The destruction of Yemen
The West is complicit in the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Responding to events in Yemen, the British foreign secretary did not mince his words. ‘I am appalled by another attempted missile strike’, he said. ‘This is the second such shocking incident in six weeks, which yet again deliberately targeted a populated area’, he continued, adding: ‘I strongly support UN investigations into the origins of these weapons and welcome the UN’s suggestion of a joint discussion of the relevant UN bodies to look into these threats and consider action against those responsible.’ Strong stuff.
Yet this was not a condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition’s missile attack on a bus in Dahyan in the Houthi-rebel stronghold of Saadaa, in which at least 29 children were killed and many more seriously injured. And it was not a call for a UN investigation into the ongoing Saudi-led assault on Hodeida, a port city on the west coast that is the main entry point for food and aid supplies to Houthi-controlled areas. Indeed, it was not a response to any of the atrocities carried out over the past three years as part of the Saudi coalition’s war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels. No, this was Boris Johnson, who was then the foreign secretary, speaking in December, about the Houthi rebels’ attempted missile attack on the Saudi capital of Riyadh. A missile attack, one should remember, that failed because Saudi military tech, no doubt made in the West, intercepted it.
It seems the Saudi-led coalition can lay waste to Yemen, blockading ports, destroying vital infrastructure, and killing civilians in their thousands, with barely a murmur of dissent in London or Washington, DC. But when the other side retaliates, or at least attempts to, out comes the heavy moral rhetoric.
Compare Johnson’s response to that issued by the UK Foreign Office, now overseen by Jeremy Hunt, in response to last week’s missile attack: ‘Transparent investigation required. UK calls on all parties to prevent civilian casualties and to cooperate with the UN to reach a lasting political solution in Yemen.’ Where’s the ‘appalled’? Where’s the ‘shocking’? And where’s the call for action against ‘those responsible’? Nowhere. There are no hands being wrung here, only hands being washed. Of moral responsibility.
It is not a surprise, of course. The Saudi monarchs are our men in the Middle East. They are British state’s allies, its friends. As Johnson put it in December, ‘the United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia as it faces regional crises and security threats’. There is little doubting the UK’s or America’s commitment, given they design and manufacture billions of dollars worth of weaponry for the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They send military advisers and logistical assistance, too. And above all they persistently turn a blind eye to the devastation of Yemen. And when that proves impossible, as a bus of children burns or the remains of a hospital smoulder, they downplay it, by expressing token concern accompanied by a perfunctory call for all parties to come to a peaceful solution. As if it somehow has nothing to do with them.
And that is the problem with the devastation of Yemen: it is a conflict that has too much to do with forces external to Yemen, forces that entrench the conflict, and take it out of the hands of those now bearing its brunt. Yes, the internal conflicts within Yemen are real. The Houthi rebels, a disenfranchised, frustrated Shia minority from Yemen’s north, really have long resented the Yemeni state’s favouring of Sunnis, virtually since the unification of Yemen in 1990. But this core conflict, inflamed further by the presence of al-Qaeda and ISIS in the secessionist south, acquired its internationalised dynamic from the moment the UN, with the Saudi-led, Sunni-majority gulf states to the fore, intervened in Yemen’s own Arab Spring, and anointed Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as the new president of Yemen in early 2012. This despite Hadi’s involvement, as deputy prime minister, in the very government to which Yemeni protesters were so opposed.
Because from that moment, Hadi’s fate, and the fate of the Yemeni state, was tied to its international and regional backers, chief among which was Saudi Arabia. Not that it was a simple power play on the part of the Saudis. Rather, like their military intervention in Bahrain in 2012, it was the House of Saud’s attempt to shore up its internal authority, and therefore external security, in a region unravelling in the aftermath of calamitous Western intervention, especially since the Iraq War in 2003, and then the Arab Spring in 2011.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s decision to ramp up military actions in Yemen, in March 2015, has been ruinous for a nation that was already the poorest in the Arab world. It has escalated the conflict, pitching Houthi rebels into battle not just against the remnants of the old regime, but also against Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies. So much so, in fact, that Hadi, the Houthis’ original opponent, now himself lives, albeit under house arrest, in Riyadh. And on the Houthi side, it did not take long for the Sauds’ regional adversary, Iran, itself determined to improve its security against external threats, to start backing the Houthis, with help from Hezbollah, Iran’s client militia in Lebanon.
And so a civil war soon became a regional proxy war and then soon an international proxy war, as the US and the UK sided unilaterally with the Sauds, complete with Trump sword-dancing with Prince Salman, while Russia leant towards the Iran-backed Houthis. And with each moment in the internationalisation of the Yemeni conflict, the prospect of its various internal actors being able to reach some sort of solution has diminished. Because too many without Yemen have too much invested within Yemen.
It is difficult to overstate the resulting destruction of Yemen, a destruction in which the US and the UK, through their backing for the Saudi-military coalition, are thoroughly implicated. According to the UN, since Saudi Arabia started its military campaign in 2015, two million people have been displaced; 2.9million children and women are acutely malnourished; over half the population has no regular access to safe water; and less than half of health facilities are still functioning. This last has had a knock-on effect on the conflict’s known death toll, since health facilities are the chief sources for reliable figures. As a result, it has stood at 10,000 for the past two years, when, as the Washington Post reports, it is likely to be nearer 50,000.
This is what the UK says it is merely ‘concerned’ about. ‘The world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, as the UN calls it, is what Western powers downplay. And they do so at the same time as they ostentatiously moralise about Russian actions in Syria. The hypocrisy is shameful. Yemen is being destroyed and its people brutalised. And it is happening not in spite of Western intervention, but largely because of it.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.