BBC News ignores brewing Red Sea tensions

Back in late June we highlighted a report by the INSS on the topic of the Red Sea.

“Although the threat posed by pirates in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait has declined in recent years as a result of international action, a new threat to freedom of navigation has emerged there due to the war in Yemen, which assumed a distinctively regional character with the onset of the Saudi campaign against the Houthis in 2015. The Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have mined areas along the coast of Yemen, used explosive boats and anti-ship missiles to attack primarily American and Saudi military maritime vessels, and on at least one occasion (in April 2018) struck a Saudi oil tanker. […]

The Red Sea arena possesses considerable economic importance. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 29 kilometers wide and constitutes a maritime chokepoint and strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.  A significant volume of the world’s maritime traffic passes through the Strait, including a daily average of some five million barrels of oil. The Suez Canal constitutes an important source of income for Egypt, as does the port of Aqaba for Jordan and the port of Jeddah for Saudi Arabia (its most important port). It is also the route of passage to the port of Eilat.”

On July 25th another attack on Saudi Arabian ships in the Bab el-Mandeb strait took place and Saudi Arabia subsequently temporarily halted oil exports via that route.

“Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandeb strait, one of the world’s most important tanker routes, after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two ships in the waterway. […]

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the Houthis attacked two Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea on Wednesday, one of which sustained minimal damage.

“Saudi Arabia is temporarily halting all oil shipments through Bab al-Mandeb strait immediately until the situation becomes clearer and the maritime transit through Bab al-Mandeb is safe,” he said. […]

Saudi crude exports through Bab al-Mandeb are estimated at around 500,000-700,000 barrels per day (bpd), according to analysts and Reuters data. Most Gulf oil exports that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline pass through the strait.”

Ha’aretz reported that the incident was “attracting a great deal of attention among intelligence organizations in the region and from the oil industry”.

“The tanker, the Arsan, was flying a Saudi flag and transporting some 2 million barrels of oil to Egypt. It was struck by missiles near the port of Hodeida in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been attacking the Houthis for the past few months. According to the Washington Institute the tankers were hit by a rocket fired from a fast-attack vessel or a ground-to-sea missile fired from Yemen, possibly a C-802, which Iran supplies to the rebels. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack and the Saudis announced that they were suspending tanker shipments in the Red Sea until the situation was sorted out and marine traffic was safe again.”

Despite an extensive search on the BBC News website – including its Saudi Arabia and Yemen pages and its business section – we have not been able to find any BBC reporting whatsoever on that incident.

The following day – July 26th – the BBC News website published an article headlined “Iran general warns Trump war would ‘destroy all you possess’” in which readers were told that:

“An Iranian special forces commander has warned President Donald Trump if the US attacks Iran it “will destroy all that you possess”.

Major General Qassem Soleimani vowed that if Mr Trump started a war, the Islamic Republic would end it, Iranian news agency Tasnim reported.

It follows Mr Trump’s all-caps-lock tweet warning Iran’s president to “never, ever” threaten the US. […]

Maj Gen Soleimani – who leads the Quds Force of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards – was quoted on Thursday as saying: “As a soldier, it is my duty to respond to your threats. […]

“We are near you, where you can’t even imagine. Come. We are ready.

“If you begin the war, we will end the war. You know that this war will destroy all that you possess.”

The BBC did not inform its readers that Soleimani’s threats included – as reported by the Guardian and others – a specific mention of the Red Sea.

“The senior Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani has hit back at Donald Trump’s tweeted threats against Tehran in colourful language, likening him to a gambler and a cabaret owner, and saying Iran would be the one to “end” any war between their two countries. […]

“The Red Sea which was secure is no longer secure for the presence of American [military] … The Quds force and I are your match. We don’t go to sleep at night before thinking about you,” added Suleimani, according to the Tasnim news agency. […]

Suleimani’s warning to the US about the Red Sea comes on the same day Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, suspended oil exports through the strategic shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb due to missile attacks on two oil tankers by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels off the Yemen coast.”

Clearly any Iranian threats concerning the potential disruption of international shipping in the Red Sea are of considerable significance – and not only for countries in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel

Moreover, MEMRI reports that:

“On August 6, 2018, the Iranian news agency Fars published statements by Gen. Naser Sha’bani, a top official of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in which he noted that the regime of the Islamic Revolution had ordered the pro-Iran Ansar Allah (Houthi) militia in Yemen to attack two Saudi tankers, and that it had carried out those orders. […]

It should be emphasized that the quote about the order to attack the tankers was deleted from the Fars website after the statements were published. MEMRI has in its possession a copy of the original prior to the deletion.”

To date, however, the BBC’s funding public has seen no reporting whatsoever on this story.

 

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BBC News still unsure about Iranian involvement in Yemen

In recent weeks the BBC has produced two backgrounders concerning the ongoing war in Yemen.

An article headlined “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?” was promoted in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page on October 14th and a week later – on October 21st – a filmed item titled “Yemen crisis: ‘The forgotten war’” also appeared on the same page, as well as on BBC television.yemen-mai-norman

Both those items include statements relating to Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen. In the filmed report Mai Norman tells viewers:

“But just like Syria and Iraq, regional power struggles are also at play and in the Middle East that almost always means Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis back Hadi and they accuse Iran – a Shia country – of supporting the Houthis.” [emphasis added]

Readers of the written article are told that:

“Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi’s government.” […]

“The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is also seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

Gulf Arab states have accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran has denied this, and they are themselves backers of President Hadi.” [emphasis added]yemen-backgrounder

This is not the first time that audiences have seen the BBC’s apparent inability to inform its audiences whether or not the Houthis in Yemen are backed by Iran expressed in such vague and unhelpful language. A similar portrayal was found in a backgrounder titled “Yemen crisis: Who are the Houthis?” that was originally published in September 2014 and which was later replaced with an earlier version of this latest written backgrounder. In April 2015 BBC audiences saw further ambiguous portrayal in two articles and the following month they were told that the role of Iran in Yemen is ‘over-emphasised’.

Both before and since the March 2015 escalation of the conflict in Yemen, numerous reports concerning Iranian support for the Houthis have emerged (see ‘related articles’ below). Reuters recently reported a rise in the supply of weapons from Iran.

“Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis, the militia fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, U.S., Western and Iranian officials tell Reuters, a development that threatens to prolong and intensify the 19-month-old war. […]

“We are aware of a recent increased frequency of weapons shipments supplied by Iran, which are reaching the Houthis via the Omani border,” a Western diplomat familiar with the conflict told Reuters.

Three U.S. officials confirmed that assertion.

One of those officials, who is familiar with Yemen, said that in the past few months there had been a noticeable increase in weapons-smuggling activity.

“What they’re bringing in via Oman are anti-ship missiles, explosives…, money and personnel,” the official said.

Another regional security source said the transfers included surface-to-surface short-range missiles and small arms.

A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed there had been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen” since May, referring to weapons, training and money.”

A US State Department spokesman addressed the same issue on October 20th:

“I mean, we’re aware that Iran provides lethal support to the Houthis. We have regularly and routinely called on regional actors to de-escalate the tensions in Yemen and the region, including abiding by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, as well as the ceasefire, which both the – all parties have said they would support.

We’ve also repeatedly raised our concerns that Iran is providing lethal aid to the Houthis in Yemen, including at the UN, when dhows smuggling Iranian weapons to the Houthis were interdicted at sea.”

Remarkably, after over eighteen months of reporting on the conflict in Yemen, the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” is still unable to meet its remit of building “global understanding” of this particular “international issue” by producing a backgrounder which tells its audiences whether or not Iran is involved in that war.

Related Articles:

Limited BBC journalistic curiosity on Iranian involvement in Yemen

BBC News portrays Iranian involvement in Yemen as ‘overplayed’

BBC News portrays Iranian involvement in Yemen as ‘overplayed’

We have commented here before on the BBC’s lack of journalistic curiosity regarding the extent of Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen. On May 7th the BBC News website’s Middle East page published an article in its ‘features’ section by Dr David Roberts of King’s College, London under the title “Viewpoint: How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war?“. As its opening paragraphs show, the aim of that article is clearly to lead BBC audiences towards the view that claims of Iranian involvement in Yemen are overstated.Roberts article Yemen

“Sunni power Saudi Arabia has – deliberately or otherwise – projected the fighting in Yemen as a proxy war with regional Shia rival Iran, though this is a dangerous mischaracterisation of the conflict.

The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.”

The same theme is continued throughout the article.

“Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.”

“Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.”

“Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.”

Whilst the conflict in Yemen is undoubtedly rooted in domestic issues, this article does little to provide readers with objective and factual assessment of reports of Iranian involvement. Moreover, it completely ignores statements by Iranian officials including the one made by an Iranian parliamentarian after Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital city.

“An Iranian politician close to that country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could not contain himself. Ali Reza Zakani, an MP, boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab capital in Iranian hands – after Beirut (through Hizbollah), Damascus (through President Assad) and Baghdad (through Iraq’s democratically elected Shia-led government).”

A report which appeared in the Financial Times on May 8th highlights an additional – although by no means unknown – aspect of the story.

“They are hundreds of miles apart and their local struggles have little in common, yet Lebanon’s Shia force Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are opening up about a relationship forged by sectarian politics transforming the Middle East. […]

A Hizbollah commander, who withheld his name because members are not permitted to speak to media, said Houthis and Hizbollah trained together for the past 10 years. “They trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.

Hizbollah has long been suspected of channelling Iranian support to the Houthis. For years, Houthi officials have been spotted at Beirut hotels and are believed to be hosted on Iran’s dime. The Houthi television channel al-Maseera is based in Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs. “There’s been an active Houthi office in Beirut, and the city has been a popular meeting place between Yemeni political groups and other regional actors for some time,” said Yemen analyst Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.”

It remains difficult to see how the BBC can claim to fulfil its remit of providing its funding public and wider audiences with a fact-based “understanding of international issues” relating to aspects of the conflict in Yemen in particular, or the already under-reported issue of Iranian policy in the Middle East in general, if it continues to avoid any serious in-depth reporting on the topic.

Limited BBC journalistic curiosity on Iranian involvement in Yemen

On April 9th the BBC reported on statements made by the US Secretary of State during an interview with an American media outlet.  As readers can gather from the punctuation used in the headline “Yemen crisis: Kerry warns Iran over Houthi rebel ‘support’“, the BBC is obviously not convinced by John Kerry’s assertion of Iranian backing for the Houthi militia in Yemen and the language used in the body of the article itself was equally vague.Yemen Kerry art

“US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Iran over its alleged support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. […]

Iran has denied accusations it is providing military aid to the Houthis.”

Another article appearing on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the same day under the title “Yemen crisis: Iran’s Khamenei condemns Saudi ‘genocide’” informed readers that:

“On Wednesday, the US warned Iran over its alleged support for the rebels. […]

The [Iranian] foreign ministry also summoned Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Tehran.

The state news agency, Irna, quoted the ministry as saying the envoy would be asked to explain “baseless accusations” made by a spokesman for the coalition.

On Wednesday night, Brig Gen Ahmed al-Assiri told a news conference that Iran had been training and equipping Houthi fighters, according to the Reuters news agency.

The US secretary of state also said that Iran’s support for the rebels was clear.”Yemen tweet BBC World

Of course Iranian support for the Houthis is not a new topic: it one that has been under discussion for quite some time and in particular since the Yemeni coastguard intercepted an Iranian ship carrying arms destined for the Houthis over two years ago. A more recent statement from an Iranian politician appeared to add credence to the claims long made in the Saudi media and – as the BBC itself reported in 2013 – by some in Yemen.

“Ali Reza Zakani, an MP, boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab capital in Iranian hands – after Beirut (through Hizbollah), Damascus (through President Assad) and Baghdad (through Iraq’s democratically elected Shia-led government).”

The BBC, however, has apparently opted to remain on the fence and appears to have little journalistic curiosity or interest in either confirming or refuting the assertions of the US administration and others with regard to Iranian activities in Yemen.

It is difficult to see how the corporation intends to fulfil its remit of providing its funding public and wider audiences with a fact-based “understanding of international issues” relating to the conflict in Yemen in particular or the already under-reported issue of Iranian policy in the Middle East in general if it continues to make do with reporting based on the use of the word ‘alleged’. 

The BBC and the Houthi logo

Viewers of the BBC World News programme ‘Impact‘ who recently watched a report by Safa al Ahmed (which also appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on January 27th under the title “Yemen crisis: BBC gets rare access to Houthi rebels“) may have noticed a certain feature which cropped up repeatedly throughout the filmed footage.

Houthis report pics

Seeing as no attempt was made to explain that logo in Safa Al Ahmed’s report, audiences might perhaps have turned to the BBC News website’s profile of the group titled “Yemen crisis: Who are the Houthis?“. There they would have found that same logo appearing in a picture captioned “Houthi supporters took part in weeks of protests calling for fuel price cuts and a new government”.

Houthi profile art pic

So does that logo have anything to do with fuel prices or demands for political reform in Yemen? Well, no – and its recurrent appearance is not coincidental because that banner is actually the official emblem of the Houthis, as explained by the New York Times:

“It includes the words “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.” Houthis shout it when they march, wear it on arm patches, paint it on buildings and stick it onto their car windows. When pictured, those words are rendered in red, framed by “God is great” and “Victory to Islam” in green, on a white background.

Sometimes the red words are shown dripping blood.”

One might think that, given the BBC’s remit of building understanding of international issues, the corporation would consider that information worth communicating to its audiences, along with more comprehensive information on the Houthis’ alleged links to the Iranian regime (and Hizballah) than appear in its profile.

“Regional Shia power Iran has also been accused of giving financial and military support to the Houthis – something both have denied.”

“Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, believes that the rebels are backed militarily, financially and politically by its Shia regional arch-rival, Iran – something both have denied.”

Remarkably, the BBC does not appear to have much interest in conducting in-depth investigative reporting on that topic