Last Monday, Saudi Arabia claimed that it had intercepted a drone on its way to its Abha International Airport, allegedly fired by the Houthi forces in Yemen with whom a Saudi-led coalition has been engaged in a protracted conflict. The coalition claims that it intercepts most drones and missiles fired into Saudi Arabia, although this very airport is the site of three successful attacks in June 2019, which killed one and injured nearly 50. History is now repeating itself in 2021, as the conflict in Yemen, and the corresponding humanitarian crisis, show no signs of slowing down.
The conflict finds its genesis in Yemen’s 2014 civil war. In September of that year, the Sunni-led government was toppled by Shia rebels known as Houthis, who stormed the capital of Sana’a after a five-day standoff. The Prime Minister, Mohammed Salim Basindawa, was forced to resign on the spot, with President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his ministers also resigning the following January. The Houthis, backed by the most powerful Shia government in the world, Iran, slowly expanded their hold on western Yemen, but the Saudi-led coalition began conducting strikes in March 2015. So-called Operation Decisive Storm, the coalition’s mostly air campaign, began several days later, bombarding Yemen with airstrikes over several years, killing thousands.
The ensuing conflict has lasted more than six years, involved several other parties, and created a gigantic humanitarian crisis, but very little progress has been made. The Houthis attempted to establish a new government in July 2016, under the leadership of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Council on Foreign Relations), but Saleh broke with the Houthis in 2017, and was killed within 48 hours. Today, Houthis still control much of Western Yemen. Fighting continues.
The scope of the death and suffering faced by the Yemeni people is difficult to quantify. However, even by the most optimistic evaluation, the toll is nothing short of devastating. An April 2020 report by the UN Security Council confirmed the deaths of over 7,700 people as a direct result of airstrikes, landmines, and bombings, although they acknowledged that “the actual numbers are likely to be far higher.” The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an American nonprofit, gave a larger estimate of 12,000 civilians killed in direct attacks as of October 2019. They both acknowledge that the majority (60-70%) of lives were taken by the Saudi-led coalition.
The civilian deaths numbers are huge, but represent only a fraction of the casualties. Al Jazeera reported in March of this year that a total of 130,000 people – included among them the 12,000 or so aforementioned civilians – have died since 2015.
These are the easiest deaths to quantify. But on top of war, Yemen is also facing a severe shortage of food and medical supplies, largely due to the blockade imposed on it by the Saudi-led coalition. The UN Security Council reported the staggering numbers that “out of a national population of 30.5 million people, 20.1 million face hunger and 14.4 million need immediate assistance for their sustenance or survival. Since March 2015, 3.65 million people have been displaced.”
In 2016, Yemen experienced a cholera epidemic which has continued to this day. Cholera is known to spread through unsafe water contaminated by feces – with millions lacking access to clean water, the outbreak was no surprise. Kennedy, Harmer, and McCoy (2017) report that nearly 80% of both cases and deaths occurred in Houthi-controlled governorates, where Saudi airstrikes had damaged water, sewer, and hospital infrastructure. A vaccination campaign began in 2018, but over a million had already fallen sick by that point. In 2017, Reuters reported that commercial shipments of medicine had been completely choked off since 2015, as infrastructure at the vital port of Hodeida had been destroyed by airstrike. According to the World Health Organization, as of the end of 2020, over 2 million had fallen sick and 4,000 died.
The cholera outbreak is closely associated with the severe malnutrition faced by tens of millions of Yemenis. Food insecurity was already rampant before the outbreak of war; indeed, poverty and lack of access to basic resources was one of the major precipitators. The food crisis has been made more acute, however, by the strict naval and air blockade imposed on the Houthis by Saudi Arabia. Mohamed, Elayah, & Schuplen (2017) report that Yemen “is a net importer of major food items, including maize, wheat and other grains, livestock, fish, and processed food.” A full third of Yemen’s agriculture is devoted to qat, a mild narcotic which is profitable but not life-sustaining. Qat also requires a huge amount of water in a country already short of this most essential resource. Mohamed, Elayah, & Schuplen report a catastrophe of malnutrition among children, with only a third receiving animal-based protein and only a tenth receiving enough vitamin A. Even children who survive will be put at a permanent developmental disadvantage as a result of this crisis.
The Saudi-led blockade and airstrikes are joint contributors in the campaign against Yemen’s population. The Yemen Data Project in 2018 demonstrated that of the over 16,000 coalition airstrikes, nearly a third were conducted on non-military targets, including over 1000 on residential areas, hundreds on farms and essential infrastructure, the aforementioned strike on the port of Hodeida, and more. These strikes have severely hampered Yemen’s ability to sustain life – through food, clean water, and so forth. As a net importer of food, the blockade has taken an even further, devastating toll on the Yemeni diet.
What can be done about this? Short of ending the war, the targeting of essential infrastructure and the strict blockade must be stopped. Yemenis must be able to grow, store, and transport their own food without it being destroyed from the air or unnecessarily halted on the ground. The primary perpetrator of airborne violence is Saudi Arabia, but they do not operate without the help of allies in the West – including, of course, the United States and United Kingdom. The U.S. sells arms totaling in tens of billions of dollars per year (Bachman 2019), provides logistical and strategic support, and supplies tens of millions of pounds of fuel to Saudi aircraft. At best, they are complicit. In reality, the United States and United Kingdom are openly facilitating actions bordering on genocidal.
The United States is one of the most powerful empires in human history and is a key ally to Saudi Arabia. As a very basic step, the Biden administration is quite capable of cutting off support for the Saudi coalition in light of the myriad human rights concerns in the region, including refueling and intelligence support. This would be a mere tiptoe in the right direction, however. If the Biden administration would like to claim to take a more humane foreign policy stance, it should completely pivot from its support of the Saudi coalition and apply pressure to end the blockade and targeting of civilian sites.
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