Saudi Airstrikes Raise Doubts Abroad, Spark Patriotic Fervor At Home

Apr 20, 2015
Originally published on April 21, 2015 7:06 pm

Saudi airstrikes in Yemen began almost a month ago, targeting rebels who have taken over much of the country.

Internationally, there are concerns about increasing casualties and questions about the strategy in the Saudi operation, which is receiving help from the U.S., among others.

But at home in the kingdom, the war has sparked a patriotic fervor that's noticeable just about everywhere you turn.

Saudi state television and radio play patriotic war songs and run TV spots heralding the military operations in Yemen.

In one TV montage, King Salman, who became the country's ruler in January, waves and meets government officials. It also shows the Saudi army and air force in action.

And it doesn't stop there.

On a drive through Riyadh, the Saudi capital, newly erected billboards of the king and his son Mohammad Bin Salman — the newly appointed defense minister — are emblazoned with the words "God Supports You." A big banner declares, "Without the air force, the country cannot be protected."

And in the south, near the border with Yemen, even car washes are named after the operation, Decisive Storm.

Daily press conferences are held with fanfare, a screen flashing the armed forces logo and a war montage with music. On a recent day, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri stands in front of flags from countries joining the Saudi-led coalition as he describes targets they hit in Yemen.

After his briefing, we sit down in his office, where he says the military campaign has been successful so far.

But if the world is expecting this to be a quick war, Asiri makes it seem much more open-ended. He compares it to the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Saudi has taken part in these operations, which have been going on for eight months.

"So we know it's a long job," Asiri says. "We should be patient in this."

Saudis in the capital seem to be rallying around the war, even though it doesn't feel like a nation at war at all. At the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, people shop at places like Gap and Louis Vuitton. The airstrikes over Yemen don't affect them here.

Mariam Jabwa, a young housewife sitting outside Saks Fifth Avenue, says she's relieved that Saudi attacked because there was a threat on the border.

"Thank God we have a powerful army," she says.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, says there's unprecedented unity inside the kingdom because Saudi is seen as standing up to Iran.

"We felt humiliated, we felt worried of Iranian expansionism, and we felt somebody must stand against that," he says. "And that's why Saudi people are so much now supporting of King Salman, they feel he is the man that made that stand."

The Saudis accuse Iran of backing, supplying and financing the Yemeni rebels, the Houthis, who have taken the capital and ousted the president. Iran denies playing that role.

But the idea of battling Iran in a proxy war is rallying the Saudis, and putting a sectarian spin on Yemen's civil war. Khashoggi says it's building a following for Mohammad Bin Salman, the defense minister — and king's son — who is said to be just 29 or 30 years old.

"His popularity skyrocketed, people were talking about him before as a kid, we didn't know much about him," Khashoggi says. "But nowadays, with this patriotic euphoria, he scored big time. "

But opinion outside the country is much more divided. Human rights groups say civilians in Yemen are paying the price with hundreds reported killed so far and shortages of food and electricity.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate cease-fire by all parties. And a Western official, speaking anonymously because he's not authorized to speak publicly, said Western allies see the ongoing effort as destabilizing and destructive.

And when the recorder is off, some Saudis expressed doubt, but they say they're afraid to do it publicly because they'll be accused of being disloyal.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's almost a month since Saudi-led airstrikes began in Yemen. They're targeting rebels who have taken over much of the country. The U.S. is aiding the effort by refueling the fighter jets. International concern is mounting over the rising number of dead and the lack of a solution to the conflict. But as NPR's Leila Fadel reports from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the war has inspired a patriotic fervor in the kingdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRIOTIC SAUDI MUSIC)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On every Saudi state television channel and radio station there is patriotic music like this song heralding the airstrikes on Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRIOTIC SAUDI MUSIC)

FADEL: It plays over a TV montage of Saudi's new King Salman waving, meeting government officials, or showing the Saudi army and air force in action. The lyrics say, show us to the border and we will empower you, referring to the king. And it doesn't stop there.

On a drive through the capital, newly posted billboards of the king and his son are emblazoned with the words, God supports you. A big banner declares, without the air force, the country cannot be protected. And in the south, near the border with Yemen, even car washes are named after the operation, Decisive Storm. Every day there's a press briefing that starts with fanfare.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING)

BRIGADIER GENERAL AHMED ASIRI: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri stands in front of flags from countries that have joined the Saudi-led coalition as he describes targets they hit in Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING)

ASIRI: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: After his briefing, we sit down in his office, where he says the military campaign has been successful so far. But if the world is expecting this to be a quick war, well, Asiri makes it seem much more open-ended. He compares it to the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, which he refers to by the Arabic acronym, Daesh.

ASIRI: Do you know that we, the coalition against Daesh, conducting operation airstrikes since eight month? You know, and we participate in this. So we know it's a long job. We should be patient in this.

FADEL: Saudis in the capital seem to be rallying around the war, even at the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, where it really doesn't feel like a country at war as people shop at Nine West, Gap or Louis Vuitton.

MARIAM JABWA: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Mariam Jabwa, a young housewife, sits outside Saks Fifth Avenue. She says she's relieved that Saudi attacked because there was a threat on the border. "Thank God we have a powerful army," she says. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist, says he's never seen such unity inside the Kingdom because it's seen as Saudi standing up to Iraq.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI: We felt humiliated. We felt worried of Iranian's expansionism. And we felt - and that's why Saudi people so much now supportive of King Salman. They feel he is the man who made that stand.

FADEL: The Saudis accuse Iran of backing, supplying and financing the Yemeni rebels called the Houthis, who have taken the capital and ousted the president. Iran denies it. But that idea of battling Iran in a proxy war is rallying the Saudis. It's building a following for the young Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, who is said to be just 29 or 30 years old and is the king's son, says Khashoggi.

KHASHOGGI: His popularity skyrocketed. People were talking about him before as a kid. We didn't know much about him - this and that. But nowadays, with this patriotic euphoria, he scored big-time.

FADEL: He scored big-time, Khashoggi says. But opinion outside the country is much more divided. Human rights groups say civilians are paying the price with hundreds killed so far and shortages of food and electricity. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate ceasefire by all parties. A western diplomat speaking anonymously because he's not authorized to speak publicly said western allies see the ongoing effort as destabilizing and destructive. And when my recorder is off some Saudis expressed doubt, but they say they're afraid to do it publicly because they'll be accused of being disloyal. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.