Five days after the United Nations Human Rights Council’s decision to extend the mandate of the UN investigation into war crimes in Yemen, a group chaired by Tunisian politician and human rights activist Kamel Jendoubi, Tunisian and Saudi defense ministries announced the launch of joint military airforce exercises for the first time in the countries’ history. Another step in line with the trajectory that Tunisian diplomacy has followed since 2011, on more occasion than one standing behind the wealthy Gulf ally in its regional conquests in pursuit of the carrot and stick held out before it. With its sights set on the economic aid provided by Al Saud, Tunisia has turned a blind eye to crimes committed in Yemen and the Wahhabi regime’s role since the 1920s in manufacturing terrorist organizations.
Tunisia turns a blind eye to bloodshed
From the Sidi Ahmed base near the city of Bizerte, Tunisia, the Saudi defense ministry published pictures of Saudi Royal Airforce F15 planes accompanied by air, technical and support crews. The images announced the launch of joint air force exercises in both countries to take place over a two weeks period beginning on October 3. Carried out for the first time above Tunisian soil, the training aims to « exchange experiences with brothers in the Tunisian airforce » and also « to raise the level of combat readiness of Saudi airforces » which has been conducting daily raids in Yemeni cities since March 26, 2015, causing tens of thousands of civilian casualties and massive destruction.
The joint exercises announced in late September coincided with the vote to extend the mandate of the UN Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen. The decision to extend was approved with 21 out of 47 countries in favor of the resolution, 8 votes against and 18 abstentions. Tunisia was among the countries which abstained, in spite of the fact that Kamel Jendoubi serves as the group’s chairperson. Issued on September 28, 2018, the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights clearly states that « individuals in the government and the coalition including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, committed acts that may amount to war crimes, including ill-treatment and torture, assault on personal dignity, rape, compulsory or voluntary recruitment of children under the age of 15 or their use for active participation in hostilities ». The report not only recorded 16800 civilian victims in Yemen, but explicitly mentioned that the main reason behind the killing of citizens were airstrikes by the Saudi-led, so-called Arab Coalition targeting markets, residential neighborhoods, weddings, funerals and even medical facilities. The explicit condemnation and alarming figures revealed about victims of Saudi aggression in Yemen, as well as characterization of these acts as war crimes, were not enough to convince Tunisian diplomacy to vote on the resolution to extend the mandate of the UN investigation. Nationally, Tunisia’s abstention did not go by unnoticed. On October 5, a number of organizations including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), Tunisian Center for Freedom of Press and the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) issued a joint statement condemning what they called « the Tunisian government’s shameful decision » and urging for a « break with such compromising positions and refusal to stand with any decision that undermines the credibility of the UN and encourages continuation of the devastating civil war on the Yemeni people ». The organizations further evoked « respect for the Tunisian constitution which enshrines preservation of national sovereignty, the right of the people to self-determination, peace, security and democracy ».
In fact, cooperation between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia began well before the October launch of joint military exercises, which are a continuation of diplomatic and political processes that began in 2011. These processes are based on Arab and regional alliances that have no regard for Tunisia’s strategic interests: what Tunisia does stand to gain from such cooperation is financial assistance and loans, in an exchange which amounts to the purchase of diplomatic orientations. Tunisia’s submission to the Saudi crown has manifested as a clear political choice since 2014, as has been apparent on several occasions. The most important of these was on December 22, 2015, when President Beji Caid Essebsi traveled to Saudi Arabia upon the invitation of King Salman Ben Abdul Aziz Al Saud. On the heels of Riyadh’s inauguration of an « Islamic » Military Counter Terrorism Coalition of 34 countries, including Tunisia, Caid Essebsi’s diplomatic visit opened the door to military cooperation between the two countries. At the time, Saudi Arabia gifted Tunisia a fleet of 48 American F5 fighter jets dating from the 1960s and retired from over two decades of use by the Saudi airforce. This military assistance was followed by a billion-dollar loan package. In exchange, Tunisia was to adhere to Riyadh’s position in regional issues by joining the « Islamic Coalition » against Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in September 2015, turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s classification as a terrorist organization, condoning Saudi assault in Yemen, participating in the joint military exercise « North Thunder » in February 2016, and signing the 2016 Arab League Summit statement which presented a clear threat to Iran. On November 4, 2016, Saudi influence led to the dismissal of Tunisia’s minister of religious affairs, punishment for statements considered to be anti-Saudi.
Despite international condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s aggression against Yemen, accusation of the Kingdom’s involvement in war crimes, deterioration of the country’s human rights situation as arrests and executions of political and human rights activists and journalists continue—the most recent of whom was Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—in addition to protection of Tunisia’s deposed president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali since 2011, the Tunisian government still finds no embarrassment in supporting the Saudi regime. In this context, it has opened up its skies to the Kindgom’s air force, allowing it free reign to refine its skills in the art of killing. So while Tunis persists in its blind pursuit of economic assistance and oil money, Riyadh continues to play at sectarian manipulation, the only game it knows to protect its power in the Arabian Peninsula.