The Yemen war in the Saudi media

Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, chief architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, pictured with members of  the armed forces in February this year. Photo: SPA

During the 16 months that Saudi Arabia has been waging war in Yemen there has been little discussion of the kingdom's media strategy, though in some ways it is almost as important as the military strategy. In the article below, Sebastian Sons and Toby Matthiesen argue that the kingdom is relying on two distinct narratives to justify its intervention in Yemen – one intended for a domestic audience and the other for an international audience.

For the Arabic-speaking and domestic audience the war has been characterised by religious, sectarian, and other ideological narratives which help to divert attention from other problems inside the kingdom. Meanwhile, for an English-speaking audience it has been protrayed mainly in security terms, as defensive action against an external aggressor.

The article below is part of a collection published by the Muftah website on media coverage of the Yemen war. The articles emanate from a workshop last May organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

by Sebastian Sons and Toby Matthiesen

Just two months into his reign, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman launched a military intervention in Yemen, one of the biggest foreign policy adventures in the Kingdom’s modern history. The intervention was intended to crush the Houthi movement and reinstall the government of interim Yemeni president, Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi.

Portrayals of the war have been overwhelmingly positive in the Saudi press, which is unsurprising given the controlled nature of media in the Kingdom. Saudi news outlets have historically served as a tool of the state, propagating national narratives and state ideologies. Although traditional media outlets in the Kingdom are privately-owned, their owners and founders are part of the royal family or have strong ties to it.

Broadly speaking, the Saudi media promoted two main arguments in favour of the war. On the one hand, the intervention was presented as absolutely essential to defending Saudi Arabia’s interests. In domestic, as well as in international media, official Saudi representatives, including politicians, ambassadors, and journalists, presented the war as a matter of self-defence against an external aggressor (the Houthis). On the other hand, the war was promoted as a religious obligation and sacred duty, primarily to Arabic-speaking audiences. This argument relied on sectarian language, focusing on the Houthis as members of the Zaydi tradition, a branch of Shiite Islam, and their alleged alliance with Iran.

These and other portrayals have been a key part of the Saudi-led intervention, which has been as much about media strategy as it has been about military tactics.

A novel strategy: defending national interests with military means

The belief that Saudi Arabia can only defend its interests in Yemen through military intervention is a novel one. It is part of a broader rethinking of Saudi foreign policy that has taken shape in the wake of the 2011 uprising and gained steam following the ascent of King Salman and his son Muhammad bin Salman in 2015.

For the last several decades, Saudi Arabia has typically taken an indirect approach to intervening in Yemeni affairs, which has focused on petro-dollar diplomacy that uses oil money to co-opt political opponents and mediate conflicts. There have, however, been a few exceptions to this rule. In Yemen’s civil war, in the 1960s, Saudi Arabia supported the royalists and defenders of the north Yemeni imamate militarily, after the old ruling family was challenged and eventually deposed by a republican movement. These royalists were ironically also largely Zaydi, like the Houthis. Later, particularly in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia engaged in skirmishes and supported enemies of the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which governed South Yemen from 1967 to 1990.

For most of the period since Yemen’s unification in 1990, however, Saudi kings have defended their country’s interests in Yemen through checkbook diplomacy. Although Saudi money did not always yield the desired results, financial assistance was a relatively effective way of maintaining Saudi influence in Yemen without actual military intervention.

Saudi interests in the Yemen war

As many analysts have discussed, Saudi Arabia’s most immediate interests in the current conflict involve countering the Houthis and eliminating Iran’s alleged influence in Yemen. The present Saudi leadership sees itself as locked in an epic rivalry with Iran, which started with the Iranian revolution of 1979 but intensified with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sectarianisation of the Arab uprisings after 2011.

The Saudi government also has several other strategic interests in intervening in Yemen, however – and the Saudi media has actively helped it in realising these goals.

First, King Salman wants to position himself and his son Muhammad – the Minister of Defence and second crown prince – as strong decision-makers during times of external threat. With its positive reporting on the intervention, the Saudi media has assisted the king in achieving this objective. Salman and his son have been praised by journalists and state officials for preemptively striking Yemen, in order to secure the stability of the kingdom, the whole ummah, and the Saudi people.

Media outlets have focused on the two men’s strength in guiding Saudi through tumultuous times. The new king has been praised for not turning a blind eye to the fragile southern flank and applauded as a real leader. The media has also published pictures and videos of Muhammad bin Salman, as commander-in-chief accompanied by his military advisers – images that have projected Bin Salman’s image as a strong figure.

Second, Salman and his allies believe the Yemen war was necessary to avoid further destabilisation in the region and Kingdom. Official discourse in state-controlled media has focused substantially on this narrative. Faisal al-Shammeri, who works for the Saudi embassy in Washington, stated:

“Would, for example, the United States be indifferent if Mexico suddenly took a similar path to that of Yemen, and began bringing lethal cruise and ballistic missiles up to its border with the US, and arming non-state actors who would represent legitimate security risks not only to the United States but to US citizens who live in those immediate border areas?”

Third, the new Saudi leadership hopes to generate patriotism and “rally-around-the-flag” effect by waging war against an external enemy. For its part, the Saudi media has praised the army for its “honourable” fight against its enemies. Although Saudi airstrikes did not lead to widespread military successes against the Houthis, Saudi media have suggested these strikes were responsible for territorial gains.

Fourth, widespread media coverage of the military campaign has helped the government divert attention away from the Kingdom’s domestic problems, including socioeconomic challenges created by decreasing oil prices, rising unemployment, and the increasing threat of ISIS’s terror attacks on Saudi soil. By blaming the Houthis and Iran for Yemen’s instability, Saudi media has exaggerated the importance of the Yemeni campaign, in order to unify the Saudi population during a time of socioeconomic problems, armed insurgencies, and low oil prices.

Fifth, the Yemen war is an opportunity for the Saudi government to position itself as a benevolent actor. Saudi media has presented the intervention as supporting the Yemeni people who are in need of Saudi Arabia’s help. In September 2015, the pro-state, English-language daily, Saudi Gazette, featured a story on a pro-Saudi rally organized by Yemeni-Americans in the United States during a visit by King Salman, which included the hashtag #Thanks_Salman for his support. Similarly, in March 2016, the Saudi press reported on pro-Saudi leaflets that were allegedly distributed in Sana’a, a bizarre occurrence, if in fact true at all, since the city has been under the control of the Houthis/Saleh forces.

The Saudi press and international media criticism

In the first year of the war, more than 9,000 people have been killed in Yemen, including at least 3,200 civilians, many of them by Saudi airstrikes. As the UN reported in January of this year, as many as 119 coalition sorties have violated the laws of wars. These violations, together with the rising number of civilian casualties, have been criticised by international media, which has called for a shift in Saudi military tactics and an end to the conflict.

Saudi media has rejected this international criticism, peddling a logic that is best captured by an anonymous article in the Saudi Gazette: “Outside parties are trying to instigate revolt against the Kingdom’s leadership through fake social media accounts under Saudi names and fabrication of information.”

Saudi press has countered international criticism, in part, by pointing to the Kingdom’s so-called efforts to help the Yemeni people, including its establishment of the King Salman Humanitarian and Relief Center. The center provides medical and humanitarian support to Yemenis, including providing food, health, and other items, through twenty-eight programs administered by UN, international, and national organisations. Financial donations from the center to the UNHCR have been regularly covered by the Saudi press.

By ignoring certain aspects of the conflict, Saudi media has also attempted to insulate the government from international criticism. Journalists and editors are aware of the red lines they are not allowed to cross: the political decisions of the royal family, the clergy, and religion. As a result, self-censorship plays a significant role in the Saudi media campaign supporting the intervention.

The war’s total costs are estimated to range between $50 billion and $70 billion in 2015, but the Saudi press has ignored these facts, even though they contributed significantly to Saudi Arabia’s record budget deficit in 2015. Covering the cost of the war is one of the Saudi media’s red lines, as it would compromise King Salman’s reputation and authority.

The rising threat of militant jihadism from Yemen, though partly a result of the military intervention, has been similarly ignored by the Saudi media. While Saudi news outlets have reported on ISIS’s presence in the country, especially after several terrorist attacks occurred in the Eastern Province from late 2014 onward, it has turned a blind eye to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) growing presence in Yemen. Thanks to the power vacuum created by the Saudi military campaign, AQAP has been able to capture various southern Yemeni cities, including Mukalla, where the group also profited from anti-Houthi sentiments.

Shaping international public opinion: a Saudi “public relations blitz”

After the launch of the Yemen war, the new Saudi government began a “public relations blitz” in the international media, organized by some of the world’s largest PR companies. European newspapers such as the Telegraph, in the UK, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in Germany, published interviews with or op-eds from Saudi state officials, who tried to explain and legitimize the Yemen campaign.

In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Saudi embassy in Germany paid for an advertisement to promote the Kingdom’s new foreign policy. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman also gave a number of interviews in various international news outlets to boost his international profile and defend Saudi foreign and economic policies.

As part of this international public relations strategy, the Saudis have described the Yemeni war differently in Arabic and English-language Saudi media. English-language newspapers, such as Arab News and Saudi Gazette, which are largely directed at foreigners living inside and outside the Kingdom, have generally avoided ideological or religious arguments to legitimatize the Yemen war, and, instead, emphasized its political and security dimensions. By contrast, arguments in Arabic-language media have mostly been driven by religious, sectarian, and other ideological narratives.

Legitimising the war locally: ideology and sectarianism

In the Kingdom, the war has been backed by a wide range of religious figures. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti has repeatedly endorsed the war, and described it as part of an effort to stop the ‘Safavid march’ in the region. Salah bin Humaid, a senior cleric, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and speaker of Saudi Arabia’s consultative assembly, the Majlis al-Shura, has also endorsed the war. A video of Bin Humaid firing rockets at Houthi positions from the southern Saudi border amidst shouts of allahu akbar went viral on social media.

Another senior cleric, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, who is also an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, went so far as to call the ‘war with Iran,’ which includes but is not limited to Yemen, a religious war between Sunnis and Shias. Some Salafis supported the intervention, using words such as “rawafid” (rejectionists) and “safawi” (Safavids) to describe the Zaydis.

What lies ahead

Saudi Arabia has made enormous efforts to mobilize its population in support of the Yemen war, and spread its interpretation of the conflict across the region and the world. More than one year after the military campaign began, the official media discourse remains an important element of Saudi government propaganda.

The Kingdom has branded itself a leading regional player and made the Yemen war a center-piece of its new position in the region. While this propaganda strategy has partially worked, and key Western allies such as the United States and the UK have continued to support the Saudi-led war, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this media narrative the longer the conflict goes on and the more casualties and destitution the fighting causes.

* The authors would like to thank the participants in the workshop convened in May 2016 by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Regional Office Gulf States, as well as Helen Lackner, for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.