The Moral Economy of Distance in the Yemeni Crisis

by Jillian Schwedler , Stacey Philbrick Yadav | published May 6, 2015 - 8:43am

In discussions of the ongoing war in Yemen, Yemeni activists, aid organizations and human rights groups are struggling to push the dire humanitarian situation and Yemen’s increasing isolation to the fore. Yet most of the establishment in Washington and London continues to treat the spiraling conflict in southwest Arabia as a disembodied “thing”—a situation to be managed, a territory to be protected in a proxy war, a threat to be contained—rather than an acute crisis affecting close to 26 million people. When attention is directed toward the citizens of Yemen at all, these people are portrayed as another problem to be solved. How to address the susceptibility of Yemenis to Islamist extremism? How to quell their support for heavily armed tribes? How to limit the risk that a massive exodus from Yemen might pose to Europe and other locales, as “boatloads of desperate migrants” land on distant shores? The fact that oil prices surged after Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen underlines the broad perception that what really matters is stability within Saudi Arabia and the maintenance of a key transit route and not what happens to Yemenis. The problem must be contained.

As political scientists, we’ve been taught to think in terms of “problems.” Yet there is a politics to problem solving that begins (but certainly does not end) with the analytic process of making people into problems. The politics of problem solving relies on a moral economy of distance that systematically denies the human equality of categories of people, regardless of the de jure rights that people have as members of a particular legal order.

Sociologist Margaret Somers illustrates this process at work in the crisis following Hurricane Katrina, when a large group of American citizens—having just lost their homes, life’s possessions and even family members—were effectively denied their standing as rights-bearing citizens on the basis of moral distancing. Recall that as portions of New Orleans were evacuated safely, residents of some of the poorest (and blackest) neighborhoods were denied access to a bridge to safety, herded into a stadium, and relocated sometimes hundreds of miles away without any say in the destination—all to avoid bringing them into closer proximity to wealthy, white neighborhoods whose property needed to be protected. Treated more as animals than as humans, impoverished black survivors of this “natural” disaster now had to be treated with caution, as false rumors circulated in the media of theft, rape and murder, threats that would certainly spread if the displaced residents were allowed to disperse freely. Denied in practice their status as citizens, as members of a national community deserving of care, the survivors then suffered a final indignity as refugees in their own country.

How are such injustices made possible? Even as the US media was commenting on the ineptitude of the government response to Katrina, nothing changed on the ground. Watching the coverage in Sanaa at the time of the hurricane, it was striking that Yemenis were immediately attuned to the racialized inequalities that characterized policy responses to the crisis. The reality was that a largely black, impoverished population was depicted, as Somers argues, as “the ‘underclass’…a term that explicitly conjures up an image of those who are ‘under,’ thus less than, the rest of the ‘regular’ population, marking them as clearly excluded from membership in the mainstream society.” As Yemenis discussed and debated Katrina, they interpreted it through the lens of their own experiences of moral distance, both international and local.

Over the course of many years, we have each had occasion to discuss our research in Yemen with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in other parts of the Middle East. We’ve routinely encountered people who view (and openly describe) Yemenis as backward, traditional or ignorant. Yemenis are the butt of jokes and the object of caricature, and rarely, if ever, are they seen as rights-bearing citizens, or as moral equals in an international community. Such characterizations are not lost on Yemenis, even as their leaders have helped to perpetuate this view in support of particular constellations of power. Yemen’s former president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, stood before the public and described his countrymen as mutakhallafin—backward or “retarded”—helping to reproduce the same hierarchies that undergird the systematic disregard for civilian lives that we see in the current Saudi-led war. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, current Foreign Minister Riyad Yasin justified the aerial assault on and blockade of his country’s citizens by explaining that Yemenis—like the many other “others” who are objectified by similar moral economies of distance—are “used to living in bad conditions.”

Of course, we should not be entirely surprised that the US government cares about Yemen only because it is now home to some of the most active franchises of al-Qaeda. In the early 1990s, Washington was not merely indifferent toward Yemen’s precarious but very real democratic opening. The George H. W. Bush administration was hostile, cutting aid to the newly unified Yemen after the latter used its seat on the UN Security Council to vote against the US-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Rather than support the only real democratic opening on the Arabian Peninsula, the US punished Yemen for calling instead for an Arab solution to the problem of Kuwait. When faced with a popular uprising against Salih in 2011, the Obama administration supported a transitional framework that preserved privileges for established political and military elements of the old regime, rather than respond to the groundswell of genuine support—no, demand—for political pluralism and a civil state.

For Washington, the current concern, as with these previous examples, is to support a key ally, Saudi Arabia, and to crush al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen thus remains a problem to be dealt with, particularly the threats “it” poses to other nations: the threat of spreading Iranian power; the threat of the so-called Shi‘i crescent; the threat of Sunni jihadis, whether ISIS or al-Qaeda, who threaten our moral vision. Yemen is a poor country, but few care about that as such. The lack of water, education and infrastructure only make the “problem” of the people worse. Yemen has no burgeoning neoliberal cityscape, no safe enclaves, no foreign direct investment, no Starbucks. Why? It is not safe. What makes a place unsafe? The people—backward, ignorant Yemenis. This view continues to be naturalized by Yemen’s own leadership, beholden to Saudi Arabia. It is reflected in US material, tactical and, we would argue, moral support for the war.

This framing also encourages Americans to adopt an indifference toward Yemenis that is built on moral distance. It interpellates “us” by constructing our moral opposite, and even well-intentioned efforts to draw attention to the war advance this view. The beauties of Yemen—the romantic villages perched on mountain peaks, the gorgeous old city of Sanaa with its ginger-bread architecture, the mud-brick skyscrapers of the city of Shibam—these “historic” wonders worth saving are rendered inaccessible to us because the current-but-somehow-not-modern people, the Yemeni people, are too backward, too radical, too ignorant, for Western tourists to travel among them safely. The notion that Yemen’s most valuable assets are its historic treasures rather than its people is reproduced by the viral circulation of images of Yemeni architecture and heritage sites, perhaps a sympathetic image of Yemeni children. It is as though there is no innocent adult civilian—let alone “rights-bearing citizen”—to visualize.

It is painful to watch a disaster unfold from afar, feeling helpless as well as shocked by the decisions that produce great injustices and human suffering. But it is not too late to reject our interpellation, to refocus the “what to do with Yemen” question around the Yemeni people on the basis of moral equality. Reject the narrative that the conflict in Yemen is “about” Iran and Saudi Arabia, or about sectarianism, or about jihadi recruitment. It is not even about alliances between the United States and some of the most repressive regimes in the region. Explanations of “aboutness” are ways of foreclosing alternatives. The question of what to do with Yemen needs, at a minimum, to shift toward what we can do for Yemenis (not Yemen). But even more, we ought to ask what we can do alongside Yemenis. We can recognize Yemenis’ moral equality first and foremost by acknowledging their agency—asking about and recognizing what people are already doing on the ground. As we engage US policy, we can challenge our leaders to close the moral distance, and to avoid the abstraction and indifference that currently supports such human suffering.

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