Yemen offensive reflects new era for Saudi Arabia, mostly untouched by scars of war
NAJRAN, Saudi Arabia – Khatim Umm Salem's quiet, secure life betrays no signs of the war taking place just a few miles away.
In the mornings, the elderly woman sits in front of a fan outside her tiny shop in the old market of Najran. In the evenings, she listens to the Quran on the radio. She sleeps with the door unlocked, since all her neighbors know her.
When asked about the war, she shrugs and makes a prayer. As a widow, she receives free health care and the little she needs, 1,000 Saudi riyals or $267, from the government each month.
"Sometimes I make a profit, sometimes I don't," says the Saudi villager, who does not know how old she is.
Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich nation with about 20 million citizens, is now leading an offensive against the Shiite Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, who are supported by its arch-rival Iran. Yet if not for the huge propaganda posters and the state media, you would never know this was a country at war, in much the same way that life in the United States sometimes seemed distant from the conflict in Iraq.
From the ancient city of Najran to the gleaming, SUV-ridden capital of Riyadh, much of the kingdom continues on its prosperous way, as reflected in AP interviews with more than two dozen people. One reason is that many citizens are already living comfortably with government help, and new monarch King Salman ordered an extra month's salary for civil servants. And for those in the pockets of poverty overshadowed by Riyadh's gated wealth, the war is largely the royal family's business.
In Riyadh itself, there is a vague sense of pride, of a nation finally coming into its own. The war comes at a pivotal time for Saudi Arabia: King Salman ascended to the throne in January, and he has all but appointed his son as his successor. As this generational change takes root, the country wants to project a strong image of itself as the backbone of Arab solidarity by leading Arab countries against the Houthis. It also wants to be in the line of defense of Sunnis against Iran, which has supported Shiite militias in Iraq and the government of Bashar Assad in Syria.
"There's support for the war because it came after much indignity from Iran," according to writer and analyst Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi. He said the Yemen offensive was seen as "revenge for dignity and honor."
The offensive shows how far this country has come since the first Gulf War of 1990, when the U.S. military defended its borders. Saudi Arabia has now acquired tens of billions of dollars in military equipment. It has also emerged from the Arab Spring unscathed, unlike former powerhouse Egypt, and is now propping up Cairo's ailing economy with aid. In return, Egypt is a key partner against the Houthis.
"Saudi Arabia is in a new stage where it is more outspoken and more aggressive," al-Buluwi said.
The tacit acceptance of the war also has to do with how it is portrayed. In a capital that is deeply religious, the country's top ultraconservative clerics have passed a fatwa, or edict, declaring the Yemen offensive as a religious duty.
The kingdom's powerful business class has rushed to voice support, at least on paper. The Saudi Binladin Group, for example, took out a full-page newspaper ad that included images of F-16 fighter jets and the flag alongside King Salman saluting the armed forces. Solb Steel's ad spelled the name of King Salman with rockets and a fighter jet, and Saudi Steel pledged "to protect each and every inch of our country even with the last drop of our blood."
In a country with strong ties between business and politics, the support is useful for both. The governor of Riyadh issued a written notice, seen by The Associated Press, urging businesses to erect billboards praising the royal family and offering contacts of a local engineer to help with the "celebration" of a new monarch.
For King Salman, the war offers political opportunity. He promoted his son — the nearly 30-year-old defense minister who led the offensive — to the position of deputy crown prince, putting a renewed focus on security. He has also put his nephew, the country's interior minister and counterterrorism czar, second in line to the throne.
The fighting in the background has not stopped the celebrations, but has if anything been woven into the image of Saudi Arabia in a new era under a new ruler. The day after the announcements, companies and public figures ran 22 full pages of congratulatory ads in the daily Al-Riyadh newspaper, and similarly in other government publications. And in a lavish ceremony this week, the city's main buildings and palm trees were lit up green, the color of the flag.
The government is also using the war in Yemen as a way to reach out to its young, Internet-savvy population. The majority of Saudi Arabia is under 30 years old, and can easily turn from state TV programming to a privately-owned Saudi station that beams out U.S. shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Keeping up with the Kardashians."
Aware of the Internet's ability to surpass the reach of traditional state-owned press, the Saudi government has swung open its doors to journalists on the Yemen border. The government took both local and foreign press to Saudi troops, and the military held a rare nightly briefing, broadcast live, where journalists could ask questions.
However, the apparent openness masks another reason for support of the war: Fear. Even in the Eastern Province, a Shiite stronghold, few have called for protests against the war in Yemen. During similar protests in 2011, the government arrested dozens of people and sentenced a top Shiite cleric to death.
"There are people who are afraid to give their opinion because of the fear that anyone whose opinion is not like that of the government's can be seen as being against the nation," said human rights activist and writer Ali al-Hattab. "There is no independent body to research and say whether people are behind the war or not."
In a country where regional differences lurk under the surface, support for the war is perhaps most passionate in the southern border region of Jizan. This is where some 10,000 tribesmen have volunteered to stand along the border with their own weapons, according to the armed forces. These Sunni tribesmen still remember with bitterness the takeover of their land in 2009 by Houthis, forcing thousands of Saudi farmers to relocate.
Here, the scars of that last war are everywhere. Sounds of sniper fire can be heard in the distance. Homes stand pockmarked and shelled. With the nearest Yemeni village less than a half-mile (kilometer) away, the border along this mountain range zigzags back and forth so much that mobile phones switch to a Yemeni service provider in some areas.
In Najran, a border town not far away with a sizable Shiite population, reactions are markedly different. This is where the most soldiers have been killed in recent clashes with the Houthis. Yet residents say they have little reason to support or oppose the Yemen offensive so long as their tribal affiliations and land are unharmed.
One resident of Najran, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, said tribesmen here simply do not believe the government's portrayal of the Houthis as a dangerous force that could destabilize the entire Gulf region. He said he feels safe because he knows his tribe will protect him.
"We're not afraid of the Houthis, and don't believe this empty talk that they'll attack us," he said.