More than 9,000 people have been killed, according to UN figures, one third of them civilians. Some 2.4 million Yemenis are uprooted from their homes, and a staggering 80 percent of the population lack reliable supplies of food. The displaced and the hungry are unable to flee the country—all the borders are closed—and a naval blockade has prevented all but a trickle of outside aid from reaching those in need. On May 3, the UN inaugurated a program to screen relief shipments, which may ameliorate the humanitarian emergency, but the Saudi-led bombardment and the ground battles have left much of Yemen without fuel, electricity and water.
Why did Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies mount this assault? How did Yemen’s peaceful uprising of 2011 degenerate into civil strife and external intervention? Why has the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led war effort with munitions, mid-air refueling and intelligence, even as human rights organizations have documented war crimes?
To help answer these and other questions, our contributing editor Sheila Carapico assembled Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, an anthology of previously published MERIP material, released on May 3 by Just World Books. The collection includes her introductory commentaries as well as maps and striking political cartoons by Samer al-Shameeri.
The Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the Institute for Policy Studies hosted Carapico to discuss the volume on April 28 and May 3, respectively.
A central premise of Arabia Incognita, she began, is that the Arabian Peninsula is “a distinct political unit.” Upheavals in one country reverberate in the others. The oil-rich monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long sought control over the course of events in poor, populous Yemen and its rulers. In the 1960s, the Saudis backed the imam against republican rebels; after unification in 1990, they cultivated the strongman in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. In 2011 came the shock of the revolt against Salih, whose most visible leader, Tawakkul Karman, was a woman. The Gulf monarchs’ attempt to manage the succession to Salih is the backdrop to the Houthi rebels’ overreach, the subsequent internal war, the intervention and the current catastrophe.
The US, for its part, “has a Saudi policy of which its Yemen policy is an outgrowth.” For decades, the US-Saudi “special relationship” was underwritten by the kingdom’s fervent anti-Communism, its hydrocarbon wealth and the petrodollars it pumped back into Western economies. Today, perhaps, it is rooted more in massive arms sales.
Arabia Incognita brings together four decades of MERIP coverage of the Arabian Peninsula—on topics ranging from political Islam, labor migration and resource politics to arts and culture. It is now available from Just World Books.