Imperial rivalry and social disaster in Yemen

December 13, 2017

As the U.S. and its allies and Middle Eastern regional powers struggle for the control of Yemen, ordinary people are paying a terrible price, writes Sumaya A..

YEMEN, HOME to 29 million people, is currently facing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century. Since 2015, more than 90,000 air strikes have been launched on Yemeni soil, killing tens of thousands of people and putting the lives of millions more in jeopardy.

This bombardment is part of a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed military intervention for the past three years.

Saudi Arabia and the U.S.--whose involvement in Yemen for the past several years, and for over a decade before that, has yet to be authorized by Congress--claim their relentless assault is safeguarding democracy and restoring order to the country.

The irony of such a statement should be lost on no one. These two countries, along with others in the military coalition attacking Yemen, should be put on trial for any number of acts, past and present, that are the polar opposite of democracy and justice.

The coalition at war with Yemen is made up of 10 governments: Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Senegal, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. It is supported by the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Canada, Turkey and, of course, the U.S.--which has been the leading imperialist force behind this war.

Civilians rescue a child from the rubble after a coalition air strike in Sana'a
Civilians rescue a child from the rubble after a coalition air strike in Sana'a

All six of the supporting countries have offered weapons, supplies and logistical support, plus help in enforcing a blockade on commercial imports and aid from international organizations. But the role of the U.S. in refueling Saudi and UAE warplanes sustains the military coalition's air operation.

Even before the U.S.-backed Saudi war on Yemen began, the country was the poorest in the region. Now, with the coalition's stranglehold, Yemeni civilians are facing what the United Nations has deemed the "world's largest humanitarian crisis."

Since the coalition air strikes began, an estimated 5,000 civilians have been killed directly, though the number of deaths is likely far higher as a result of starvation, disease and other factors that have been exacerbated as a result.

But the source of the nightmare is not only the bombs threatening to fall on mosques, hospitals and homes, but the spread of disease as a result of the lack of clean water, food and medics to treat the wounded and sick.

In April of this year, a cholera epidemic spread through the country. What started as a few cases of the severe bacterial disease spread in water spiraled over nine months into a massive outbreak affecting over 900,000 people.

Yemeni children are facing record levels of malnutrition. According to Save the Children, war and the ongoing blockade are together responsible for the deaths of an estimated 40,000 children this year so far, and that number could be 50,000 by the end of the year. More than 2 million people are internally displaced in the country, and 80 percent of the population is in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.


WHY IS this happening and who is to blame?

Currently in Yemen, the forces are split into two main camps. The first of these are the Zaidi Houthis, who now control the capital of Sana'a and have increasingly contributed to the escalation of violence. This group, also known as Ansar Allah, is a political movement that rose to power in northern Yemen in the 1990s, after the reunification of Yemen's north and south. It is loosely tied to Iran, the main regional rival to Saudi Arabia.

The second camp is composed of elements of the old state structure under the control of ousted former Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who has little popular support in the country, but is backed by Saudi Arabia and recognized internationally.

The interfering imperial and regional powers have also produced and funded a number of armed groups, such as al-Qaeda, each with its own political agenda.

In order to understand today's political scene in Yemen, it's worth recounting the history of the country prior to the 2011 uprising.

The conflict between the Houthis and the U.S.-allied Yemeni government was triggered in 2004 under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After years of suppressing Houthi resistance through oppressive and discriminatory laws, Saleh ordered the capture of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, one of the leaders of Ansar Allah. This helped to spark an insurgency that lasted for almost a decade, pitting the minority Houthi population against the Yemeni military.

In 2011, as people across the Arab world rose up against oppressive dictators and autocrats, tens of thousands of people did the same in Yemen against Saleh--who, as all dictators do, saw himself as an invincible figure.

Yemen's uprising was an inspiring example of popular revolution and mass mobilization. Within a week of the initial breakout of revolution in Yemen, Saleh, a close ally of the U.S., announced he would not be running for re-election. But protests persisted, and by September 2011, Saleh had declared that he would be stepping down and transferring power to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Hadi, like Saleh before him, did not have a base of popular support among tribal leaders or any of the major powers in Yemen. As a result, he chose to ally with different Islamist factions, some of which had existed in Yemen for many decades, such as the Islah Party--a group founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and funded by Saudi Arabia.

All the while, other Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda began to establish themselves in the region and allied with Hadi and other forces against the Houthis, who had begun to dominate the resistance. The interference of the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia has since instigated even more sectarianism and helped to sustain the political momentum behind these groups.


OVER THE course of the next two years, Hadi and his allies engaged in a constant battle against the Houthis and their supporters in the north of Yemen. Popular resistance to Hadi's government was squashed and maligned as an affront to democracy.

But in August 2014, after Hadi's government doubled fuel prices in a bid to curb the country's budget deficit, mass protests called by Houthis spread through the capital. Government forces violently suppressed the demonstrations, resulting in the murder of a woman who was protesting in front of the presidential palace.

The insurgency intensified, and five months later, the Houthis took control of the capital, forcing the resignation of Hadi and his ministers. The ousted Hadi fled to the city of Aden, and there, with the support of Saudi Arabia, declared the city the new provisional capital.

Within a month, Saudi Arabia had put together its military coalition of Middle Eastern countries, under the support of imperialist powers, led by the United States, and began a ruthless war on the Yemeni population.

The military campaign, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, was meant to last only a few months and, in fact, was officially declared over a month after it began. Yet today, it's entering its third year.

Former alliances were reconfigured as elements of the old regime led by Saleh allied with the Houthis in a bid to regain control of the country. But Saleh didn't expect the Saudi-led military operation to go on for as long as it did.

Earlier this year, rumors spread that Saleh was attempting to negotiate with members of the coalition--an attempt to switch back to his original allies. Then, two weeks ago, Saleh gave a televised interview indicating his desire to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and Hadi. Days later, Saleh's convoy was ambushed, and he was shot dead.

This is the playing field in today's Yemen: The forces involved are many, and the conflicts raging among them show no signs of easing. Those who bear the brunt of the consequences are Yemeni civilians, who--whether in the Houthi-held city of Sa'dah or in Hadi-controlled Aden--live with the constant threat of death, whether from Saudi air raids, cholera and disease, or starvation.


THE BOMBARDMENT and blockade inflicted by the U.S.-backed coalition are the primary factors causing death and destruction in Yemen.

U.S. ships help to control access to Yemen's naval ports through its blockade on the country, making Washington one of the main culprits in the blocking of humanitarian aid to a population facing what may become the world's worst famine in decades. Seven million people could die if food is not allowed to enter the country and medication for treatable diseases such as cholera is not quickly made accessible.

In October 2016, when a U.S. Navy ship fired cruise missiles at Houthi targets in Sana'a, the Pentagon tried to convince the public here that its escalation of violence was a response to U.S. ships being fired on without provocation by Houthi forces.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. The U.S. has been involved militarily in Yemen since the early 2000s when its drone war program began. Drone operations resulted in the murder earlier this year of 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, whose family was targeted for alleged ties to al-Qaeda.

The attack that killed al-Awlaki was the first military action taken by Trump after taking office. Before that, Barack Obama ordered the operation that killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old brother Anwar in 2010.

The U.S. government is responsible for far more deaths in Yemen than either al-Qaeda or the Houthis. In the last two years alone, the U.S. and its Saudi ally have targeted schools, hospitals, airports, weddings, funerals and homes, all in the name of "rooting out terrorist cells." The U.S. always blames civilian casualties on "bad intelligence," but the reality is that U.S. bombing campaigns and drone strikes inevitably cause civilian casualties.

While the U.S. uses the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen as an excuse for its drone war and support for the Saudi-led air war, the real reasons the U.S. is invested in the tiny country of Yemen have everything to do with U.S. imperial interests in the region.

Aside from arms deals that stood to benefit the U.S. (just this year Trump signed a U.S.-Saudi Arabia arms deal worth $110 billion), the United States needs to ensure that whoever is in power will be pliant and willing to adapt to its influence and economic control. Hadi's government, and before it Ali Abdullah Saleh's government, did just that. The Houthis, however, as well as popular protests that rocked the country in 2011, stood in the way of that.

The Saudis, too, have much to lose if the Houthis remain in control or if another popular uprising takes place in Yemen. Yemen, though small and weak, could prevent Saudi Arabia from accessing some of the most lucrative trade routes in the Red Sea. Without a regime aligned with their interests in place in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its allies fear these ports could be lost to other powers in the region--most of all, Iran.

The other forces in the coalition, such as Jordan and Egypt, are counterrevolutionary governments or monarchies. In Jordan's case, the regime relies solely on U.S. aid to keep it afloat. Just as it has turned its back on Palestine and opened the way for the Trump to march into Jerusalem, so it has betrayed Yemen and colluded with the powers bombing the country to smithereens.


THE SOCIAL catastrophe has caused a refugee crisis--yet even those who are able to escape the country and seek refuge in the U.S. or Europe are being turned back or deported.

The same wealthy countries that are complicit in creating and sustaining the war close their doors, citing fear of violence and lack of funds. By contrast, poorer nations, like Djibouti and Somalia--both of which have also been devastated by U.S. imperialism--have opened their doors to the fleeing refugees.

Trump's Muslim travel ban, recently reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, targets the entire population of Yemen.

Bombing them in their home country and then refusing to accept them when they flee--this is a pattern of U.S. imperialism and an important reminder of the inherent link between foreign and domestic policies. This means that when we protest, we must demand not just to "Let them in" but also to "Stop the war."

Recent articles

Tuesday, October 23rd

Monday, October 22nd

Friday, October 19th

Thursday, October 18th

Wednesday, October 17th

Tuesday, October 16th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives