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A People in Agony: How the United States Continues to Fuel the Yemen War

by John Whitehead

A war between Yemen and the nearby states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been going on for seven years as of this month. The war began March 25, 2015, with a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war. The intervention has involved a bombing campaign against Yemen that has continued into 2022. As other international crises have arisen over subsequent years, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Yemen war has ground on, at great human cost. Meanwhile, the United States has played a long, shameful role in the conflict.

When Saudi Arabia, UAE, and other Arab nations intervened in Yemen in 2015, the country was wracked by a conflict between the regime of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and various insurgent factions. Chief among these insurgents were the Houthis, a political movement affiliated with Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority in the country’s northwest. The insurgency also included forces loyal to Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

When the Houthis seized Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a and forced Hadi to resign, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in support of Hadi. The intervention may have been intended to check Iran’s influence in the region, the Houthis having ties with Iran. The coalition began bombing Yemen and also established a naval blockade of the country.

Seven years later, Yemen’s conflict has become only more complicated. The insurgent alliance between the Houthis and Saleh’s followers fell apart in 2017, with the Houthis defeating their former allies and killing Saleh. New factions have emerged: a separatist group known as the Southern Transitional Council has taken control of the port city of Aden. In western Yemen, the UAE has been backing an anti-Houthi faction known as the National Resistance Forces. Meanwhile, the Houthis fight on, despite their various internal and external adversaries. They have even succeeded in launching many missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and UAE.

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis and restoring Hadi to power, they have succeeded in causing tremendous harm to the Yemeni people. The bombing campaign has killed many people, including many civilians. The Yemen Data Project estimates 8,970 civilians have been killed and another 10,226 injured in bombing by the Saudi-led coalition.

Threats to civilians may have worsened over the past few months because independent United Nations’ investigations into war crimes in Yemen came to an end last fall. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO, estimated that civilian deaths and injuries have almost doubled since UN monitors left. The overall increase in civilian casualties has reportedly included an almost 40-fold increase in such casualties from aerial bombing.

Beyond civilian casualties from coalition bombing, the Yemen war as a whole has directly killed an estimated 100,000 or more people. These deaths, which were caused directly by wartime violence on the ground or from the air, are horrifying enough. They are only part of a far larger toll, however.

The deadliest aspect of the Yemen war has been the economic damage it has wrought on what was already a poor country before the current conflict. Late last year, a research team estimated that the Yemen war has led to roughly 377,000 deaths in total. More than half of these deaths are from indirect causes such as lack of access to food, water, and healthcare. Further, the researchers estimated that the vast majority of these deaths — perhaps 259,000 — have been among children under age five. In 2021, a Yemeni child under age five died about every nine minutes.

In addition to causing such a staggering death toll, the war has pushed an estimated 15.6 million people into extreme poverty and left 8.6 million people undernourished. Yemen’s economy today is perhaps half the size it would have been in the absence of war.

Not all this death and devastation is the responsibility of the Saudi-led coalition. Many different factions have played a role in Yemen’s current agony. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies have contributed to the current terrible situation. In addition to the bombing, the Saudi blockade of Yemen has had terrible effects.

The Saudi blockade has interfered with fuel reaching Yemen. Early in 2021, commercial fuel imports through Yemen’s Hodeidah port, which receives more than half the country’s commercial fuel imports, stopped for almost two months. While this total cut-off did not last, fuel imports through Hodeidah from January to October of last year were ultimately 70 percent less than during the same period in 2020. World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned last March that fuel shortages were causing widespread power outages at hospitals. Fuel shortages also lead to higher prices for fuel and hence also for food and water supplies that rely on transportation.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has commented that “The blockade is an act of war against the Yemeni people and is directly responsible for the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, especially the malnutrition of children.”