The United States has had a dismal track record managing conflicts in the Middle East in recent years, but in Yemen, it is currently abetting a humanitarian disaster that could ultimately rival Syria and Iraq in its destabilizing impact on the region and the world. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the intractable civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed government loyalists over the past three years.
But the tens of thousands killed by armed violence may represent only a fraction of its total victims, and the U.S. government seems to be doing everything it can to make things worse.
Over the weekend, international aid agencies warned that some 20 million people were imminently at risk of dying of starvation or poverty-related diseases in Yemen and a number of African countries, all of which are facing critical food shortages. In Yemen alone, Save the Children counts 20.7 million people, half of them children, in dire need of aid. Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic is raging through the parts of Yemen hit hardest by the war, with at least 360,000 suspected cases and perhaps as many as 425,000. Some 2,000 people have already died in the epidemic, and the number of cases is rising by some 7,000 a day.
Both of these crises are entirely man-made. The famine in Yemen is not a consequence of drought or crop failure — indeed, in recent decades Yemen has shifted most of its agricultural land to growing the stimulant drug qat and other cash crops, and imports almost 90 percent of its food. Rather, the famine is the intentional result of a two-year blockade imposed on the country by Saudi Arabia, with the help of its allies, including the U.S., in a deliberate effort to starve the rebel-held areas into submission. The ruthless siege tactics of the Saudi-led coalition are also directly to blame for the cholera outbreak. Saudi Arabia has targeted civilian areas with its bombs, destroying vital infrastructure like hospitals and water systems. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, says we are witnessing the “weaponization of disease” in Yemen, as well as in Syria.
The U.S. cannot sidestep its own complicity in this carnage. After belatedly realizing that the Saudis were bombing Yemeni civilians with American-made weapons, the Obama administration blocked sales of cluster bombs and precision munitions to Riyadh last year. The Trump administration, however, sought to resume precision weapons sales back in March, and the Senate signed off on a new $500 million deal by a narrow margin in June. Since March, the administration has been considering expanding U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict — which the Saudis surely encouraged during Trump’s visit there in May.
While reports of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia resulting from that trip may have been exaggerated (Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel noted at the time that these sales were neither final nor necessarily new), Trump clearly does not share his predecessor’s mild qualms about selling our allies the tools to blow up hospitals and water pumps, as long as he can plausibly spin those sales as creating jobs at Lockheed Martin. This attitude is hardly a novelty in U.S. foreign policy: As long as the Saudis buy their guns and bombs from us, we’re not too concerned about how they end up using them, whether it’s to besiege Yemen, threaten Qatar, brutally suppress protests in Bahrain, or intimidate their own citizens into quiescence. Given Trump’s single-minded obsession with making deals and goosing U.S. manufacturing jobs, as well as his susceptibility to Saudi flattery, his administration is unlikely to stand up to our most troublesome ally anytime soon.
Part of what allows the United States to be an accessory to these atrocities is the fact that though Yemen bleeds, it doesn’t lead. Coverage of Yemen in the Western media, where it exists at all, tends to be one-dimensional “parachute journalism,” produced by non-expert reporters and focusing solely on the Sunni-Shiite, Saudi-Iranian proxy war dimension of the conflict.
Part of the problem is that Yemen is a difficult and dangerous place for journalists to go: Way back in 2015, when the Saudi intervention was young but already destructive, Jared Malsin observed at the Columbia Journalism Review that foreign journalists were having a hard time getting close enough to the conflict to actually cover it and low internet penetration in Yemen hinders local journalism from both citizens and professionals. Similar challenges have not, however, prevented more robust coverage of Syria and Iraq. Yemen’s civil war may not be attracting the same kind of attention because its refugees are not reaching European shores, so the crisis is not affecting the West directly, or simply because it does not lend itself to easy hero-and-villain angles.
Indeed, the Houthi rebels and their Iranian suppliers — who have recently been stepping up their infusions of cash, drugs, and weapons to the rebels — have shown plenty of disregard for human rights and committed plenty of war crimes of their own, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and the use of mines. But the resources this side of the conflict can muster pale in comparison to what the Saudis are spending on the war in Yemen, which one study puts at $200 million a day (ironically, for all the expensive suffering they’re causing, the Saudis may be losing the war, or at least becoming bogged down in an Afghanistan-esque quagmire).
One of the most pernicious qualities of war is that it is hugely profitable for certain people, and in a failed state like Yemen, those people are local warlords, heads of militias, and terrorist cells. One of the reasons the conflict has proven so intractable is that while the civilian population is starving, the rebels are making out like bandits. The pillaging of Yemen is also netting tens of millions a year for Al Qaeda’s local affiliate. American weapons manufacturers, meanwhile, surely aren’t complaining about those big orders from Saudi Arabia. Shockingly, nobody involved in the violence in Yemen seems to have the best interests of its people at heart.
What really makes the war in Yemen frightening is that the country was already in a fragile state: The poorest country in the Arab region, overpopulated and heavily dependent on imports, the country’s biggest problem is that it is drying up. A population boom and the rise of a cash crop economy has led to overexploitation of scarce resources, exacerbated by the effects of climate change, and Yemen is now one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Some experts believe Sanaa could become the world’s first capital city to run out of water entirely — not decades from now, but by 2025 — and what little water the city has left is now contaminated with cholera.
If nothing is done to alleviate Yemen’s water crisis, and especially if war continues to degrade infrastructure and make repairs impossible, Yemen is a strong candidate for the world’s first major climate refugee crisis. Between civil war, famine, disease, climate change, and the indifference of the world, the land known to the Greeks and Romans as “Happy Arabia” is well on its way to becoming ungovernable, if not uninhabitable.