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article imageFacing global censure, Saudi envoy seeks to prop up Yemen

By Anuj Chopra (AFP)     Oct 31, 2018 in Politics

Sinking into a padded leather chair on a government jet, Saudi ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber buckles up for what he calls a mammoth mission -- rebuilding Yemen as it teeters on the edge of catastrophe.

After a ruinous three-year conflict, the Arab world's poorest country faces the double whammy of a looming famine and an economic crisis that has sent the Yemeni currency in free fall, as the United States urgently calls for a ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia has faced virulent international criticism for leading an intervention in Yemen in 2015 against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels -- and the recent murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi has put its bombing campaign under fresh scrutiny.

But Jaber, seen as the most influential Arab diplomat engaged on Yemen, sought to shift the narrative on another front: rebuilding the conflict-scarred country.

"Development of Yemen cannot wait until the Huthis accept peace talks," said Jaber, who was appointed ambassador in 2014, just days before the rebels overran the capital.

The United Nations said Wednesday it aimed to relaunch Yemen peace talks "within a month", after a previous attempt collapsed in September when the rebels refused to travel to Geneva, saying their conditions had not been met.

Jaber, 48, spoke to AFP on an aircraft this week flying to the informal capital Aden to oversee the arrival of a Saudi oil tanker with the first instalment of petroleum products worth $60 million.

A security guard stands by a ship docked in the southern Yemeni port of Aden on October 29  2018
A security guard stands by a ship docked in the southern Yemeni port of Aden on October 29, 2018

The fuel is meant for power stations amid chronic electricity outages.

As his aides served up pastries, dates and Arabic coffee, Jaber rattled off a list of what he called Saudi-funded "injection projects" related to electricity, education and healthcare.

"Our goal in Yemen is not to control it," the Riyadh-based envoy said, asserting the Saudi intervention was unlike the US invasion of Iraq.

"This is a war of necessity, not a war of choice."

- Khashoggi murder -

Saudi Arabia's image has taken a beating globally over its intervention in Yemen, amid rising civilian deaths reported by the UN, war crimes allegations and warnings of an impending famine triggered by the conflict.

The kingdom has shrugged off many of the claims as highly exaggerated.

But even the US, a close ally which supports Saudi-led forces by refuelling their jets and selling them weapons, finally called Tuesday for a ceasefire and peace talks in Yemen within the next 30 days.

Aggravating the situation for the kingdom was Khashoggi's murder in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate on October 2.

Saudi Arabia initially attributed his death to a fistfight before accepting what Turkish investigators said all along -- that he was killed in a premeditated murder.

"The Khashoggi case has cast a new spotlight on Yemen because it raises doubts over the Saudi narrative," said Elisabeth Kendall, a research fellow at Oxford University.

"If Saudi lied over the fate of Khashoggi, at least initially, then its credibility in explaining away the horrors of the Yemen war is also in doubt."

Saudi ambassador to Yemen  Mohammed al-Jaber  takes selfie with a Saudi guard aboard an aircraft whi...
Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, takes selfie with a Saudi guard aboard an aircraft while en route to Aden on October 29, 2018

But Jaber said extrapolating the Khashoggi affair to criticise Saudi efforts in Yemen was unfair.

He said images splashed in global media of emaciated Yemeni children in famine-like conditions "break my heart", but added that Saudi Arabia alone was not responsible.

The Huthis, he said, were an intractable foe, repeatedly spurning UN-backed efforts to jumpstart peace talks.

A seasoned diplomat, Jaber has consistently sought to emphasise Saudi-funded development projects, "suggesting an aim to shift the shape of the discourse on Yemen", said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

- 'Saving from collapse' -

In Aden, guards in camouflage fatigues with pistols strapped to the thigh whisked Jaber in an armoured car trailed by militiamen in pickup trucks that careened through streets riddled with tanks, Humvees and checkpoints.

In a meeting at the prime minister's office, Yemeni bankers, businessmen and civil society representatives railed about corruption, unemployment as businesses were shutting down, and a dysfunctional government machinery.

Jaber took copious notes as they spoke, assuring them of progress.

"We are here to support Yemenis... until there is a functioning state," he said.

He later sat down in the hilltop presidential palace, chewing qat -- a mild stimulant popular in Yemen -- with another group of government officials.

The palace -- a cluster of colonial-era villas overlooking the azure expanse of the Arabian Sea -- bristled with armed militiamen but lacked a president as internationally backed leader Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi is believed to be based in Saudi Arabia.

Military helicopters fly over a ship as it arrives in the southern Yemeni port of Aden on October 29...
Military helicopters fly over a ship as it arrives in the southern Yemeni port of Aden on October 29, 2018

"Yemen has two parallel governments with one currency and one economy," said Yemen's central bank governor Mohamad Zemam, who was at the meeting.

"We need peace efforts to unify the two."

Showing AFP a bank statement on his phone of Saudi Arabia's recent deposit of $200 million in the bank to support the plummeting riyal, he said some businessmen had little faith the government was solvent until he showed them this proof.

Such is the dire state of finances that until the Saudi fuel aid arrived even the presidential palace was crippled by several hours of daily power cuts, he said.

"We are trying to survive... and save our (state) from collapse," said Zemam, who took his post in February.

Jaber said Saudi support was not equal to a blank cheque.

"Our money is not for corrupt people, it is for Yemeni people," he said.

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