An approaching famine in Yemen, whose people are the victims of now three years of war for which the United States is partly responsible, needs desperately to be headed off.
The United Nations estimates that 7 million Yemenis will die if nothing is done. The Saudi Arabians, as part of their anti-Shiite campaign against the Houthis, backed by the Iranians in Yemen, have instituted a land, sea and air blockade that is now blocking international humanitarian aid to the starving Yemeni population. The Saudis claim it’s to prevent the Houthis from bringing in military weapons, but that strains belief.
People in Yemen have already endured a cholera epidemic and are now facing imminently a crushing famine. Eighty percent of what is consumed in Yemen is imported. A joint statement by 15 humanitarian groups said that unless the blockade is ended soon, “We fear an already catastrophic humanitarian and economic crisis will get substantially worse.”
There is something particularly obscene about the juxtaposition of Saudi princes and officials in white robes with red-and-white checked scarves, dancing in sword dances in their country, while filmed news coverage of developments in Yemen show starving children, their bones showing, wailing with hunger and illness in Yemen. It’s the Middle East’s poorest country to start with. This contradiction in values is going to get much worse if famine proceeds.
There are at least four basic problems involved. The first is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the process of consolidating his rule in Saudi Arabia. He has “imprisoned” some of his fellow Saudi princes in the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel on the basis of charges of corruption, although it is not clear how the differentiation between who is corrupt and who isn’t is being made. The former defense minister of Saudi Arabia, he is also taking a harder line in the war on Yemen, including the blockade, to demonstrate strongman qualities to the rest of the Saudis.
The second problem is that Prince Mohammed is also showing his toughness by escalating Sunni Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Shiite Iran, including in Lebanon, to the satisfaction of Israel, which has been seeking closer cooperation with the Sunni Gulf states. In Lebanon, the Saudis have used their political and financial leverage with Prime Minister Saad Hariri to pop him out of the Lebanese government, which also includes Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The third problem is that, even if someone wanted to wrap up the Yemen war, and stop the suffering there, the situation in that troubled country is so complex in terms of competing armed national and international parties that it approaches hopelessness.
The fourth problem, due directly to the United States, is that, largely because of arms sales, America has pretty much 100 percent backed the Saudis in Yemen and in their conflict with Iran, in part at the behest of the Israelis. What that means is that the traditional role of America in such matters — to try to push a settlement of the conflict — is not being played. Instead, America is providing the Saudis the hardware, technical support and other aid to perpetuate both its bombing campaign in Yemen and the appalling, anti-humanitarian blockade of Yemen’s ports, airfields and land access routes.
It will be interesting to see if any changes in U.S. policy occur as the documentation of deaths in Yemen accelerates in the eyes of the American public. Its response to humanitarian disasters at home, in Puerto Rico, Houston, the Virgin Islands, Las Vegas and now South Texas has not been one of extreme, active sympathy. Views of starving Yemeni children may reach them and cause them to ask why America doesn’t act to stop the famine, as it could.