Few people from the West know Yemen better than Helen Lackner, who brings decades of on-the-ground experience to her writings on that country. Her latest book comes at a time when Yemen faces what can be termed, without any exaggeration, existential threats: to the country and, more consequentially, to the estimated 29 million people who live there. Her experience and insights make this book essential for understanding the multiple dimensions of Yemen’s crisis.
The US House of Representatives passed a potentially historic resolution on February 13, 2019, calling for an end to US military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen that began in 2015. This long overdue Congressional action to constrain executive war-making, however, would not have been possible without a tremendous grassroots mobilization against US involvement in this disastrous war and the surging progressive tide that is raising deeper questions about US foreign policy in the Middle East.
The growing public awareness of the war in Yemen—and the historic Congressional invocation of the War Powers Act this winter—could not have occurred without the dedicated activism of Yemeni Americans and their allies. A contributing editor to this issue, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, spoke to three activists working from different corners of the United States—Seattle, Atlanta and East Lansing—to advance peace in Yemen.
The region’s current pattern of violence is rooted in the repeated US efforts to re-make the region to its advantage through the use of coercive force since 2001. Washington’s interventions and proliferating counterterrorism operations around the region—along with the new Arab wars that followed the Arab uprisings—have led regional middle powers to attempt to reshape that system to serve their own interests. The Saudi–Emirati war in Yemen is just the most tragic example of an Arab state suffering from the geopolitical transformation of the geopolitical and regional order.
A new phase of the war appears to be unfolding in al-Mahra, the far eastern governorate of southern Yemen on the Indian Ocean next to Oman. In 2017 Saudi Arabian troops suddenly rolled through the streets of al-Ghaydha, the governorate capital, taking over the regional airport and announcing that the area had been placed under their security control. The real reason for the Saudi presence has become visible: to build a long sought oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Indian Ocean through Mahari lands.
From the wars in Syria and Libya to the catastrophic bombing campaign in Yemen, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been the main Arab forces involved in the region’s current conflicts. The Gulf also increasingly shapes the political and economic policies of other Arab states, promoting economic liberalization along with hardening authoritarianism and repressing social protest. Their destructive prosecution of the war in Yemen is an attempt to position themselves as the principal mediators of the maritime routes and territorial hinterlands located in and around the Arabian Peninsula—a strategic prize that will be decisive to shaping the Middle East’s future geopolitical landscape.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the catastrophic war in Yemen has provoked intense and unprecedented public questioning about American ties to the Saudi regime in late 2018, particularly the role of American arms and military support in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But rethinking the place of arms-making in our economy will entail a remaking of that foreign policy and envisioning a different kind of postcolonial world.
Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yet they continue to struggle for their rights and representation.
Millions of Yemenis face starvation as a result of the war. In August 2018, more than 51 civilians were killed, at least 40 of them young children, when a bomb hit a school bus. Yet as devastating as these strikes have been, more deadly to the Yemeni people overall are the coalition strikes targeting farms, fishing boats, food storage sites and transportation networks, which worsen the conditions that give rise to famine.
In late January this year, an armed conflict erupted in Aden between troops under command of President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and those loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), both in principle on the same side of the Yemeni war. The fighting left more than 40 people dead and several wounded. The conflict raised speculations of a crack in the Saudi-led coalition that since March 2015 has waged war in Yemen.
The last three years have been a time of outright misery for most Yemenis as War, Pestilence, Famine and Death have stalked what used to be known as Arabia Felix. Thousands are recorded as having been killed; tens of thousands more are known to have died. Millions are starved by a siege, and—weakened by hunger—are more vulnerable to diseases which are but fading memories in the “civilised” West. And for what?
The eruption of fighting by rival factions in Yemen’s southern city of Aden on January 28 provides distressing additional evidence that Yemen’s war is best understood as a series of mini-wars reflecting the intersection of diverse domestic drivers of conflict and Gulf regional fragmentation.
It is wrong to code what is happening in Yemen as a Sunni-Shi‘i conflict. The Houthis are not an Iranian proxy but a predominantly local political movement founded in long-standing, Yemen-centric grievances and power struggles. The cynical use of sectarian language casts the conflict in Yemen as part of an epochal, region-wide struggle rather than a local civil war made more deadly for Yemeni civilians by Saudi and Emirati intervention.
Yemeni-American activist Rabyaah al-Thaibani was born in Ta‘izz, Yemen’s largest city, in 1977. She moved to the United States as a child to join her father, who was working nights cleaning office buildings in Manhattan. She grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University and since has worked in community development in New York City. In 2011, she helped establish the Yemeni-American Coalition for Change, and in February 2017 worked to bridge Yemeni and American concerns by co-organizing the Yemeni bodega strike, mounted in protest of President Donald Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban.” A named plaintiff in New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s effort to challenge the second “Muslim ban” in court, al-Thaibani agreed to talk with MERIP about how her childhood in Yemen and her experience as part of a wide Yemeni diaspora have influenced her activism in the US. She also spoke about what she would like outsiders to appreciate about Yemen and its current conflict. In a wide-ranging conversation of more than two hours with Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, al-Thaibani described the connections she sees between her home and her homeland, the optimism she feels about Americans’ “accidental awakening” since Trump’s election, and the ways in which Yemenis are represented in American policy debates. The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
Letter to UN Secretary-General Regarding Saudi Arabia’s Removal from List of Armies Charged with War Crimes
“The ruling Saudi regime obviously knows how to use its wealth to manipulate dysfunctional international bodies such as the UN. However, in the eyes of the global community it stands charged with overwhelming evidence of war crimes and of fundamental human indecency.”
A new anthology from MERIP and Just World Books explores the Arabian Peninsula as “a distinct political unit” whose upheavals reverberate regionally and globally.
Scholars write for the third time to condemn the actions of the US-Saudi-French alliance violating international humanitarian law in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
From Little League banquets to honorary doctorates, it may well be in the nature of award committees to tilt toward hyperbole. Elevating the legacy of the recipient is, among other things, an affirmation of the importance of those who can recognize importance when they see it. The committee that selects the recipient of each year’s Nobel Peace Prize unquestionably evaluates a slate of tremendously significant nominees, but even this august body fits the exaggerating profile in the language of its encomia. And with stakes higher than many, the Nobel’s fulsome praise can be faulted in recent years not simply for its overstatement, but also for its timing.
For the last 45 years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has tried to mitigate its Yemen problem through short-term tactics, rather than construct and give resources to a strategy for solving it. That policy has failed repeatedly. A bold and lasting transformation is needed, not the same ineffectual meddling.
Traditionally, the attitude of most GCC members toward Yemen has been fond but standoffish. The Gulf states have been fairly generous in funding projects and providing aid, but held populous Yemen at arms’ length, for reasons both demographic and ideological, the latter being fear of Marxism and republicanism.