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Saudi Airstrikes Raise Doubts Abroad, Spark Patriotic Fervor At Home

Saudi Arabia's army fires artillery shells toward Houthi rebels along the Saudi border with Yemen on April 15. Outside Saudi Arabia, many are critical of the military  campaign and question whether it will succeed, but it is popular inside the kingdom.

Saudi airstrikes in Yemen began almost a month ago, targeting rebels who have taken over much of the country.

Internationally, there are concerns about increasing casualties and questions about the strategy in the Saudi operation, which is receiving help from the U.S., among others.

But at home in the kingdom, the war has sparked a patriotic fervor that's noticeable just about everywhere you turn.

Saudi state television and radio play patriotic war songs and run TV spots heralding the military operations in Yemen.

In one TV montage, King Salman, who became the country's ruler in January, waves and meets government officials. It also shows the Saudi army and air force in action.

And it doesn't stop there.

On a drive through Riyadh, the Saudi capital, newly erected billboards of the king and his son Mohammad Bin Salman — the newly appointed defense minister — are emblazoned with the words "God Supports You." A big banner declares, "Without the air force, the country cannot be protected."

And in the south, near the border with Yemen, even car washes are named after the operation, Decisive Storm.

Daily press conferences are held with fanfare, a screen flashing the armed forces logo and a war montage with music. On a recent day, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri stands in front of flags from countries joining the Saudi-led coalition as he describes targets they hit in Yemen.

After his briefing, we sit down in his office, where he says the military campaign has been successful so far.

But if the world is expecting this to be a quick war, Asiri makes it seem much more open-ended. He compares it to the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Saudi has taken part in these operations, which have been going on for eight months.

"So we know it's a long job," Asiri says. "We should be patient in this."

Saudis in the capital seem to be rallying around the war, even though it doesn't feel like a nation at war at all. At the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, people shop at places like Gap and Louis Vuitton. The airstrikes over Yemen don't affect them here.

Mariam Jabwa, a young housewife sitting outside Saks Fifth Avenue, says she's relieved that Saudi attacked because there was a threat on the border.

"Thank God we have a powerful army," she says.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, says there's unprecedented unity inside the kingdom because Saudi is seen as standing up to Iran.

"We felt humiliated, we felt worried of Iranian expansionism, and we felt somebody must stand against that," he says. "And that's why Saudi people are so much now supporting of King Salman, they feel he is the man that made that stand."

The Saudis accuse Iran of backing, supplying and financing the Yemeni rebels, the Houthis, who have taken the capital and ousted the president. Iran denies playing that role.

But the idea of battling Iran in a proxy war is rallying the Saudis, and putting a sectarian spin on Yemen's civil war. Khashoggi says it's building a following for Mohammad Bin Salman, the defense minister — and king's son — who is said to be just 29 or 30 years old.

"His popularity skyrocketed, people were talking about him before as a kid, we didn't know much about him," Khashoggi says. "But nowadays, with this patriotic euphoria, he scored big time. "

But opinion outside the country is much more divided. Human rights groups say civilians in Yemen are paying the price with hundreds reported killed so far and shortages of food and electricity.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate cease-fire by all parties. And a Western official, speaking anonymously because he's not authorized to speak publicly, said Western allies see the ongoing effort as destabilizing and destructive.

And when the recorder is off, some Saudis expressed doubt, but they say they're afraid to do it publicly because they'll be accused of being disloyal.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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