Famine in Yemen: long announced, now on our screens
By: Helen Lackner
What are world leaders doing? Where is the ‘international community’ Yemenis so often appeal to?
Almost two years after the UN first told the world that the war in Yemen was about to cause famine, we are informed that 14 million are at risk of dying from starvation and that the earlier figure of 8 million was an underestimate. The increase is explained by the dramatic collapse of the Yemeni riyal in the last two months.
Wasn’t such a currency crisis predictable? The country is still described as being ‘on the brink’ of famine, simply because statistical verification of death rates, which would fit official definitions, is not available. These figures are mind boggling beyond imagination, and represent millions suffering the psychological, physical, agony of watching loved children, parents, siblings and partners, dying before their eyes… Many people are expecting the same fate themselves, some of them probably even looking forward to death, as it would end the pain. So the famine is here, with or without official definition!So the famine is here, with or without official definition!
Daily, we see images of starving children on our screens as we snack in front of our TVs, smartphones or whatever… Many of us then rush off to send money to our favourite charities or friends and families in Yemen, knowing that this is the only practical thing we can do to help people buy the food whose prices have rocketed due to blockade, collapse of currency, reduced imports, and indeed, drought which means that this year there is hardly any locally-produced food (at the best of times, the country only produces about 15% of its entire grain needs).
We consider political action, write to legislators and government, somehow hoping that it will achieve something, although experience has shown that these efforts are largely ineffective. We feel helpless in the face of disaster. What are world leaders doing? Where is the ‘international community’ Yemenis so often appeal to?
The risks of speaking truth to power in Saudi Arabia
We may also wonder why Saudi strong man Mohammed bin Salman (variously known as MBS, Crown prince and Minister of Defence) is not ending this futile war which causes unmentionable suffering for Yemenis and zero achievement for the coalition he leads. After all the Saudi-led war in Yemen has now been going on for a full three and a half years, rather than the couple of weeks or so expected when MBS launched ‘Decisive Storm’ in March 2015. The excuse that this failure is due to considerable Iranian military support for the ill-armed Huthi movement is wearing thin, in the absence of meaningful evidence. Meanwhile, some of us are also exercised at the ‘alleged’ murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoqji in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, something Saudi authorities stopped denying two weeks after his disappearance.Why is no one ‘telling truth to power’ to MBS? The answer to this question is most obvious in Khashoqji’s fate.
Why is no one ‘telling truth to power’ to MBS? The answer to this question is most obvious in Khashoqji’s fate: if a highly respectable, conventional and well-connected Saudi national who is mildly critical of the regime and by no means a dissident, can come to such an end, fear must reign in MBS’s palaces. Last August, the Canadian Foreign Minister tweeted criticism of the human rights situation in SA: MBS’s response was to order 8,000 Saudi students in Canada to leave, cut air links and all economic ties, and expel the Canadian ambassador, something of an over-reaction by any standards.
Another example of MBS’s sophisticated foreign policy initiatives was the forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri last year (withdrawn as soon as Hariri managed to get back home). Within the country dozens of men and women are held without trial, including senior Islamist scholars, for expressing slight criticisms of the regime. This time last year, dozens of senior Saudi investors were imprisoned in a luxury hotel until they paid heavy ransoms for their release. This is an incomplete list, all coming on top of the war in Yemen started only 2 months after MBS became Minister of Defence and the siege, since mid-2017, of Qatar whose leaders had the nerve to have a foreign policy diverging from that of Saudi Arabia.
So back to Yemen. In this context it is not so strange that close associates have failed to tell MBS how badly his war is going. Not only has there been little progress on military fronts for nearly three years, but the war is costing his country billions, has considerably damaged Saudi Arabia’s already pretty dismal international reputation, and is now causing the deaths of thousands, possibly soon millions, Yemeni children, adults and older people by starvation.
Internationally, civil society and parliamentary moves to take action against Saudi Arabia, and particularly to stop its purchase of lethal weapons, stumble against two obstacles: for all major exporting countries, USA in the lead, UK close behind, these sales play an important political and economic role in maintaining their regimes in power.
Trump made the position clear when he pointed out that he would not jeopardise USD 110 billion of arms sales because of the murder of a mere opposition journalist in Istanbul. As all of us living in the UK know, regardless of evidence to the contrary, May’s government is relying on Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to invest and rescue the British economy when the expected major financial problems emerge post-Brexit. So arms sales will continue to cause the majority of directly war-related casualties from air strikes, ‘officially’ still estimated at under 20,000, a laughable figure by any standards.
Most people of all ages are dying away from the few record-keeping institutions from diseases caused by malnutrition resulting in weakened resistance to health risks, particularly those caused by polluted water. As the country depends on imports for most of its staples, the Coalition’s effective blockade of Red Sea coast ports bears the main responsibility for the lack of food in the country; as is well-known, scarcity means increased prices, so the famine is worsened by the fact that about 9 million people depend on the salaries of 1.2 million government staff who have remained unpaid for more than two years now.
While UN and other humanitarian agencies’ systematic protests at the severe restriction of imports have resulted in some supplies coming in, they are way below needs. The current military offensive on Hodeida is worsening the situation as the coalition siege has closed the main roads used to bring food and other basic supplies from the port to the neighbouring densely populated mountainous highlands under Huthi control. Starvation of the people appears to be a coalition military strategy: the UN and others repeat daily that this is a breach of International Humanitarian Law and can be described as a war crime. The coalition persists, indifferent to the human cost and international law.
Who is benefiting from the suffering and starvation of Yemenis?
Officials everywhere claim loudly that the only solution to the Yemen crisis is political and that the war cannot be won militarily. So why is so little being done to end the fighting? Well, of course, a regular supply of weapons and ammunition and logistical support ensure that believers in a military solution can continue on their path (in the process enriching the arms dealers, small, medium or large, internationally and locally). Alongside the ‘internationally recognised government’ of President Hadi, the Saudi and Emirati coalition leaders are the main believers in the military solution, and their media loudly proclaim progress, regardless of the situation on the ground.
There are other individuals and groups who use the war to pursue their partisan and personal interests at the expense of Yemenis who, I repeat again, are suffering beyond belief. First and foremost among those exploiting the war for their own benefit are the actors of the war economy, local powers ‘taxing’ goods, armed men at all levels, from those manning checkpoints to their leaders. While the actions of foot soldiers can be justified by desperation to support families, higher up the chain profiteers use these ill-gotten gains to fill their foreign bank accounts and buy luxury properties in the Gulf and beyond, using money which would otherwise keep ordinary people alive.Higher up the chain profiteers use these ill-gotten gains to fill their foreign bank accounts and buy luxury properties in the Gulf and beyond.
Other beneficiaries of the war include different elements of the southern separatist movement who, currently aligned with the UAE, follow its lead in exchange for practical and diplomatic support to promote their political ambitions for independence, regardless of the lack of evidence of popular support for their demands. Leaders of the rival Yemeni ‘governments’ complement the list of those benefiting materially from the suffering. The actions of all these groups prevent any political progress by undermining efforts to bring about peace negotiations, whether led by the UN Special Envoy or any other agency trying to do anything to alleviate the suffering of the population.