Yemen: The American Catastrophe No One is Talking About

by Benjamin Studebaker

Everyone knows about what a mess Iraq and Syria are. Libya is still a disaster, but even that country once had our attention. This is a story about Yemen. Remember Yemen? It’s the box-like country on the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula:

Yemen is in the grip of a civil war that has now killed over 4,300 people. It’s an omnishambles. Let me tell you the horrible story of how we turned this country into the war-torn dystopia it now most assuredly is.

It all started back in the old Cold War days, when Yemen was divided between the capitalist north and a communist south:

The capitalist/communist split also had a religious component–the north is mostly Shiite, while the south is mostly Sunni:

In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of North Yemen:

Saleh is a Shiite. Because North Yemen was capitalist and South Yemen was communist, the United States became a key ally of the Saleh regime. The US ignored Saleh’s harsh policies. Here are a handful that will give you a taste:

  • Yemen ranked near the bottom of the table for press freedom.
  • Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by flogging or death.
  • Yemen ranked dead last in gender equality.
  • The government engaged in arbitrary arrests and searches, extrajudicial killings, and torture.
  • Almost half the country lived below the poverty line.
  • The country ranked near the bottom of the corruption index.

As usual, the US did not care because Saleh was anti-communist. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yemen was unified under Saleh. The south briefly tried to break away in 1994, but Saleh managed to crush the rebellion. The US backed off on its aid to Yemen once the Cold War was over, but after the September 11 attacks, Saleh offered to ally himself with the Bush administration in its war on terror, and the US began substantively increasing aid to Yemen.

Many Shiites resented Saleh’s decision to ally with the US rather than with Iran, and these Houthi rebels began a long campaign of insurrection against the Saleh regime in 2004 backed by the Iranian government. Saleh also had to deal with piracy and with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which continued to seize territory in the south. With US aid, Saleh was able to hold things together for years.

Then the Arab Spring came. Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Yemeni people rose up in protest against Saleh, accusing his regime of corruption, economic inequality, and oppression. The Obama administration decided to dump Saleh to appease the mob, pressuring him into signing a power transfer deal that would install his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, as the new president. Hadi is a Sunni. Around 15 years worth of economic growth was wiped out:

Saleh was quite peeved at the United States for abandoning him and forcing him to resign, and the Houthis were upset that Saleh had been replaced with a pro-US Sunni. So they decided to join forces, conspiring together with Iran to overthrow Hadi’s government. With Saleh loyalists on their side and with the central government greatly weakened by the instability and economic collapse following the 2011 revolution, Hadi was unable to stop the Houthis from seizing the capital, along with most of the Shiite dominated territory that was once part of North Yemen:

Houthi/Saleh holdings are in pink, Hadi holdings are in brown, and Al Qaeda holdings are in grey. It remains to be seen who will win. Since March, Saudi Arabia has led an anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni Arab states committed to keeping the Hadi regime in business. This has created a massive humanitarian disaster, with nearly 80% of the Yemeni population (20 million people) now in serious need of food, water, or medical supplies:

Nonetheless, the US and UK have continued to provide intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi coalition. Essentially, the west would rather perpetuate the war indefinitely and leave the entire country in rubble than have it become an ally of Iran.

The Saudi intervention has only been going on since March. Things have been getting progressively worse in Yemen, yet no substantive media attention is paid to the conflict and the west’s decision to continue involving itself has not been subjected to any substantive scrutiny.

There are a few things that should be considered:

  1. Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, while Iran is Shiite, so there is no substantive difference between the Hadi and Houthi/Saleh sides in their willingness to fight against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical Sunni groups in the region (many of which receive material support from Saudi Arabia and the other countries in its coalition).
  2. By supporting oppressive regimes in Yemen and the foreign countries that choose to intervene in its domestic politics, we increase the hostility of ordinary Yemenis to the west and lay the foundation for future instability and insurrection against any friendly regimes that might emerge. In Yemen, 18% approve of the US’s role in the country, while 59% disapprove.
  3. By creating a humanitarian crisis and destroying Yemen’s economy, we generate the very conditions of economic hopelessness that feed the radicalization we profess to oppose.

There are no good guys in this conflict. It’s just another round of the same old disputes between the north and the south, between the Shiites and the Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US could and should withdraw support for the Saudi intervention and press for a quick solution to the conflict, regardless of whether that empowers a pro-Saudi or pro-Iranian regime. The US has no substantive stake in the outcome and is continuing a pattern of malign involvement in Yemen that goes back decades. Yemen needs to be given the space to work out its own tribal, religious, and ideological differences. The last few decades have shown that a long-term, sustainable solution cannot be effectively imposed by outsiders–it must be the result of a genuinely Yemeni political solution. As long as we continue to take sides and try to promote one outcome or the other, our actions merely serve to perpetuate and deepen the violence and misery that grip the country.