As Saudis Go to War, the Crown Prince Attends a Soccer Match
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Fighters backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushed toward the Yemeni port city of Al Hudaydah on Thursday, on the second day of a battle that analysts say could be the bloodiest of the Yemen war.
As they pounded the area around Al Hudaydah’s airport, the architect of the war, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, was attending the opening match of the World Cup in Moscow, Saudi Arabia versus Russia.
The crown prince cheered on the Saudi team from a luxury box with his host, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In a cutaway shot, the TV broadcast showed the two leaders after the third Russian goal. The crown prince turned to Mr. Putin and threw his hands in the air in a gesture of futility. Mr. Putin gave him a sympathetic look.
On the field in Moscow, the Saudi national squad was trounced by the Russians, 5-0.
On the battlefield in Yemen, the day was not as conclusive. It was not clear what advances, if any, the ground troops backed by the Saudi-led coalition had made in Al Hudaydah, or what the scope of casualties were.
Fighting appeared to be concentrated around the city’s airport, the first strategic target the Arab coalition is trying to seize before battling for control of the vital port facilities. Approximately 80 percent of the country’s humanitarian aid enters though the port.
Local forces trained and financed by the Emirati military clashed on the southern outskirts of the city with fighters loyal to the Yemeni rebel movement, the Houthis, that has controlled Al Hudaydah for the last three years.
Aid groups say there have been no reports of shelling or bombing inside the city. A Saudi military spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said the coalition plan was to take control of the airport, seaport and the route leading to the capital, Sana, but not to engage in urban warfare.
But in Yemen’s protracted civil war, which has killed approximately 10,000 people and led to tens of thousands more deaths from sickness and starvation, international aid agencies are wary of predictions by the Saudis and the Emiratis that they could snatch a quick victory in Al Hudaydah’s complex urban environment.
Al Hudaydah is a city of 600,000 people. About a quarter of a million people are in danger of injury or death in an urban assault, the United Nations said.
Any battle that damages the port or takes it out of service could also produce severe consequences around the country. Currently, eight million of Yemen’s 28 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. The port of Al Hudaydah is a vital gateway to getting food and other aid to a significant number of these people.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss Yemen. The secretary general’s special envoy to Yemen was expected to brief council members on his efforts to find a political solution over control of Al Hudaydah.
Saudi and Emirati officials carried out a public-relations campaign to explain their rationale for the assault. As part of that, Emirati diplomats around the globe repeated similar points in hastily organized meetings with journalists. They criticized the Houthi rebels for much of Yemen’s humanitarian plight, and insisted that the Arab coalition could more effectively manage the flow of aid and alleviate Yemeni suffering.
The Saudis and Emiratis intervened in Yemen’s civil war three years ago to fight the Houthis, whom they see as an Iranian proxy.
Prince Mohammed has been sharply criticized for the decision to embark on the war, which has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, devastated the country’s infrastructure and led to one of the world’s worst cholera outbreaks in 50 years.
Yemen has devolved into competing zones of control between Houthis, who control the capital as well as their ancestral territory in the north; Emirati- and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the south and Red Sea coast; and inland tribal areas where Al Qaeda followers hold sway.
The Houthi leadership has lashed out at both the Arab intervention and Western governments, which the group sees as complicit in the offensive.
The Houthi-run news agency Saba quoted an unnamed Houthi defense official on Thursday saying that the group had rebuffed all coalition attacks thus far.
“All the offensive operations planned by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led aggression coalition to control parts of the western coast and carry out a military landing have failed,” the official said, according to Saba.