A Yemeni Catastrophe
by David Anderson
If you live in New York or another large American city you might already know a Yemeni: there’s a good chance that one owns the deli you shop at every day in your neighborhood. When you have a moment, ask him about recent events in his country. Sit down and brace yourself as he’ll have a lot to say and it won’t be a happy talk. But pay attention, we’ll be hearing more about Yemen in the months to come because an accelerating disaster is happening there.
Yemen is a desert-dry, California sized country on the Southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula with a history going back as far as history goes back. It is what the sparkling Gulf countries like Qatar and the Emirates would look like if they hadn’t won the geological lottery and been blessed with hydrocarbons. Yemen is a poor country with no natural resources and little other production. It is kept just above utter ruin by foreign aid and remittances from Yeminis abroad in the Gulf, Europe, and the many delis of New York City. They have qat, a fine, chewable stimulant leaf and they pioneered the skyscraper with incredible 10 story mud brick architecture hundreds of years before concrete and steel.
But with America’s armaments, blessing, and helpful intelligence, Saudi Arabia has been waging a terrible war there. Yemen’s airline and main airport are out of commission thanks to Saudi bombing so it’s extremely difficult, and hazardous, for journalists or anybody to visit. About 60% of their food is imported, all via one port which the Saudis will almost certainly bomb soon, a move which will doom several million people. Moreover, Sunni Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an independent franchise of classic Al Qaida, and ISIS-Yemen control parts of the country.
We don’t hear much about it in part because the West is more concerned with Syria and Iraq’s rolling disasters, and tribal beefs in obscure, non-oily countries don’t interest us. Horribly though, we favor the Saudi destroyers.
There’s a geopolitical aspect to consider here. The folks the Saudis are so dedicated to annihilating with our help are the Houthis, a Shi’ite group of tribes in opposition to the Sunni Saudi sponsored government. In 2014 the Houthis briefly took over, thanks to the Arab Spring, sparking this conflict. It is a local 30 year old beef with its roots in the larger internecine Sunni-Shi’ite split, a situation that has escalated in the last half century.
The Houthi rebels are backed by Shi’ite Iran to the extent that Yemen has become yet another internecine proving ground within Islam along with Lebanon, Bahrain, and more spectacularly Iraq and Syria. There’s also a tribal overlay to the fight, always important in the Arabian Peninsula, but make no mistake: this is a larger Sunni verses Shi’ite war.
For a convenient theological comparison, think Protestantism verses Catholicism. The differences between Sunni and Shi’ite interpretations of Islam are heartbreakingly petty for all the bloodshed. It’s like Northern Ireland but more nihilistically murderous. After all, nothing riles people and provides excuses to kill one’s neighbor like religion does.
That said, the Houthis aren’t a friendly bunch. Following is a poster stuck up on walls all over Yemen: the Houthi creed as adapted from a similar Iranian one.
It translates, in order, as: “Allah Akbar/God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The barbed wirey dot matrix script and No Parking sign visual dynamics give an impression of stubborn finality which implies they won’t negotiate. They won’t.
Our American contribution might get livelier also. With all the drama and games in Washington, history teaches us that when things get hot in DC a president, any president, can pick up a little country and throw it against the wall. Probably no side will relent in Yemen.
To improve things, the Saudis have to stop bombing and some peace process, perhaps engineered by the expert negotiators of the region the Qataris, might help. Us not backing the Saudis so blindly could curtail the catastrophe, but President Trump’s fist trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, not a good sign, nor is his chumminess with the Emiratis. The Emiratis share the friendly bombing skies above Yemen with the Saudis.
When the Saudis bomb the lifeline port we’ll be seeing more little stick figure dying babies and their most recent curse, cholera (100,000 cases and counting – its what happens when your state fails). As acts of individually conscience to help level the scales we can send a few bucks to the Red Cross-Yemen , but the negotiating table is presently empty. Sadly, Sunni ISIS martyrdom, AQAP, Shi’ite Houthis and international meddlers all prefer death to life.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City. He studied Middle East politics at the University of Melbourne and Georgetown University and worked on Wall St. He also contributes to Forbes and Counterpunch.org.