A People in Agony: How the United States Continues to Fuel the Yemen War

A war between Yemen and the nearby states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been going on for seven years as of this March. The war began March 25, 2015, with a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war. The intervention has involved a bombing campaign against Yemen that has continued into 2022.

As other international crises have arisen over subsequent years, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Yemen war has ground on, at great human cost. Meanwhile, the United States has played a long, shameful role in the conflict.

When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab nations intervened in Yemen in 2015, the country was wracked by a conflict between the regime of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and various insurgent factions. Chief among these insurgents were the Houthis, a political movement affiliated with Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority in the country’s northwest.[1] The insurgency also included forces loyal to Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.[2]

When the Houthis seized Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a and forced Hadi to resign, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in support of Hadi. The intervention may have been intended to check Iran’s influence in the region, the Houthis having ties with Iran.[3] The coalition began bombing Yemen and also established a naval blockade of the country.[4]

Seven years later, Yemen’s conflict has become only more complicated. The insurgent alliance between the Houthis and Saleh’s followers fell apart in 2017, with the Houthis defeating their former allies and killing Saleh.[5] New factions have emerged: a separatist group known as the Southern Transitional Council has taken control of the port city of Aden.[6] In western Yemen, the UAE has been backing an anti-Houthi  faction known as the National Resistance Forces.[7]

Meanwhile, the Houthis fight on, despite their various internal and external adversaries.[8] They have even succeeded in launching many missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[9]

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis and restoring Hadi to power, they have succeeded in causing tremendous harm to the Yemeni people. The bombing campaign has killed many people, including many civilians. The Yemen Data Project estimates 8,970 civilians have been killed and another 10,226 injured in bombing by the Saudi-led coalition.[10]

Threats to civilians may have worsened over the past few months because independent United Nations’ investigations into war crimes in Yemen came to an end last fall. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO, estimated that civilian deaths and injuries have almost doubled since UN monitors left.[11] The overall increase in civilian casualties has reportedly included an almost 40-fold increase in such casualties from aerial bombing.[12]

Beyond civilian casualties from coalition bombing, the Yemen war as a whole has directly killed an estimated 100,000 or more people.[13] These deaths, which were caused directly by wartime violence on the ground or from the air, are horrifying enough. They are only part of a far larger toll, however.

The deadliest aspect of the Yemen war has been the economic damage it has wrought on what was already a poor country before the current conflict.[14] Late last year, a research team estimated that the Yemen war has led to roughly 377,000 deaths in total. More than half of these deaths are from indirect causes such as lack of access to food, water, and healthcare.

Further, the researchers estimated that the vast majority of these deaths—perhaps 259,000—have been among children under age five.[15] In 2021, a Yemeni child under age five died about every nine minutes.[16]

In addition to causing such a staggering death toll, the war has pushed an estimated 15.6 million people into extreme poverty and left 8.6 million people undernourished.[17] Yemen’s economy today is perhaps half the size it would have been in the absence of war.[18]

Not all this death and devastation is the responsibility of the Saudi-led coalition. Many different factions have played a role in Yemen’s current agony. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies have contributed to the current terrible situation. In addition to the bombing, the Saudi blockade of Yemen has had terrible effects.

The Saudi blockade has interfered with fuel reaching Yemen. Early in 2021, commercial fuel imports through Yemen’s Hodeidah port, which receives more than half the country’s commercial fuel imports, stopped for almost two months. While this total cut-off did not last, fuel imports through Hodeidah from January to October of last year were ultimately 70 percent less than during the same period in 2020.

World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned last March that fuel shortages were causing widespread power outages at hospitals.[19] Fuel shortages also lead to higher prices for fuel and hence also for food and water supplies that rely on transportation.[20]

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has commented that “The blockade is an act of war against the Yemeni people and is directly responsible for the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, especially the malnutrition of children.”[21]

Meanwhile, what has been the US response to Yemen’s humanitarian disaster? The United States occupies a significant position in the conflict, as it possesses important leverage over both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The United States is the main supplier of weapons to each of those countries, providing roughly 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s weapons and 60 percent of the UAE’s weapons.[22] However, US policy over the past seven years and three presidential administrations has been disappointing.

Barack Obama’s administration was initially supportive of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen, providing logistical and intelligence assistance as well as weapons sales (although the Obama administration eventually moved to restrict such sales).[23] Under Donald Trump’s administration weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued, and Trump vetoed a bill passed by Congress to limit US involvement in the war.[24]

President Joe Biden seemed likely at first to take a different approach. He declared early in his presidency that “This war has to end,” appointed a special envoy to Yemen, and suggested he would somehow limit weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[25] The Biden administration also placed sanctions on Saudi officials in response to the allegedly government-sponsored murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—although Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman escaped US sanctions.[26]

Yet US arms sales to the coalition nations have continued. In April 2021, the Biden administration approved more than $23 billion in weapons sales to the UAE. Later that year, the administration allowed a $500 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, with the State Department commenting that Saudi Arabia was “a friendly country that continues to be a force for stability in the Middle East.”[27] Further weapons sales to the two coalition countries were approved early in 2022.[28]

The United States has not put any pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Yemen.[29] Meanwhile, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to make the Yemenis’ plight worse. Yemen receives one-third of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and the war will likely drive up already-high food prices.[30]

Whether peace is possible in Yemen in the near future is unclear. However, ending the Saudi blockade will at least allow for a greater flow of food and fuel into the suffering country. The United States should insist the Saudis end the blockade and should cut off all weapons sales and military assistance if they fail to do so (an exception should be made for any equipment that can be used only for defending against Houthi missile attacks).[31]

Negotiating a more comprehensive peace settlement may be possible in the future, but for now the top priority should be ending the blockade. Several members of Congress have called on the Biden administration to pursue this goal.[32]

Saudi Arabia and the UAE should also be required at the very least to end all bombing of the Sana’a airport or other military operations that might interfere with civilian and commercial air travel to Yemen. Last, the United States should provide comprehensive humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people.

American citizens should lobby the Biden administration by phone (https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/write-or-call/) or email (https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/) and also lobby their congressional representatives in the House (https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative) and Senate (https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm) to pursue this policy solution.

They should also donate to aid groups working within Yemen, such as Islamic Relief USA (https://irusa.org/middle-east/yemen/), Catholic Relief Services (https://www.crs.org/media-center/current-issues/yemen-crisis-facts-and-how-help), and other groups.[33]

While so many people’s attention is understandably focused on the Ukrainian people’s suffering, we should not lose sight of other suffering peoples. For Americans, helping Yemenis amid their wartime plight should be a particular priority given the United States’ influence over key parties to the war. Let’s help those in need.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] Myriam Renaud, “Who Are Yemen’s Houthis?,” The Conversation, December 14, 2018, https://bit.ly/36Dr7wG.

[2] For background on the conflict, see variously Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Conflict Tracker: War in Yemen,” accessed March 19, 2022, https://on.cfr.org/3IyFvnn; Bruce Riedel, “The Houthis Have Won in Yemen: What’s Next?,” Brookings Institution, February 1, 2022, https://brook.gs/3L734Fq; “Waging Indirect War: How the United States Contributes to Yemen’s Agony.”

[3] Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Conflict Tracker”; Annelle R. Sheline and Bruce Riedel, “Biden’s Broken Promise on Yemen,” Brookings Institution, September 16, 2021, https://brook.gs/3Ir1uws; “Waging Indirect War.”

[4] Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Conflict Tracker”; Sheline and Riedel, “Biden’s Broken Promise.”

[5] Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Conflict Tracker”; Riedel, “The Houthis Have Won.”

[6] “Yemen: What is the Southern Transitional Council?,” Al Jazeera, April 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/3tvk8yU; Emile Roy, “Yemen: Diplomatic Efforts Fail to Subdue the Conflict,” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), accessed March 19, 2022, https://bit.ly/3L7Dkc0.

[7] Emile Roy, “Who Are the UAE-Backed Forces Fighting on the Western Front in Yemen?,” ACLED, July 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/3tuOEc9

[8] Riedel, “The Houthis Have Won.”

[9] Bruce Riedel, “Yemen War Spreads to the UAE,” Brookings Institution, February 10, 2022, https://brook.gs/3wqpY6I.

[10] See Yemen Data Project, accessed March 22, 2022, https://yemendataproject.org/.

[11] “Civilian Deaths and Injuries in Yemen Have Doubled since UN Human Rights Monitors Removed,” Agence France-Press, February 10, 2022, https://bit.ly/36lkzmD; “UN Human Rights Council Votes to End Yemen War Crimes Inquiry,” Deutsche Welle, October 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3JB4EPx.

[12] “Civilian Deaths and Injuries in Yemen Have Doubled.”

[13] “UN Humanitarian Office Puts Yemen War Dead at 233,000, Mostly from ‘Indirect Causes,’” UN News, December 1, 2020, https://bit.ly/3qsxTN2; Jonathan D. Moyer, David Bohl, Taylor Hanna, Brendan R. Mapes, and Mickey Rafa, Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen (San’a, Yemen: United Nations Development Programme, 2019), 8, 9, 37, available at https://bit.ly/3L3rG1Z; Taylor Hanna, David K. Bohl, and Jonathan D. Moyer, Assessing the Impact of War in Yemen: Pathways for Recovery (San’a, Yemen: United Nations Development Programme, 2021), 32, available at https://bit.ly/3D4s1yr.

[14] Moyer et al., Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen, 34.

[15] Hanna, Bohl, and Moyer, Assessing the Impact of War in Yemen, 12, 32.

[16] Ibid., 12.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] Shuaib Almosawa, “As U.S. Focuses on Ukraine, Yemen Starves,” The Intercept, March 16, 2022, https://bit.ly/3NcDXTB.

[20] Sheline and Riedel, “Biden’s Broken Promise.”

[21] Almosawa, “As U.S. Focuses on Ukraine, Yemen Starves.”

[22] Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova, and Siemon T. Wezeman, Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021, SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2022 (Solna, Sweden: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2022), 6, available at https://bit.ly/3DbOvxO.

[23] See “Waging Indirect War.”

[24] Deb Riechmann, “Trump Vetoes Measure to End US Involvement in Yemen War,” Associated Press, April 17, 2019, https://bit.ly/3tx8DHu.

[25] Ellen Knickmeyer, “Biden Ending US Support for Saudi-Led Offensive in Yemen,” Associated Press, February 4, 2021, https://bit.ly/351JyL8.

[26] Thomas O. Falk, “Saudi-US Military Ties Continue despite Rights Reset,” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2021, https://bit.ly/36Fc3i5; Ellen Knickmeyer, “Analysis: Biden Retreats from Vow to Make Pariah of Saudis,” Associated Press, March 2, 2021, https://bit.ly/37Uezlt.

[27] Falk, “Saudi-US Military Ties Continue.”

[28] “US State Dept Backs Latest Raft of Saudi, UAE, Jordan Arms Sales,” Al Jazeera, February 4, 2022, https://bit.ly/3tvtMBE.

[29] Sheline and Riedel, “Biden’s Broken Promise.”

[30] “Amid Violence, Decreased Humanitarian Aid, World Must Not Leave Yemen Behind, Emergency Relief Coordinator Tells Security Council,” United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, March 15, 2022, https://bit.ly/3tvRQnU; Almosawa, “As U.S. Focuses on Ukraine, Yemen Starves.” 

[31] Riedel, “The Houthis Have Won.”

[32] Congressman Ro Khanna, “RELEASE: Khanna, Dingell, Pocan Lead 76 Members of Congress in Calling on Biden-Harris Administration to Press for End of Yemeni Blockade,” April 6, 2021, https://bit.ly/3tvv67A.

[33] For a list of other groups helping in Yemen, see “Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen,” Charity Navigator, accessed May 8, 2022, https://bit.ly/3kRNNgU.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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