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Just Deserts

On the morning of 9 August, a bus stopped in the market area of the town of Dahyan in northern Yemen, close to the border with Saudi Arabia.  People at the scene reported that warplanes had been circling the area for an hour or so, a common occurrence.  The area was crowded with civilians.  Well, it is a market.

A Saudi Arabian fighter jet then made a direct hit on the bus.  CNN claimed to have found a fragment of the bomb.  This has markings that identify it as a 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin and sold to the Saudi government with the approval of the US government (earning valuable export income, well done). 

The bodies of some of the victims were so pulverized that an accurate count of the number of casualties is not possible, but the best guess is 51 dead and about the same number injured, maybe more.

The identity of the occupants of the bus is not in doubt.  A video clip was taken from a mobile phone inside the bus just before it was hit.  It shows a bunch of schoolboys, mostly under 10, having a whale of a time.  They were on a rare school outing and had stopped at the market for a drink.

The phone survived.  Its owner did not.

The reaction of the Saudi government to news of the bombings was forthright and unapologetic.  They had attacked enemy missile launchers that had been used to fire rockets into southern Saudi Arabia (none of which hit any school bus, by the way). 

The Saudi Press Agency put out a quote from Col Turki Al-Malki, official spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition that dominates one side of the Yemen civil war and a US-trained pilot of the Royal Saudi Air Force.  He said the bombing was ‘a legitimate military action, conducted in conformity with the International Humanitarian Law’.  (Don’t you love the way they put that in capitals?)

When he was appointed spokesman, Col Al-Malki said that he would ‘continue to transparently and openly communicate about its military campaign to support the legitimate government of Yemen’.  Yes, of course, that’s what military spokesmen do the world over.  Like in Thailand.  He’s since gone on to complain, transparently and openly, about ‘biased’ UN reports of civilian casualties.

As footage of small corpses started appearing in the international news, there was a slight shift in the Saudi story.  It accused the Houthis (the other side in the civil war) of deliberately using children as human shields. 

By September 1, the story had changed again.  Lt Gen Mansour al-Mansour, head of the ‘Joint Incidents Assessment Team’ of the Saudi-led coalition, apologized for the ‘collateral damage’ and promised compensation to the families of bystanders who were killed and injured.

Bystanders?  Ah, no, you see, they were still claiming that the bus contained Houthi military personnel.  You know, those people who were hiding when the video was taken and whose corpses must have vaporized into thin air.  So they did hit the right target, but unfortunately in the wrong spot, i.e. the middle of a crowded market.

Lt Gen al-Mansour may not be an altogether reliable source.  He is a Bahraini military lawyer (and we in Thailand well know what an oxymoron that can be).  His main claim to fame, apart from lying for the Saudis, was running a tribunal in Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.  Hundreds of non-violent protestors were handed lengthy jail terms (some got life).  Claims of torture and sexual assault in detention were routinely ignored.  He also regularly closed his court to the media and human rights monitors.

In his role as head of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, Lt Gen al-Mansour has looked into Saudi airstrikes against civilian targets like hospitals, weddings, funerals, the list goes on and on.  And blow me if they didn’t all turn out to be perfectly legitimate and in conformity with whatever he thinks ‘international humanitarian law’ might be.

Now at the time of the Dahyan attack, there were calls for some kind of international action to be taken against the Saudi government in the hope of preventing the murders of even more children.  These came from the regular bleeding-heart suspects: the human rights and aid agencies, the UN, the Red Cross. 

The US asked for ‘an investigation’. (Well, they got one, didn’t they?  All nice and freshly whitewashed.)  The UK, who alongside the US dominates arms sales to the Saudi government, expressed ‘concern’.  No, I do them a disservice.  It was in fact ‘deep concern’.  End of story.

Now fast forward to 2 October.

A US-resident Saudi national goes into the Royal Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never comes out again.  The Turkish authorities, citing surprisingly detailed evidence that has not been made public, say he was murdered by a group of government and military ‘tourists’ who flew in from Riyadh on private jets and flew out again a day later, carrying, it is alleged, a bone saw in their luggage. 

And all hell breaks loose. 

Well, not quite all.  As I write, Trump and his apologists are still trying to stitch together some flimsy fig leaf for his autocratic friends in Riyadh.  

 

But the shine has suddenly come off Crown Prince Mohammad ‘MBS’ bin Salman.  Even the corporate sector has found enough conscience to start deserting in droves his forthcoming ‘Davos in the Desert’ Future Investment Initiative conference.  There was not a peep out of the lot of them when 40-odd kids got incinerated by the same guilty party.

Why the difference?

Well putative assassinee Jamal Khashoggi is no hick from some dusty Arabian desert town. 

Under previous management, he was advisor to the Saudi royal family.  His father was royal doctor to the first king of the Sauds.  One of his uncles was Adnan Khashoggi, an arms trader and general wheeler-dealer who accumulated US$4bn, numerous charges of fraud and racketeering, and a starring role in the Iran-Contra scandal.  A cousin is Mohamed Al-Fayed, erstwhile owner of Harrod’s and Fulham football club, which automatically means Khashoggi was also a relative of Mohamed’s son Dodi Al-Fayed, who died in a high-profile high-speed car crash in Paris with his girlfriend whose name escapes me for the moment. 

Translation: he is a fully-paid-up, card-carrying member of the 1%. 

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman can kill as many ordinary Yemenis as he likes, either directly by dropping bombs on them or indirectly death by starvation or disease.  And the 1% – government, corporate or hiso – will turn not a hair.

Just don’t touch one of their own.


About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).