World News

As Saudis Go to War, Crown Prince Attends the World Cup

Posted June 14, 2018 8:45 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Fighters backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushed toward the Yemeni port city of Hodeida on Thursday, on the second day of a battle that analysts say could be the bloodiest of the Yemen war.

As they pounded the area around Hodeida’s airport, the architect of the war, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, was attending the opening match of the World Cup in Moscow, Saudi Arabia versus Russia.

Salman cheered on the Saudi team from a luxury box with his host, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

In a cutaway shot, the TV broadcast showed the two leaders after the third Russian goal. Salman turned to Putin and threw his hands in the air in a gesture of futility. Putin gave him a sympathetic look.

On the field in Moscow, the Saudi national squad was trounced by the Russians, 5-0.

On the battlefield in Yemen, the day was not as conclusive. It was not clear what advances, if any, the ground troops backed by the Saudi-led coalition had made in Hodeida, or what the scope of casualties were.

The United States rejected a request from the Emirati government this week to provide intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft and Navy minesweepers because of growing congressional opposition to the offensive, an Emirati official said Thursday.

The Emiratis turned to France, which agreed to provide the minesweepers to clear explosives that Houthi fighters had been placing in Hodeida harbor, the official said, effectively thwarting for now an amphibious assault of the port.

Maj. Adrian J. Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington, declined to comment on any Emirati request for assistance in the Hodeida operation, citing confidential discussions between the two countries and their militaries.

French authorities have not confirmed that they have agreed to fill the gap.

It was unclear how long it would take for French minesweepers to arrive and to clear a watery path safe enough for Emirati ships loaded with troops to carry out their part of the multipronged operation. Four Emirati soldiers were killed in the opening hours of the operation when their troop vessel was struck by an anti-ship missile about 20 miles outside the harbor, said the Emirati official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation.

Emirati officials have said the goal of the military offensive is to press the Houthi fighters into submission by denying them a port that by one Emirati estimate yields the rebels between $30 million to $40 million a month in port fees and other revenues. The goal, they said, was to force the Houthis to accept a political solution.

Fighting on Thursday appeared to be concentrated around the city’s airport, the first strategic target the Arab coalition is trying to seize before battling for control of the vital port facilities. Approximately 80 percent of the country’s humanitarian aid enters though the port.

Local forces trained and financed by the Emirati military clashed on the southern outskirts of the city with fighters loyal to the Yemeni rebel movement, the Houthis, that has controlled Hodeida for the last three years.

Aid groups say there have been no reports of shelling or bombing inside the city. A Saudi military spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said the coalition plan was to take control of the airport, seaport and the route leading to the capital, Sanaa, but not to engage in urban warfare.

But in Yemen’s protracted civil war, which has killed approximately 10,000 people and led to tens of thousands more deaths from sickness and starvation, international aid agencies are wary of predictions by the Saudis and the Emiratis that they could snatch a quick victory in Hodeida’s complex urban environment.

Hodeida is a city of 600,000 people. About a quarter of a million people are in danger of injury or death in an urban assault, the United Nations said.

Any battle that damages the port or takes it out of service could also produce severe consequences around the country. Currently, 8 million of Yemen’s 28 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. The port of Hodeida is a vital gateway to getting food and other aid to a significant number of these people.

The Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia, arrived in the southern city of Aden on Thursday, his first return to Yemen since 2015, according to the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Hadi fled the country that year after the Houthis tried to oust him from power, in part because he had neither a natural constituency in the deeply divided country nor loyalist fighters to protect him. A Houthi-run court sentenced Hadi to death in 2017 on the charge of treason for his alliance with the Saudis and their military invasion of Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition said this week that they began their assault on Hodeida on behalf of Hadi’s government.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met privately for two hours to discuss Yemen but took no action to ensure the safety of civilians in Hodeida. Ambassador Vasily A. Nebenzia of Russia, the 15-member council’s president for June, told reporters that it “urged all sides to uphold their obligations under international law.”

Saudi and Emirati officials carried out a public-relations campaign to explain their rationale for the assault. As part of that, Emirati diplomats around the globe repeated similar points in hastily organized meetings with journalists. They criticized the Houthi rebels for much of Yemen’s humanitarian plight, and insisted that the Arab coalition could more effectively manage the flow of aid and alleviate Yemeni suffering.

“We believe that this operation is a critical step toward achieving a political solution to this conflict,” the Emirati ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, told reporters in a briefing.

She described the assault as a “deliberate, carefully prepared and executed operation” and said the coalition’s advancing forces would move in a “calibrated, gradual way, and that every step along the way the Houthis will be given opportunities to retreat, to disarm and to come back to the negotiation process.”

Nusseibeh would not speculate on the duration of the operation against the Houthis in Hodeida. “We hope for a rapid conclusion,” she said, “but we are facing a small, fanatical group of fighters armed by Iran.”

The Saudis and Emiratis intervened in Yemen’s civil war three years ago to fight the Houthis, whom they see as an Iranian proxy.

Salman has been sharply criticized for the decision to embark on the war, which has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, devastated the country’s infrastructure and led to one of the world’s worst cholera outbreaks in 50 years.

Yemen has devolved into competing zones of control between Houthis, who control the capital as well as their ancestral territory in the north; Emirati- and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the south and Red Sea coast; and inland tribal areas where al-Qaida followers hold sway. The Houthi leadership has lashed out at both the Arab intervention and Western governments, which the group sees as complicit in the offensive.

The Houthi-run news agency Saba quoted an unnamed Houthi defense official on Thursday saying that the group had rebuffed all coalition attacks thus far.

“All the offensive operations planned by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led aggression coalition to control parts of the western coast and carry out a military landing have failed,” the official said, according to Saba.