What the Saudis Have Wrought

The Saudi-led, US-backed war in Yemen has produced a humanitarian hellscape. And there's no end in sight.

President Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch-Pool / Getty

The war in Yemen is entering its fourth year. A remote land barely known by most US citizens, 22 of Yemen’s 29 million people are now suffering from what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. About 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation, 16 million lack basic water and sanitation, and more than 1 million are wracked with cholera — another world record.

Last week, as Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman negotiated arms purchases with Donald Trump during his trip to Washington, a few congressional members tried to end US support for the murderous, Saudi-prosecuted war. Defeated 55 to 45, the Senate resolutionspearheaded by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and cosponsored by fourteen other senators — would have barred US involvement in the conflict that hadn’t been authorized by Congress. The move came on the heels of a House resolution last November, which condemned the war and recognized the US’s partial responsibility for the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Although neither effort directly reduced US participation, both have increased public awareness of the Yemeni war — while mortifying US decision makers and embarrassing the war’s main protagonists, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Actors and the War

The schematic version of the Yemeni war is as follows: On one side lies the Huthi movement, a religiously based group whose main ideological characteristic is a belief that sada (descendants of the Prophet, also known as Hashemites or ashraf) have an innate right to rule. They’ve demonstrated their fidelity to this belief by appointing sada to most senior positions, and they now control the country’s most populated areas. Opposing them is the Saudi-led coalition, whose brutal air war and blockade has ravaged the country. The Saudis intervened in March 2015 out of concern that the Huthis would take over the entire country and to restore to power the transitional regime that emerged from the 2011 uprisings.

The US claims to have no direct involvement in the coalition. Yet in addition to selling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and ammunition, it supplies operations-room targeting and other advisory services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Most importantly and crucially, the US provides in-flight refueling to coalition aircrafts, a technical exercise that, if ended, would put a stop to the air strikes in short order. In the first three years of the war, the coalition carried out 16,749 air strikes — one third of which targeted nonmilitary sites. (The Huthis, by comparison, launched a handful of unsophisticated ballistic missiles in the same time span.)

Over the course of the war, an anti-Iranian discourse has overtaken the initial justification for the intervention. The Saudis and the US loudly claim that Huthi missiles are of Iranian origin, and use this as a reason to intensify their anti-Iranian rhetoric. There is indeed limited evidence that some missile components are of Iranian origin, but other components are of US manufacture. More than anything, these accusations are part of a mounting propaganda campaign, designed to rationalize hawkish decisions like Trump’s likely withdrawal from the Iran deal.

Focus on the proxy war also allows the international community to ignore the Yemeni roots and nature of the original conflict (as well as its disastrous impact and exacerbation as a result of international intervention).

Full-scale war erupted in Yemen in 2015. Following the 2011 popular uprisings — longer and more widespread than anywhere else in the Arab world — the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, alongside the US, UK, and other Western powers, had assisted in the formation of a transitional regime. Given two years to bring about a “new” Yemen, it was to make some concessions to the demands of the popular uprising for a “national” equitable economy, providing employment for millions of women and youth and remaking the political system so it would generate something other than mass inequality.

But the transitional regime turned out to be little different from its predecessor, effectively replacing Ali Abdullah Saleh’s kleptocratic elite with a similar one dominated by the Islah Party (wrongly perceived by the UAE leadership as nothing more than the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). Meanwhile, the Huthi movement — galvanized by victories in its six wars against the Saleh regime — strengthened its control over its home area in the far north, expanded to neighboring areas, and developed an alliance with Saleh, with whom it shared hostility to many of the decisions of the National Dialogue Conference (held between March 2013 and January 2014). In the early months of 2014, Huthi and Saleh forces defeated their opponents, moved south, and later took over Sana’a, the country’s capital, without bloodshed. At the time, the Huthis enjoyed considerable popular support thanks to their anti-corruption rhetoric and the tactical incompetence of the government, led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

By early 2015, they had taken full control of the Sana’a-based government, and Hadi’s GCC-supported, internationally recognized government was in exile in Saudi Arabia (later returning a few ministers to its temporary capital of Aden after it was liberated in mid-2015). While a military stalemate has prevailed for the past three years, currently about 70 percent of the country’s land and about 25 to 30 percent of its population are not under Huthi control.

That isn’t to say these areas are under the Hadi regime’s rule. In what was formerly the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen — otherwise known as South Yemen — UAE-trained, -equipped, and -paid security forces, composed mainly of local Salafi elements, provide “security,” supposedly fighting al-Qaeda and Daesh while in practice prioritizing arrests and attacks on Islahi elements. In the past year the southern separatist movement has been on the rise and partly consolidated as the Southern Transitional Movement, presenting a somewhat less fragmented front to the world. Other “liberated” areas in the former Yemen Arab Republic — otherwise known as North Yemen — mainly around Mareb, are under the control of Vice President Ali Mohsen’s forces (himself a senior member of Islah). The situation throughout the non-Huthis areas is marked by political and military fragmentation and the effective absence of the Hadi regime, a weakness that is partially encouraged by UAE actions.

Over the past twelve months, the main change in the mostly Zaydi-populated central and northern highlands has been the collapse of the Huthi-Saleh alliance. Always riven by tensions, this partnership was never more than one of convenience, clouded by the historic hostility between the two. As tensions intensified, the Huthis gradually gained the upper hand and, last December, they killed Saleh, thus achieving exclusive control of Sana’a and the Highlands. Most of Saleh’s remaining forces then migrated to the areas under coalition control, where they are regrouping militarily under his nephew, Tareq Saleh, with UAE support.

No End in Sight

The machinations of various actors, foreign and domestic, have produced a hellscape for the average Yemeni. More than 400,000 children are acutely malnourished, nothing more than skin and bones. Close to 2 million children are too destitute to attend school, and teachers have not been paid for over a year. Thousands of girls are being married off prematurely to reduce demand on household budgets. “It is fair to say,” a UNICEF official recently reported after visiting the country, “that every single girl and boy in Yemen is facing acute humanitarian needs.”

With none of the various actors offering any progressive social, political, or economic policies, most Yemenis now simply long for peace and the possibility of reconstructing their lives. They hope for a government that would enable economic development for all, rural and urban, and provide education, health care, and other basic services. But basically they will settle for anything that means an end to a war that has given them nothing but death and destruction.

Prospects for peace are mixed. On the Huthi side there are signs of a willingness to negotiate. They have received the new United Nations special envoy and expressed their wish to renew talks to a recent high-level EU delegation. Their senior negotiator — based in Oman since January — has held negotiations with a wide range of interlocutors, including, according to rumors, the Saudis themselves. But on Monday — the third anniversary of the intervention — they also launched seven missiles on Saudi Arabia, causing the first-ever fatalities from their missiles.

On the other side, while Oman, the UN, and the EU and some member states are actively striving to bring the war to a close, the Saudi-led coalition seems to be increasing its anti-Iranian rhetoric and its attacks on Yemen. Indeed, on his recent visit to the White House, Mohammed bin Salman had no compunction displaying to the world the vast quantities of advanced, expensive weaponry he’d purchased from the US. Even if Saudi Arabia is becoming more unpopular among US legislators, the Trump administration shouldn’t be expected to change its extremely hawkish tune.

The coming year in Yemen is thus unlikely to be a happier one for most Yemenis. With funding for the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan still far from requirement and the Saudi blockade still largely in place, living conditions will remain extremely difficult. And the political positions of the international protagonists — the United States chief among them — show little sign of mellowing.