers Yemen on Capitol Hill. “I actually used to think every time a terrible Saudi-led airstrike attack would happen that this attack would definitely get huge attention and wouldn’t be swept under the rug, but eventually I would get disappointed and things would tend to be overlooked.”

Critics pinpointed some U.S. media outlets for inadequate reporting on the conflict. MSNBC didn't mention the U.S. role in Yemen once during the course of a year, and “60 Minutes” aired a 13-minute segment on the human cost and devastation of the war but failed to mention U.S. support of Saudi Arabia.

As the war raged on, a number of American reporters have fallen into an egotistical pitfall. After managing to have a rare access to Yemen and producing critical reporting from the ground, they turned the spotlight on themselves thus becoming the story instead of the reporters of it - this boosted their fame but did nothing for the plight of Yemenis.

Things changed after Khashoggi’s murder, with The New York Times taking the lead. The Times stepped up its coverage of the Yemen conflict, dedicating prominent space on its front page for the first time since the war began and featuring a photo of a skeletal Yemeni girl who later died of starvation.

In past years, Saudi restrictions had added to the dearth of international media coverage—for example, Saudi Arabia closed the Sana’a airport and refused entry to journalists.

“(Being) denied access by the Saudi-led coalition to Yemen has always been a problem for me and other journalists in the U.S., but the murder of Khashoggi has made everybody more skeptical of Saudi Arabia and more interested in scrutinizing Saudi Arabia’s actions,” said award-winning New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof when this reporter interviewed him at the U.N. “The media’s interest in Yemen (also) stems from the U.N. warnings about losing the fight against famine in Yemen. The Times’ photos were clear and devastating proof.”

In recent months, The Washington Post has produced extensive coverage of Khashoggi’s murder and of atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Following Khashoggi’s death, the Post also published a controversial op-ed written by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi militia’s supreme revolutionary committee. In the op-ed, Houthi condemned Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder.

Critics then condemned the Post for providing space to someone who himself has committed war crimes. “Mohammed Ali al-Houthi ‘met the designation criteria’ to be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council,” wrote Gregory Johnsen, former member of a U.N. panel of experts on Yemen. “In other words, he is someone who has committed documented violations and crimes.”

Al-Houthi also has been responsible for the imprisonment of Yemeni journalists, another critical factor that has limited coverage of the conflict. The Houthis’ war on media groups began when the militia leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, cousin of Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, said in 2016 that “the media workers are more dangerous to our country (Yemen) than the nationalist and warring mercenaries.”

Dozens of Yemeni journalists have been detained in Houthi-run prisons, but international agencies often do not recognize them as captives because the Houthis are a rebel group and not a government. “If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Karen Attiah, the global opinions editor at The Washington Post, didn’t respond to an email inquiring about the reasons for publishing Al-Houthi’s op-ed. However, she said in a tweet that “We have given space to … all sides of many of these debates roiling the region. And yes, including the abusive ones.”

Other observers agree that all voices in the Yemen conflict should be heard. “Media is supposed to cover what is, not what ought to be,” says Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat to Yemen. “The Washington Post owes its readers the facts about the actors on the ground in any conflict—what they want, what their strategies are, etc.”

However, media outlets “should be careful not to overdo it, thereby turning their coverage into a platform for any combatant’s propaganda,” Khoury says. “In that vein, Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] buy influence via pages in major papers and grants to think tanks. The Houthis don’t have as much cash to throw around.”


Though the number of Gulf-funded Think Tanks in Washington is uncertain, it is clear the Gulf money funds several of the major ones among the 400 Think Tanks institutions in DC, but of the leading organizations like Middle East Institute, Arab Gulf states institute, The Arab Center, Gulf International Forum, Brookings, and others have received full or partial funding from Gulf countries.

The Middle East Institute was given about $20 million from UAE over 2016-2017. The Arabian Foundation was even established by Saudi Arabia just in the course of the war in Yemen and it has been heavily focused on the Yemen war. In the wake of Jamal’s murder, however, both Brookings and the MEI have terminated grants they received from Saudi Arabia, though not from the UAE.

“For many years, in D.C.’s think tank world, there has been a general unwillingness to come down (as) hard on Saudi Arabia as they do on other countries,” Emmons says. “That’s probably because so many think tank organizations receive generous donations from Saudi Arabia.”

These think tanks recruit scholars and analysts (often people who formerly worked in influential political positions) who produce analysis and policy papers which often reflect not only an institutional bias but also favour the perspective of their donors. These same analysts also appear on U.S. cable news as expert-commentators. In light of the lack of access for journalists to Yemen, these commentators serve as a replacement and a news source.

US TV networks find these experts’ viewpoint as authoritative and regularly invite them to appear on their shows. Many of these networks, however, fail to mention the affiliation of these commentators’ respective Think Tanks and who do the experts represent.

Whether with their op-eds, TV interviews, or panel discussion events, these think tanks have played a role in shaping public perceptions. Through one investigative report after another, it’s been shown how both United Arab of Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s perspectives have dominated the U.S. media and policymaking community through buying influence.


Yet the influence is often challenged by both U.S. and international Human Rights advocacy groups. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, NGOs have played a critical role in acting as both advocates and reporters whose reports and media interviews shown in the U.S. media tend to present more compelling content than think-tankers.

For the small independent and non-profit advocacy group, Yemen Peace Project, the role of NGOs’ is a double-edged sword, “NGOs’ role could be helpful since we have more access to Yemen than journalists do, and we could bring out more information out of political events than think-tankers do,” says Will Picard, YPP’s founding and executive director since 2010, “nonetheless, we are sometimes accused of not having objectivity.”

Picard was referring to an incident in 2017 in which the Yemeni Embassy in the U.S. accused YPP of hosting an event that had “a political agenda tied to the Houthi rebels.” YPP defended its neutrality, saying it had documented abuses by both sides in the conflict. Foreign Policy magazine supported the nonprofit, calling the embassy accusation an “unusual step betraying Sanaa’s acute sensitivity to criticism.”

In the end, instead of undermining YPP’s credibility, the attack provided free publicity to the organization—something the small group wouldn’t have been able to afford on its own.

Oxfam America’s experience has been different. The organization believes that their work has been well-received. Nonetheless, Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, laments the selectiveness of the U.S. media. “Unfortunately there’s a disproportionate amount of interest in US-Saudi relations compared to the reality of widespread hunger, disease and violence confronting millions of Yemenis,” says Paul.

It’s not only the US-Saudi relations that did not receive enough media coverage in the past, but also a variety of different issues in Yemen. This is echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Yemen researcher, Kristine Beckerle, saying “When you look at the media coverage on Yemen, a lot of it, and fairly so is on the humanitarian crisis & Saudi-led co airstrikes, and both these issues absolutely need to be covered but things that get a lot less attention are things like UAE detention, Houthi abuses, complicated political maps like in Taiz.” This impacts not only the public’s understanding of Yemen but also the policies on the crisis, as the range of issues in Yemen are not being fully understood or taken into consideration.

In the wake of the Khashoggi murder, U.S. media coverage of Yemen has gone from limited to extensive. The focus has not turned to holding the states with power on the ground accountable for the human suffering in Yemen. “The coverage makes it more costly to bomb or starve civilians, and it also embarrasses this government like the US and UK, that are implicated so it puts pressure on them to change policies. I think this is exactly what is going to happen here,” concludes Kristof.