Congress is scrutinizing President Joe Biden’s policy on Yemen this week, with House and Senate subcommittees hosting hearings on the crisis in the Arab state.
During Wednesday’s House hearing, Tim Lenderking, the Biden administration’s special envoy to Yemen, described the situation in stark terms. “The level of suffering there,” he told lawmakers, “is unimaginable.”
Half a world away, Fatik Al-Rodaini can imagine the suffering. The native Yemini has seen it with his own eyes.
Two months ago, Al-Rodaini visited a dusty mountain village in his country, where he found a bedraggled-looking family of seven sitting against the stone wall of their home, stooped over a boiling pot on an open fire. A smell like vinegar hung in the chilly February air.
In the pot were leaves from a halas vine — the family’s entire meal.
Yemenis used to eat halas leaves only occasionally during periods of food scarcity. The bitter, leathery foliage, boiled in well water often tainted with sewage, can cause stomach ailments. But now, as Yemen has slipped into the worst famine the world has seen in decades, the leaves have become the only thing keeping many Yeminis alive — even in this village, just a few dozen miles from Sanaa, the country’s capital.
Al-Rodaini had come to the village as part of a supply run for the humanitarian aid organization he runs called Mona Relief. The native Yemini founded the operation in 2015, two months after the country found itself in its current war. Mona Relief delivers foodstuffs and supplies to about sixty-five hundred families in the midst of a historic humanitarian crisis.
Al-Rodaini had seen leaf eating on his relief trips to more remote areas of Yemen. But seeing it so close to the capital left him horrified.
“I feel the world is turning a blind eye to the largest humanitarian crisis,” he tells the Daily Poster. “The suffering of this area is a living example of how the war has exacted a terrible and massive human cost.”
In February, Biden announced that he would be ending US backing of “offensive operations” in Yemen and related arms sales, activities widely seen as fueling the country’s war and suffering.
Since then, Al-Rodaini has continued his supply runs. Nothing on the ground has changed, he says, despite the fact that Biden faces mounting bipartisan pressure to do more to address the crisis.
If anything, he says, the people in Yemen are worse off than ever.
The Beginnings of a Crisis
Yemen, an Arab state occupying the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, collapsed into civil war six years ago after Houthi rebels from the northern regions of the country overthrew the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
The Houthis were a Zaidi Shia movement with ties to Iran that had long been at odds with the country’s government over a lack of resources and the perception that officials were working for US and Saudi interests at the expense of the people.
In September 2014, Houthi forces, emboldened by countrywide upheaval triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings four years earlier, overran the capital and took over the government.
After briefly rescinding his presidency, Hadi escaped the country and appealed to foreign allies for support. His call was answered by Saudi Arabia, which feared the spread of Iranian influence so close to its borders. Recruiting a coalition of Arab nations that included the United Arab Emirates, it went to war against the Houthis.
The Obama White House, which wasn’t happy with the status of Iran’s nuclear non-proliferation commitments at the time, pledged US military and intelligence support for the Saudi coalition’s campaign — along with an active military engagement against al Qaeda cells in the country — in a March 25 press release.
“While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” it read.
The administration had long maintained a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, offering it tens of billions of dollars in sales of military hardware including fighter jets and missiles. To support the war effort, not only did the sales continue, American jets refueled Saudi jets in mid-air and American intelligence provided targeting assistance. When Saudi Arabia stationed war ships off Yemen’s coast in 2015, blockading the country, the United States stood by — despite the fact that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food and forced starvation is a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.
As he was leaving office, Obama sought to limit some arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid growing public outcry over the war. But the administration’s efforts were limited and came too late.
Donald Trump enthusiastically supported the Saudi war effort in Yemen, though he did end the aerial refueling of the kingdom’s jets. Despite an airstrike on a Yemeni school bus full of children with an American bomb, and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s apparent involvement in the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump refused to sign a bipartisan war powers bill sent to his desk in May 2020 aimed at ending US intelligence, refueling, and logistical support to Saudi-led coalition.
Trump also allowed weapons manufacturer Raytheon to produce smart bomb parts inside the Saudi Arabia to be used in Yemen. He reportedly even boasted to journalist Bob Woodward that he had “saved” the Saudi crown prince after Khashoggi’s murder.
“There Is a Lack in Every Single Thing”
Moving about Yemen’s capital, where he lives with his wife of seventeen years and five children, Al-Rodaini stands five-foot-eight and cuts a lean figure, often smartly dressed in a signature button-down and brown vest. The forty-three-year-old has thick black hair, wire-frame glasses, and speaks broken but passable English.
Those who know Al-Rodaini describe him as personable and deeply committed to his work. Ghaleb Alsudmy, a fellow humanitarian activist in Sanaa who became friends with Al-Rodaini in 2015, says he purehearted, “the person who works the most on earth and makes an effort to alleviate people’s suffering.”
Ahmad Algohbary, a journalist and fellow aid worker from Sanaa who runs a group called Yemen Hope and Relief, met Al-Rodaini in 2017 at a journalism conference in Jordan. They were there to talk about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Algohbary describes Al-Rodaini as friendly and hardworking, but noted that he seemed weary.
“His body is so slim,” he says.
Indeed, despite the overall neatness of Al-Rodaini’s appearance, his face betrays an exhaustion from bearing witness to the suffering around him, and tragedies that have beset his own family. In December 2019, he lost his oldest son after the sixteen-year-old was accidentally shot by a neighbor who was attempting to shoot dogs in the neighborhood with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Al-Rodaini never planned on running an aid organization. Born in Sanaa, in 1996 he got a job as researcher at the state-run news agency, Saba. That job lasted a decade. In 2010, he started his own blog and a year later began writing for the Yemen Post.
But his country’s unrest and misery forced a career change.
Yemen, which has spent decades transitioning from one bloody conflict to another, was already the poorest country in the Arab world when the war began. As the war dragged on, the situation on the ground deteriorated, precipitating an economic collapse.
In Yemen’s north, Saudi jets have dropped American bombs on farmland, hospitals, schools, and marketplaces, while Houthis have shelled populated areas and their snipers have targeted children and the elderly. Both sides have allegedly used child soldiers.
Dr Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Middle East Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, notes that Saudi Arabia and Iran’s involvement in the war is fueling the violence.
“Civil wars, when they are funded by external powers, can go on for decades because there’s more and more resources and no incentive to stop,” she explains.
“When [the Saudis] intervened in 2015, Iran had almost no involvement,” she adds. “Iranians have increased their support for the Houthis because it’s a great way to piss off the Saudis for a minimal expenditure of resources.”
Yemeni civilians have suffered the consequences. Amid the upheaval, workers like teachers and doctors have not been paid in years, leaving schools and hospitals understaffed. After Saudi Arabia blockaded the country, food, medicine, and fuel prices skyrocketed and the rial, Yemen’s currency, collapsed.
Houthi forces have also contributed to the crisis, diverting aid and fuel from the needy. Last April, the World Food Programme cut aid to Houthi-controlled areas after donors expressed concern it was not reaching its intended recipients.
Thanks to the years of upheaval, Yemen is now home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In February, the United Nations warned that the country was headed toward the worst famine the world has seen in decades. As many as 16.2 million Yemenis are food insecure, and nearly a third of all families have nutritional gaps in their diet.
Yemen also suffers from a shortage of clean water, medicine, and medical infrastructure. According to UNICEF, only about half of the country’s five thousand prewar health facilities were functional as of January — and those that were operating were plagued by “extreme shortages” of medicine, equipment, and staff.
The country is ground zero for the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, and faces the COVID-19 pandemic with diminished medical capacity. The numbers for the virus are not well-documented, but all indications point to a serious crisis.
The crisis has been particularly devastating for children, who made up a quarter of the civilian casualties over the past three years. According to the World Food Programme, as many as 2.3 million children under five are suffering acute malnutrition and require medical treatment. In 2018, the UN estimated that every ten minutes, a child was dying in Yemen.
In total, as of last December, 233,000 Yemenis had died from the conflict, with most resulting from indirect causes like malnutrition and disease.
In the face of the deepening crisis, international aid to the country has been falling. Between 2018 and 2020, funding dropped from $5 billion to $2 billion, according to the UN.
In his own small way, Al-Rodaini is using his organization to fill in the gaps. He started Mona Relief, named after a charitable donor he met online, by delivering food baskets to thirty-two families in Sanaa. Since then, the operation has grown to encompass twelve provinces in Yemen, delivering supplies such as flour, rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil, milk, clean water, cash assistance, medicine, blankets, clothes, tents, education items, and hygiene products.
The organization’s supply runs are difficult and dangerous. They require clearance from local authorities, which can be challenging to get, and take Al-Rodaini and his colleagues into some of the worst conflict zones on the planet.
“There is no one who doesn’t worry about his life,” says Al-Rodaini. But the most difficult part of the work, he says, is keeping the operation afloat. Supply costs change frequently. The country’s fuel shortage makes transportation difficult, and getting proper permission from local authorities to make deliveries is also a constant worry.
Despite his efforts, Al-Rodaini says the situation continues to deteriorate around him.
“The number of families who are living under the poverty line is huge,” he says. “There is a lack of every single thing.”
A Policy of Denial
On the campaign trail, Biden promised to alleviate the suffering in Yemen through a reevaluation of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and withdrawal of US support for the war, which has failed to reinstall Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Hadi, the country’s deposed president, has reportedly been living in Saudi Arabia since 2017.
Initially, it looked like Biden might make good on his promises. In February, he announced that he would be “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The administration also released an intelligence report blaming the Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder.
But days after declaring it would end support for offensives in Yemen, the Biden administration clarified that it would continue to support “defensive” operations in the country. And a few days before the release of the Khashoggi report, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — who previously served on Raytheon’s board — took a call with the Saudi crown prince, assuring him of America’s commitment to an ongoing partnership.
Last month, after CNN reported that Saudi Arabia was violating a UN agreement by continuing its blockade of the Yemeni port of Hodeida, the Biden administration provided cover. Lenderking, the administration’s envoy to Yemen, challenged the veracity of CNN’s report.
To date, the State department’s official position is that Saudi Arabia is not blockading Yemen, because some supplies are entering the country and Saudi vessels are voluntarily acting on orders of the deposed Hadi government, which operates out of Saudi Arabia.
At the House hearing, Lenderking reiterated this position, stating that food was entering Hodeida and inaccurately claiming that fuel restrictions were a relatively recent development.
The administration has indicated it wants to broker a ceasefire with the help of the UN. But behind the scenes, it has continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE, which is currently supporting militia fighters fighting for independence from the Hadi government.
Earlier this month, nearly eighty Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Biden urging the government to adopt a more aggressive approach to end the blockade. Then, two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a similar letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Ending this practice will boost Yemen’s economy, de-escalate the conflict, and prevent this humanitarian catastrophe from worsening — all important U.S. objectives,” read the Blinken letter.
But at the House foreign affairs subcommittee hearing on the matter this week, Lenderking, Biden’s Yemen envoy, made clear that the administration’s biggest concern wasn’t the devastating Saudi blockade, but instead a current Houthi offensive in the country’s oil-rich region of Ma’rib — the last Hadi stronghold in northern Yemen.
Lenderking called the Houthi incursion in the area, which experts say could deliver a decisive blow against the Hadi government in exile, the “single biggest threat to peace efforts” and warned it was having “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Lenderking added that, “If we do not stop the fighting in Ma’rib now, it will trigger a wave of even greater fighting and instability,” and he called on the international community and regional actors like Oman to take steps to stop the offensive.
Lenderking did not answer questions at the hearings about US support for coalition military operations that many say are prolonging the country’s suffering.
“Waiting For Our Fate”
Al-Rodaini says he is waiting for Biden to make good on his campaign promises. To him and so many of his countrymen, it is a matter of survival.
Last month, he and his family sheltered in their home through multiple days of airstrikes on Sanaa. Saudi Arabia launched the bombings as retaliation for a recent Houthi offensive that was, in turn, a response to the Saudi blockade. Some of the bombs landed just a few miles from Al-Rodaini’s family home. AI-Rodaini says that when he and his family heard the sound of the warplanes last month, they stopped thinking.
“We stayed in our places waiting for our fate,” he says. “Not only me but many Yemenis, we live in a very bad condition each time that we hear the sounds of warplanes.”
It was not the first time the family had been near a bombardment. In July 2015, a bomb landed two hundred meters from their house, blowing out the windows and knocking fixtures over inside. In that moment, Al-Rodaini felt like everything was going dark around him.
“You cannot decide what you are going to do,” he says. “Your life is in danger and your family too. Your children are crying and the situation is not good at all. I felt then that I’m going to die and you become suddenly without a home and the place that you are living in has become not safe at all.”
Once the bombing ended that day, Al-Rodaini drove his family to his sister’s house for safety. Then, true to form, he went back to his neighborhood to pick up the pieces.