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Saudi Arabia to offer more than $2.5 billion in aid to Yemen amid continuing conflict abroad and changing culture at home

After nearly three years of a Saudi-led military operation, Saudi Arabia announced it will send more than $2.5 billion in humanitarian and financial assistance to war-torn Yemen. Meanwhile, the Kingdom is facing rapid social change, as women gain more rights. Judy Woodruff sits down with Fatimah Baeshen, spokesperson of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, to discuss what’s next for Saudi Arabia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Monday, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it will send more than $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid and financial assistance to war-torn Yemen.

    This comes after nearly three years of a Saudi-led military operation, backed by the United States, to beat back Houthi rebels, who control much of the country. The fighting, including Saudi airstrikes, has killed thousands. Millions are suffering there, in what the United Nations calls the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

    Meantime, Saudi Arabia is dealing with rapid changes within its own borders. This June, women will finally be allowed to drive, among other social opportunities. And the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has dramatic plans to wean the country off of oil.

    For more on all of this, we are joined now by the spokesperson for the Embassy of Saudi Arabia here in Washington, Fatimah Baeshen.

    Ms. Baeshen, thank you very much for being with us.

    Let me ask you first about this assistance to Yemen. After the war has been going on three years, these terrible casualty figures I have just been citing, why now is Saudi Arabia offering help? How much difference is this money going to make?

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    So, just a few points here.

    The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been aiding Yemen well — for a long time, both domestically within Saudi Arabia and within the country. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has given the Central Bank $2 billion to support the Yemeni currency. This is the second donation. The first one was done in 2014, before the conflict.

    The important thing to keep in mind is that there — aid has been diverted due to the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, which has caused — which has threatened the Yemeni people, has threatened the region. Their activities have threatened the region. And their activities have threatened the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, again, I just want to say, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia has been behind this military operation that has led to thousands of deaths.

    Just yesterday, there were civilian casualties. Children and women are dying. But, with the other hand, Saudi Arabia is offering aid. You know, how do you explain the contradiction?

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    The kingdom of Saudi Arabia entered into the conflict by the request of the legitimate government. And the kingdom is keen on providing relief to the Yemeni people and addressing their needs. That is a priority for the kingdom.

    Simultaneously, the kingdom is playing defense with respect to thwarting threats that are coming directly from Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.

    Despite the fact that there have been roughly 90 ballistic missiles shot into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia from Yemen that has been supplied by Iran to the Houthi militia, the kingdom is still systematically donating aid that is going impartially, that is going impartially across all of Yemen, regardless of what side of the conflict that you're on.

    Now, unfortunately, all warfare, not just Saudi-led coalition warfare, results in civilian casualties, unfortunately. The reality is, is that there is an operation center that is proactively ensuring that there's over 40,000 no-target hit lists.

    So there's a proactive measure there that ensure that civilian casualties are either none or minimal. And in the cases where there are civilian casualties and mistakes, which unfortunately are inevitable, there is an assessment mechanism with respect to an assessment team that goes back and rectifies the situation, assesses it and publishes a report to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK, so I want to ask you about several other important things.

    One is, in Saudi Arabia right now, there's a fair amount of political turmoil. The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as we mentioned, instituting a number of reforms, changing policy, both internationally and domestically, setting up a naval blockade of Qatar, internally, a crackdown on — what he says is a crackdown corruption, arresting hundreds of people from his own — members of the royal family, the business elite.

    I think people look at what is going on, and they are asking, why is he doing this? And why not explain more about what's behind it? It seems to be all done behind closed doors.

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    So, with respect to the, anti-corruption proceedings, when the current King Salman took — assumed the throne in early 2015, in his inaugural speech, he explicitly stated that corruption would be eradicated in the kingdom.

    Shortly thereafter, the current crown prince, who was the deputy crown prince at the time, also went on public TV and said that no one would be above the law — I'm paraphrasing here, but that basically no one would be above the law, and anyone who had evidence, enough evidence against them would be held accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to quote what Human Rights Watch has said about this whole process.

    They are saying that what Saudi Arabia has done is compile a dismal human rights record. They have detained people with no legal process, no explanation. They have thrown opposition activists into jail. They have been executing people for nonviolent crimes.

    So, when the rest of the world looks at this, it looks as if there's no clear legal process going on.

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    The attorney general has publicly come out in two different statements and explained how the anti-corruption proceedings are going and where they are.

    And just recently, there's been indications that they're coming to a close. Actually, there's been 90 people that have been completely absolved of their charges and have gone back into society. And there are no restrictions on their movements. There are 95 people that are left that are still detained and are still going…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ninety-five, still

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    That are still going through the investigation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me just quickly, finally, ask you about women in Saudi Arabia. You are the spokesperson — you happen to be a woman — for the Saudi Embassy here in the United States.

    Back in Saudi Arabia, there are significant restrictions on what women can do. They won't be allowed to drive, haven't been allowed to drive, until this summer. Women have to have a male relative's permission before they can travel, before they can handle so many different — before they can accept a job, before they can execute a legal agreement.

    Saudi Arabia has a very long way to go with regard to women, doesn't it?

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    Actually, Saudi Arabia has come a very long way when it comes to women.

    Saudi women have been doing amazing things for decades. They're rocket scientists. They're mothers. The chair of the Saudi Stock Exchange, which is the largest in the Middle East, is a woman. The chair of Dammam Airport is a woman.

    Women have been — Saudi women have been doing amazing things. Since Vision 2030, with the announcement of Vision 2030, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that two years ago, as our ambassador, His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Salman, says, the pace of change has changed in Saudi Arabia, which is really fascinating.

    And it's prevalent when it comes to — with respect to women's advancements. Women have systematically made strides in the public space over the last year. And we have seen this in several different arenas. We have seen this in sports. We have seen this in…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But to the outside world, it looks as if Saudi Arabia restricts women's activities.

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    This is actually a very kind of convoluted view.

    So, the challenge that people reference is the guardianship system, but the guardianship system as an institutional policy is very different than what exists on the ground.

    But that's not government. That's cultural normals that exist within a very immediate proximity, like family. So, for example, I will tell you, when I was in Saudi Arabia, I rented a home. I had two bank accounts. I changed jobs twice.

    Never had permission. So, and a Saudi woman sitting next to me would have a very different experience. But that's not the government or the guardianship system itself, but that's really a cultural norm within a very specific microcosm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying it's changing.

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    It's absolutely changing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fatimah Baeshen, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy here in the United States, thank you very much.

  • Fatimah Baeshen:

    On behalf of the embassy, Judy, thank you for having me.

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