SAUDI ARABIA’S REMORSELESS BOMBARDMENT AND BLOCKADE of Yemen has been going on since March 2015: that’s 20 months so far of largely indiscriminate attacks on the capital, Sanaa, and especially on the northern city of Saada, in which few buildings remain undamaged.
This is a conflict, probably second only to Syria in terms of the scale of fatalities, that has largely been ignored in the UK and the US. There is no mass exodus of refugees into Europe, no pressing economic concern for outside powers about who rules the country, no immediate terrorist threat to foreign capitals from the Houthi movement that the Saudis seek to destroy. When a hospital or funeral gathering is bombed, when a news agency photographer snaps a picture of a starving child, Yemen receives a quick mention. Otherwise, it is forgotten.
A few negotiators from the UN continue to plug away at designing a peace deal. Their involvement is doubly ironic. First, it was the UN Secretary-General earlier this year who backed down from listing Saudi Arabia as a country that was harming children’s rights through its war in Yemen. The Saudis threatened to withdraw funding from UN programmes if they were listed; the UN relented, and removed Saudi Arabia from the list. Bombing children apparently doesn’t qualify as violating their rights.
Perhaps the single most destructive act by Saudi Arabia was when they bombed Yemen’s main port, through which the country imported most of its food. A largescale crisis of childhood malnutrition has followed.
A second irony is that it was the flawed UN deal that largely excluded the Houthi movement from participation in Yemen’s government and constitutional convention before 2015, despite the long history of their struggle against oppression. The UN stumbled along in drafting a new constitution that kept the Zaydis, the religious minority of which Houthis are part, as a minority within a federal region, and therefore vulnerable to continued discrimination. In this context, the continuation of the Houthi rebellion, to the point of capturing the capital and installing their own government in February 2015, was hardly unexpected by anyone who watches Yemen’s politics.
The UN had validated the presidency of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, commonly seen in Yemen as a Saudi stooge and who fled to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, when the Houthis took over. That validation remains part of the Saudi official explanation of how they are supporting the ‘legitimate government’ of Hadi when they bomb Yemen, even though the ancien régime only directly controls a small enclave in the country’s south.
The latest proposal from UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, not officially released but presented to the opposing sides in October, finally moves away from the fiction that Hadi is the legitimate ruler of Yemen, and the Houthis are just ‘rebels’ who need to be defeated. The proposal reportedly does provide for Houthi participation in government, if they agree to be disarmed, with a process for agreeing a new Prime Minister, and reducing the President’s powers. Despite the substantial concessions required from the Houthis, their allies welcomed the proposals, but the Saudi official media condemned it, and Hadi himself dismissed it out of hand.
The problem is that at present Saudi Arabia has no incentive to accept a compromise. There is a new form of militant nationalism in the language of Saudi officials, who are pretending the war in Yemen is part of their much bigger regional rivalry with Iran. The glorification of their military campaign is being used to hide attention from their collapsing public finances as the fall in oil prices hits Saudi government spending. They bomb from the air, with only a small presence on the ground, making it a cheap form of war-making for them. And crucially they continue to draw upon external support for their military campaign. They have rallied the other Arab states of the Gulf region behind them in a display of purported leadership.
While US officials have occasionally spoken out against specific Saudi atrocities, the US and UK continue to provide them with logistical help and, most importantly of all, weapons. The £94 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia from the US under the Obama administration, and the £5.6 billion from the UK under the Cameron government - £3.3 billion alone since the war on Yemen started - are not just important practically for Saudi Arabia’s continued bombing. They also demonstrate international political support for this futile and reckless war. The Saudi government has few incentives to back down in its war against their impoverished neighbour. The one incentive they do have is to limit international opprobrium.
And yet while the UK and US governments talk about the need for a peace deal in Yemen, their actions support the continuation of the war.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.