New Delhi: As fighting continues to rage in Yemen with reports of over 500 killed in the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia's envoy in India says that the coalition airstrikes have not targeted any civilian areas and that the oil-rich Arab kingdom is playing its "natural role" as "an anchor of stability" in the region.
The envoy also refuted "misinformed" reports about covert Saudi backing for the Islamic State (IS) and said Riyadh had designated the IS, or Daesh, as a terrorist organisation and criminalised any relationship with the organisation and its affiliates.
"The Grand Mufti (the supreme cleric) pointed out clearly that IS is the no. 1 enemy of Islam," he pointed out in an interview to IANS.
Ambassador Saud bin Mohammed Al-Sati also said that Riyadh "extended all cooperation and help to the Indian government in the evacuation process from Yemen".
To reports that the conflict in Yemen could drag on interminably, the envoy said that the coalition took a considered decision to launch the airstrikes more than 10 days ago and that "it is simply to protect the Yemeni people and bring back stability to Yemen".
On the likelihood of Pakistan joining the military conflict, the envoy was non-committal, saying that he did not want to comment and that Islamabad has voiced support for the coalition.
Excerpts from the interview
Q: How is the campaign progressing?
A: The coalition of 10 countries is participating in the campaign based on a request and appeal from the legitimate Yemeni president to protect the Yemeni people. The campaign is going very well. And the air strikes are very successful in terms of hitting the identified targets.
Q: The conflict has led to many civilian deaths, including of children. How does Saudi Arabia see this?
A: The spokesperson of the military campaign pointed out clearly that the coalition forces tried their best to make the strike very limited to the military targets identified. But unfortunately the Houthis are targetting civilians in different parts of Yemen, including in Aden, and Al Dhale'e, and Marib... So, it is the Houthis who are causing this among the civilians, including destroying government institutions and houses of Yemenis.
Q: You mean that the coalition airstrikes have not resulted in civilians deaths?
A: I have not seen any credible reports that shows the coalition air campaign targetting or hitting civilian areas. What I saw is civilian areas in Aden and Marib being shelled and bombarded by the Houthis groups and militias.
Q: There are reports that Pakistan is mulling the idea of joining the coalition, but there appears to be two opinions about it in Pakistan? Do you think Pakistan will eventually join the coalition campaign?
A: I don't want to say anything about Pakistani internal discussions over the issue. All I can say is that Pakistan has expressed its support to Saudi Arabia and its part of the coalition to bring about stability to Yemen and its legitimate government and protect the Yemeni people.
Q: The Houthis have said they are ready for talks. How is the Saudi coalition responding to that?
A: The call of the idea of talks and reconciliation has been there, the Houthis are the ones who rejected this. We are for talks, but for that they must stop their aggression, withdraw from the cities they have taken over by force and withdraw from the government institutions they have occupied, return the weapons and military forces to the legitimate government of Yemen, and participate in talks under the leadership of President Hadi. This is very simple and straightforward.
Q: There are reports that Saudi Arabia wants to establish itself as a regional power?
A: Whoever says this is trying to mix issues. What triggered the situation in Yemen is not Saudi Arabia but the Houthis who took over the institutions of the Yemeni state and put the Yemeni president under house arrest and put their hands on the weaponry of the Yemeni army, including their ballistic missiles and tanks and airplanes and fighters; and launched their aggression against the legitimate government in Yemen and also publicly announced their intention to commit an aggression against Saudi Arabia.
However, Saudi Arabia is not looking for any role that it does not enjoy or actually has. Saudi Arabia is an anchor of stability in the region; it is a big country, a country with history of promoting peace and security and respecting the sovereignty of other countries in the region. And countries have appreciated its role in supporting stability for the economy of the region and the international economy. It is very natural for Saudi Arabia to play the role that it is playing in preserving and promoting regional stability and security.
Q: What do you say to speculation that Yemen may turn out to be another Vietnam?
A: I don't like to comment on speculation but what I can say here is that this is a coalition of 10 countries, not a one country led operation, and with a very clear goal, which is protecting the Yemeni people and bringing back stability and restoring the legitimate government.
Q: There are reports of covert Saudi backing for the IS (Islamic State). What is the truth in this?
A: These misinformed reports have no truth in them, whatsoever. In May 2014, Saudi Arabia designated the IS, or Daesh, as a terrorist organisation and criminalised any relationship with this organisation and with its affiliates. The Grand Mufti pointed out clearly that ISIS is the no. 1 enemy of Islam. There have been so many official pronouncements to that effect - whether government pronouncements or by our religious leadership. Actually, IS attacked Saudi Arabia and our border and considers us its enemy.
We're part of the international coalition, the US-led, participating in the air campaign against IS. We support that coalition and It is a well known fact.
Q: Are the Gulf countries united in their approach to Yemen and IS. There are reports of differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the latter resents Saudi leadership.
A: Qatar is part of the coalition.
Q: The Saudi king called up PM Narendra Modi and offered India help in evacuation. In what way did it help?
A: We extended all cooperation and help to the Indian government in the evacuation process from Yemen. The coordination is close and strong, and the operation is underway, and being conducted successfully.