What Saudi Arabia and the United States Have Done to Yemen

Yemen is consumed by one of the most devastating civil wars of the modern world. The fighting rages between Ansar Allah, more commonly known as the Houthis, and a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. Roughly one hundred thirty thousand people have died; an estimated twelve thousand of them were civilians. The destructiveness of this war is made more heinous in the deliberate targeting of civilians by both opponents. Made worse by the fact that Yemen was already impoverished before the fighting, this current conflict sparked a humanitarian crisis unlike any in recent history.  

The conflict in Yemen goes back to the Arab Spring of the early 2010s. Countless anti-government protests and rebellions across multiple middle eastern countries erupted in response to corruption and economic stagnation. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh maintained power since 1990 and was known for his corruption and desperate attempts to retain the presidency. After the Arab Spring revolt in 2011, Saleh was replaced by the former Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi with the help of an alliance of Arab states called the Gulf Cooperation Council. It seemed as though Yemen would be united under a democratic government. However, Hadi proved to be an ineffective and unpopular leader by failing to solve Yemen’s financial problems and weed out its corruption.

In the fall of 2014, a group of Houthi rebels known as Ansar Allah, with the backing of former President Saleh and the Iranian government, sparked civil war by seizing the capital city Sanaa and causing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis opposed Saleh during the Arab Spring but soon became allied with him to remove the ineffectual Hadi from power. The Houthis were a religious minority from northern Yemen who followed Shia Islam; they found solidarity with the Shia majority in Iran. Following the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began their military intervention in Yemen. The coalition had several goals: restore Hadi to power and counter the influence of Iran. The position of the Saudis turned this localized conflict into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The United Nations refers to the crisis in Yemen as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. Both sides claim they are trying to avoid civilian casualties, but nearly twelve thousand non-combatants have died in the war: two thousand of them were children. Saudi Arabia has been accused of targeting civilian infrastructures such as bridges, schools, and hospitals. Additionally, the coalition has imposed a blockade around Yemen and halted nearly all humanitarian aid. The blockade sparked a famine and caused food prices to rise dramatically. The World Food Programme reports that nearly sixteen million people in Yemen now live with food insecurity. The Houthis have also been accused of human rights violations, such as “[using] banned antipersonnel landmines, [recruiting] children, and [firing] artillery indiscriminately into cities such as Taizz and Aden, killing and wounding civilians, and [launching] indiscriminate rockets into Saudi Arabia,” as reported by Human Rights Watch. Additionally, the Houthis have also been accused of stealing relief aid that makes its way through the coalition’s blockade, keeping it from civilians. 

As of 2019, around 24 million out of 29 million people in Yemen require some kind of humanitarian aid, according to Al Jazeera. There is little question that both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have had little regard for human rights. Experts warn that their actions could amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch reported that “Coalition and Houthi forces have harassed, threatened, and attacked Yemeni activists and journalists. Houthi forces, government-affiliated forces, and the UAE and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared scores of people. Houthi forces have taken hostages.” 

Culpability for human rights violations extends beyond this local sphere. The conflict in Yemen has been driven by U.S. arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. The war began during the Obama Administration, and despite Obama’s formal opposition to the conflict, the State Department continued to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t until his last month in office that President Obama took action to halt the sale of arms. However, this freeze was reversed by President Trump a few months into his term. Trump approved nearly $11 billion in military aid to Saudi Arabia, and offered his public support of the war, saying it would be “dangerous” to stop aiding the coalition. According to the New York Times, “No episode in recent American history compares to Yemen, where the United States has provided material support over five years to the Saudi-led coalition for actions that have caused the continuous killing of civilians.” The State Department maintained its sale of arms to Saudi Arabia until the policy was halted for reassessment by President Biden in 2021. President Biden has temporarily frozen U.S. arms trade with Saudi Arabia and sent $165 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen, calling the conflict a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” That said, the damage is already done. According to Human Rights Watch, “US personnel could be legally liable for war crimes in Yemen because of continued US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”  

The war between the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and Ansar Allah in Yemen must come to an end as soon as possible. Both sides of the conflict are so steeped in dogma and ideology that they have been unwilling to meet for a formal treaty negotiation. The coalition must cease all attacks on Yemen, recall its military forces, and pay reparations for the damages it has created. The Houthis need to end their occupation of Sanaa, pay reparations for their own damages, and allow new democratic elections to reunify the country. Meanwhile, the United States needs to increase its diplomatic effort and humanitarian aid to Yemen. The United Nations indicated that it needs $4 billion in aid for Yemen. The U.S. is more than capable of providing such a sum. But, the aid will be meaningless without a lasting cease-fire. Given how the U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, it could be an impactful gesture if the U.S. pushes the coalition towards a treaty with the Houthis.

President Biden is facing severe backlash for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and now he has an opportunity to rebuild his reputation by bringing an end to the conflict in Yemen. His open opposition to the war in Yemen, and the halting of military aid, are positive developments, but peace could be achieved faster if the US and other powerful countries took more assertive steps to ensure an end to the conflict. 

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