The war in Yemen has received little media attention. Yet it is just as brutal as the war in Syria. Blowback from U.S. policy in Yemen that supports Saudi Arabia’s war against the country’s Houthi rebels will be profound for both the region and, potentially, for the United States.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are enforcing a naval blockade of Yemen. Yemen—already the poorest country in the Middle East— imports 90 percent of its food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis face starvation as food prices have soared and aid is either non-existent or slow to arrive. The United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 23 million are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance.
The chief executive of Oxfam, Mark Golding, stated: “Yemen is being slowly starved to death. First there were restrictions on imports including much need food. When this was partially eased, the cranes in the ports were bombed, then the warehouses, then the roads and the bridges. This is not by accident. It is systematic .”
Concurrent with the naval blockade, Saudi Arabia is waging an aerial campaign that has laid waste to Yemen’s limited infrastructure. There are few parts of the country that have not been impacted: bridges, roads, schools, hospitals , water wells and, according to some reports, even farms and orchards have all been targeted. The damage to Yemen’s infrastructure will take billions of dollars and probably decades to rebuild, if it is ever rebuilt.
However, this is only the physical cost of the war. The cost to the Yemeni people and particularly to its young people—roughly 60 percent of Yemenis are under the age of 24—is incalculable. Vast numbers of Yemeni children are unable to attend school, child malnourishment —already high—has soared, and unemployment—also high before the war—is now endemic. It is likely that an entire generation of Yemenis, who already faced profound challenges, has been further disadvantaged and made more vulnerable by a war that is even more senseless than most.
There are two primary beneficiaries of the war in Yemen: arms manufacturers and the Yemeni-based branch of al-Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The war has been a gift to both. U.S. and UK-based arms manufacturers are supplying Saudi Arabia and its partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with billions of dollars of weapons . AQAP, which was struggling before the beginning of the Saudi led campaign, is now flourishing.
Before the launch of the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 26, 2015, AQAP was short on funds and it was locked in a battle with the Houthis that it was losing. AQAP—like all Salafi groups—considers Shi’a to be heretics. Nearly two years later, circumstances could not be better for AQAP. The operational environment in Yemen is now ideal for an insurgent organization like AQAP. Millions more Yemenis have been pushed into poverty and made vulnerable to radicalization, the Yemeni Armed Forces are in disarray, state structures in most areas have ceased to function, and the country is, more than ever, awash in arms and materiel.
So why is the United States supporting a war that has laid waste to one of the world’s poorest countries and—at least indirectly—helped enable one of al-Qaeda’s most deadly and resilient franchises? The narrative embraced by much of the media and seemingly by parts of the U.S. government is that the Houthis are acting as Iranian proxies that pose a threat to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. For much of the last two years, almost every mention of the Houthis by the press was preceded by “the Iranian backed.” It is worth pointing out that the Houthis are fiercely independent and deeply rooted in Yemen. Doctrinally Zaidism is closer to Sunni Islam—such that it is often referred to as the fifth school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence—than the Twelver Shi’a sect that predominates in Iran.
There have been numerous attempts to link Iran with the Houthis and many claims made about how Iran is arming the Houthis. The latest report by UK-based Conflict Armament Research suggests that Iran is supplying the Houthis with small and medium arms via dhows (small sailing vessels) that first dock in Somalia where the weapons are offloaded and are then re-shipped to Yemen. It should be noted that Somalia itself is a major market for weapons and a transshipment point for Africa. Weapons that do not remain in Somalia are destined for places like South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. In all of these countries, prices for small and medium arms are higher than in Yemen due to supply constraints in those countries.
The brief report relies on the fact that the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) has intercepted a number of dhows that were carrying stockpiles of mainly small arms that included some Iranian manufactured assault rifles and anti-tank missiles that may be of Iranian origin. Much of the report hinges on unverified reports by UAE forces in Yemen who claim to have recovered Iranian and Russian manufactured weapons with serial numbers that link them with weapons seized by CMF ships.