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Will pressure on the Saudi crown prince impact the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged murder has put a spotlight on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But it isn’t the first time. He also leads the coalition waging war in Yemen. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson smuggled herself into a rebel-held area this summer, encountering starving children. Nick Schifrin speaks with F. Gregory Gause of Texas A&M and Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The apparent killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents has roiled the Middle East like few events in recent years.

    And the allegation of involvement by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has put his leadership role in the spotlight, but not for the first time.

    Once again, here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thirty-three-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has been praised as a reformer, but also vilified as impetuous and a human rights abuser.

    The government he leads has picked a fight with Canada, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, held members of his own family on house arrest, and sentence activists to death.

    And he leads the coalition waging war in Yemen. The U.N. says 16,000 people have been killed and wounded there, but the U.N. stopped counting years ago.

    The "NewsHour" has reported often from Yemen, but it's not easy. This summer, special correspondent Jane Ferguson had to smuggle herself into an area controlled by the Houthi rebels to see the impact of the Saudi-led bombing campaign.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Life is slipping away from Maimona Shaghadar. She suffers the agony of starvation in silence. No longer able to walk or talk, at 11 years old, little Maimona's emaciated body weighs just 24 pounds.

    Watching over her is older brother Najib, who brought her to this remote hospital in Yemen, desperate to get help. The nurses here fight for the lives of children who are starving.

  • Mariam al-Fakih (through translator):

    Because of the war, she is suffering from malnutrition. Her father is jobless. Most of the families in Yemen are jobless.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Every day, she says she sees these sorts of cases. People have lost work. Therefore, they have no money. Therefore, there's just no food in the house.

    You were never supposed to see these images of Maimona. A blockade of rebel-held Northern Yemen stops reporters from getting here. Journalists are not allowed on flights into the area. No cameras, no pictures.

    The only way into rebel-held Yemen is to smuggle yourself in. And for me, that means being dressed entirely as a Yemeni woman with a full-face veil just to get through the checkpoints.

    I traveled across the embattled front lines to see what's actually happening inside what the United Nations is calling the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

    The Houthis cautiously welcomed me in and, once I was there, watched me closely.

    The hunger here and this human catastrophe is entirely manmade. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, and the war has pushed an already needy people to the brink of famine.

    In the midst of political chaos in Yemen after the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels from the north captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, before sweeping south and causing the country's then president to flee. Neighboring Sunni, Saudi Arabia, views the Houthis, from a Yemeni sect close to Shia Islam and backed by rival Iran, as an unacceptable threat along their border.

    So it formed a military coalition of countries in 2015, determined to defeat the Houthis and reinstate the old president. Crucial military support for the campaign is provided by the United States, a longtime ally of Saudi Arabia.

    After three years of aerial bombardment and fighting on the ground, the coalition has so far failed to dislodge the rebels. What the campaign has done is devastate the economy, leaving two-thirds of the population relying on food aid for survival, and over eight million people on the brink of starvation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, what to make of Saudi foreign policy and this moment in the Middle East?

    Professor Greg Gause is the head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service. He's written extensively about Saudi Arabia. And Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

    We should mention that, last week, the Institute stopped taking Saudi donations, pending the outcome of the investigation into Khashoggi's case.

    Thank you very much to you both for joining us.

    Randa Slim, if I could start with you, there is a lot of external pressure on Saudi Arabia. But will that translate into internal change?

  • Randa Slim:

    It's difficult to say that at the moment, because the first reaction from the Saudi government is really — especially from the king himself — is to appoint the crown prince in charge of the reform — of the committee to reform the intelligence sector, which is accused of having committed this tragedy and this murder against Jamal.

    So far, the king is standing by his son. On the other hand, the crown prince has angered a lot of constituencies that are important to the survival of his reign in the future as a king. He has angered the political establishment, religious establishment. He has angered the business community. He has angered members of his own family, royal family.

    So it's hard to say whether they will be an internal coup or what. But as long as the king is standing by his side, I think it's going to be very hard to imagine or expect a scenario where we're going to have an abrupt change in which the crown prince will be displayed from his position.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the other hand, does any of that criticism externally or discussion internally — I mean, you used the word coup — does that reduce Saudi stability and perhaps Saudi sway in the region and in the world?

  • Randa Slim:

    Look, I mean, Saudi stability is affected by this climate of impunity.

    The fact that you have a crown prince who feels and who felt that he could get away with murder, that in itself is an element of concern about — that can affect future stability in the — in the — of the kingdom, but also future U.S.-Saudi relation.

    So, I think as we move forward — and, as you have — as you have said in the introduction, this move or this murder by — of Mr. Khashoggi comes against a background of an accumulation of decision and incident engineered and led by the crown prince which raise a lot of concern about his fitness for the job as a crown prince and future as the king.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Greg Gause, if there is some concern about the fitness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is that a threat to U.S. priorities in the region, given that U.S. policy has centered around Saudi Arabia and MBS, as he's known, particularly pressuring Iran, and perhaps some kind of peace deal with the Palestinians and Israelis?

  • F. Gregory Gause:

    Those are the things on the agenda right now.

    But the United States has had a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia through a number of American leaders and Saudi leaders. I doubt, if there were any changes at the center of Saudi decision-making, even right now, that there would be a serious redefinition of the Saudi-American relationship.

    The more dangerous situation is, if there is no change in Saudi Arabia, that pressures from Congress, from public opinion and other international pressures could force the United States to take its distance from Saudi Arabia. I think that that's the bigger threat right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, to be more specific, Senator Lindsey Graham not only says that there should be a change in policy towards Saudi Arabia, but that MBS has to go. I think he said "MBS is done for me."

    Is that something that the U.S. administration, the government, should be pushing Saudi Arabia, to deliver the message that MBS is — quote — "done" for the U.S.?

  • F. Gregory Gause:

    I think it's really dangerous for the United States to start dictating who's in and who's out.

    I think one of the mistakes the Trump administration made was being extremely public in its patronage of Mohammed bin Salman, extremely supportive of his rise to crown prince, and publicly claiming credit for it.

    And I think that that tied the administration much too much to one person within the Saudi ruling family. I think that there has to be some kind of communication from Washington, a senior person whom the Saudis trust. We don't have an ambassador there now.

    But a very senior person, somebody like former Secretary of State James Baker, I think, has to go and talk to the king about the way forward in U.S.-Saudi relations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Randa Slim, way forward and U.S.-Saudi relations also runs through Ankara.

    Right now, the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is going to announce the findings of the Turkish investigation tomorrow.

    Do you have any sense that what he announces will be eliminated or, rather, taken by U.S. officials?

    All right, I'm told that Randa Slim can't hear me.

    All right, Greg Gause, can I turn to you for that question, then?

    So, does Recep Tayyip Erdogan control some of the next steps that the U.S. has to take?

  • F. Gregory Gause:

    I think Erdogan has played this like a Stradivarius.

    He's been a statesman. And he wants to preserve a relationship with Saudi Arabia, as he's facing his own economic problems. But he's allowed his press to leak these — the information out drip by drip to make the Saudis look bad.

    The background of this is that the Saudis and the Turks really don't see eye to eye on what the future of the region should be, President Erdogan very supportive of the Arab uprisings of 2011, very supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis very, very nervous about any kind of bottom-up politics.

    So there's a rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh that I think is underlying President Erdogan's behavior here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Randa Slim, do you believe that Erdogan's behavior really is going to make a difference when it comes to U.S.-Saudi relationship?

  • Randa Slim:

    Look, I think Erdogan is negotiating with both Americans and the Saudis.

    And I think his fear is that the Saudis and the Americans will start negotiating with each other and push him aside. I think he has a number of demands he would like to get from the Saudis, primarily financial. He has a number of demands, dealing with domestic agenda, he would like to get from the U.S., for example, the issue of the Halkbank, which is a major financial institution in Turkey, facing billions of dollars in U.S. fines for its alleged violation of sanctions against — U.S. sanctions against Iran.

    He would like those fines to be either scrapped or to be minimized. There is also the issue between the United States and Turkey on the PYD in Northeastern Syria.


  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Kurdish forces that the U.S. has teamed with in Northern Syria, yes.

  • Randa Slim:

    Correct. Correct.

    And that — and that relationship between the U.S. forces and the PYD has been a troublesome relationship, as far as Erdogan is concerned. And he would like to make sure that this is put under certain kind of a framework that he can live with or he can accept.

    So there are a number of negotiations that Erdogan would like to engage in with both of these countries. And I think that's what is, in my opinion, taking place at the moment.

    And, tomorrow, it will — we will see whether he's going to reveal the whole naked truth, as he has promised to do, or not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Randa Slim, Greg Gause, thank you to you both.

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