On the morning of August 9, 2018, a Saudi Arabian jet sent a bomb manufactured by Lockheed Martin into a busy market and hit a school bus, killing 44 children and 10 adults while wounding dozens others; witnesses described “shrapnel and tiny limbs… scattered for hundreds of yards around.” A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition acknowledged to CNN that it had intentionally targeted the bus but claimed the bus had no children on board and accused their enemy of using children as human shields.
A brief history of Yemen
Though desert covers most of the Arabian Peninsula, the area hosted a number of wealthy and powerful kingdoms in the ancient era. The first settlements appeared around 6000 BCE, and humans began mining copper and domesticating livestock around 4000 BCE. By 2000 BCE trade between the civilizations of Mesopotamia and those in the Indus Valley focused around the Persian Gulf, and by 1000 BCE empires made wealthy by frankincense and myrrh emerged in southern Arabia. These kingdoms, including Saba near Sana, Himyar in the southwest around Aden, Qataban in the south, and Hadhramaut in the east, spanned several centuries and lasted a few hundred years into the Common Era. The Romans referred to the area as Arabia Felix, or “Fortunate Arabia,” and the region controlled supply of important commodities from Arabia, Asia, and Africa.
Significant violence between Jews and Christians in Yemen during late antiquity precipitated the rise of Islam and culminated in a 6th century war. Dhu Nuwas, the Jewish king of Himyar, responded to Christian persecution of Jews in the nearby kingdoms by massacring tens of thousands of Yemeni Christians. The surrounding Christian kingdoms responded, and at the behest of Byzantine emperor Justinian I, Kaleb of Aksum invaded Yemen, killed Dhu Nuwas, and established Christian rule . In the late 6th century the Sassanian Empire annexed Yemen and ruled until the Muslim conquest of the 7th century established Islam across the Arabian Peninsula. Zaydīyah, a sect of Shia Islam, arrived in Yemen at the end of the 9th century and took root in the northern mountains. Zaydī Islam has shaped much of Yemen’s subsequent history, and today Zaydīs make up 42% of Yemeni Muslims, including nearly all of the country’s Shia Muslims.
Yemen fell into economic decline as the Age of Discovery shifted world trade away from the Red Sea. Beginning with exploration of the Atlantic in the 15th century, the European powers turned their focus increasingly toward West Africa and the Americas, ultimately leading to the start of the triangle trade in the 16th century. Further, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 blocked the land-sea routes Europe had relied on for trade with the East for centuries and led to Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498. As a result, Yemen depended heavily on its monopoly of coffee until the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 revitalized trade through the Red Sea. This primarily benefitted the Ottomans, who had recently reentered northern Yemen after losing control in the early 17th century, and the British, who had taken Aden and southern Yemen in 1839.
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the wake of the First World War, Yahya Muhammad, Imam of the Zaydīs in the northern mountains, expanded his territory to form the Kingdom of Yemen in 1918, while Britain maintained control over southern Yemen. After his father’s assassination during a failed coup in 1948, Ahmad bin Yahya took control of the Kingdom as a repressive leader in conflict with the British on his southern border. Following his natural death in 1962, Arab nationalists overthrew his son and established the Yemen Arab Republic, sparking the North Yemen Civil War. Egypt joined the new YAR in its fight against the king and his allies, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Egypt withdrew its troops in 1967 to fight the Six Day’s War and by 1968 most fighting had ceased. The war ended in 1970 with a ceasefire as Saudi Arabia officially recognized the Yemen Arab Republic.
After years of fighting insurgents in the Aden Emergency, Britain withdrew from southern Yemen by 1968 without a succession plan. The NLF, a Marxist party, seized control of South Yemen and formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which soon became a Soviet satellite state. North and South Yemen fought off and on in the 1970 to 1990 period but with the agreed longterm goal of unification, and in 1990 the two merged to create the Republic of Yemen. The union resolved tensions around oil deposits at the undefined border, boosted South Yemen, which had heavily relied on aid and services from the disintegrating Eastern Bloc, and allowed for significant economic and governmental reforms. Conflict between leaders of the old north and old south escalated into civil war in 1994, but the war lasted only two months and concluded with the old north victorious, while the leaders of the old south retreated into exile. The conclusion of the war brought further reform and created relative stability for the Republic of Yemen through the end of the 1990s and the 2000s.
In 2012 Arab Spring protests forced President Saleh to step down, and Vice President Hadi took power. Yet unpopular economic policies, widespread corruption, and brutal crackdowns on protests stirred further unrest. Zaydī Houthis capitalized on the political turmoil and began seizing territory; in September 2014 they took control of Sana, the nation’s capital, and in March 2015 they moved south toward Aden, as President Hadi fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni Civil War has raged since 2015, pitting the Houthi rebels against the incumbent government and its allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis control 80% of Yemen’s population, including Yemen’s three largest cities, while Aden, the nation’s fourth largest city, has descended into anarchy under nominal UAE control. The war has put the Zaydīs in control of North Yemen for the first time since 1962, while the incumbent government and its allies control much of former South Yemen.
Shortly after the war began President Obama announced the United States would provide support to Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, including logistical and intelligence support, as part of the US’s longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia. In October 2016, after Saudi Arabia launched a US-made missile at a funeral and killed 155 people while wounding several hundred others, President Obama banned sale of such weapons to Saudi Arabia for “human rights concerns.” President Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overturned the ban in March 2017, and in May 2017 President Trump and the king of Saudi Arabia signed an arms deal in which the United States would sell the Saudi government $110 billion in arms followed by another $350 billion over 10 years.
The cost of war
The conflict has directly killed tens of thousands, including thousands of civilians, and internally displaced one million Yemenis. The country faces the worst cholera outbreak in modern history, fueled in part by the Saudi coalition’s blockade of food and medical supplies. The UN humanitarian chief estimates that 14 million Yemenis, half the country’s population, face “pre-famine conditions” in urgent need of aid to survive. Further, an estimated 85,000 children under five have starved to death since the fighting began in 2015, over half the children who survive experience stunting and malnourishment, and the child marriage rate has tripled to 65% as the war unwinds decades of social progress as parents give away the daughters they cannot afford to feed.
The Saudis have conducted targeted strikes of Yemen’s bridges, factories, fishing boats, and farms in an effort to paralyze the economy in Houthi territory, effectively shutting down their ability to export oil or generate food. After the Saudi-backed incumbent government moved the central bank from Sana to Aden, it started devaluing its currency by mass-printing money, and the country’s currency continues to fall in value as food prices spike. The bank, under Saudi direction, also stopped paying salaries to the one million civil servants in Houthi territory, cutting off many families’ source of income.
This war did not become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on accident, and Saudi Arabia has done everything in its power to inflict maximum pain on Yemenis in Houthi territory. Yet the United States continues to unconditionally support Saudi Arabia, even as they use our missiles to commit atrocities, even as the crisis worsens with no end in sight, even as the backlash from the Saudi-orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi refuses to subside. Saudi Arabia and the United States also keep exploiting fear of Iran as an excuse to continue the war, and the media continues to provide them cover by uncritically repeating the Saudis’ unfounded accusations that the Houthis act as an Iranian proxy.
In truth, the US lacks a legitimate reason to continue this war. Congress never even authorized the war. The Houthis do not pose a national security threat to the US. As NYT’s Nicholas Kristof put it, “Our tax dollars are going to starve children.” Senator Chris Murphy believes that “there is an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen.” Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute stated “if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American & British Support.”
For contrast, the US has several substantive reasons to pull out of the war. Investigations have thoroughly documented Saudi Arabia using US-made missiles to commit atrocities, including strikes on civilians in homes, schools, and weddings. Yemen’s GDP fell by 60% in the first two years of the war. The coalition has offered scant evidence that Iran has offered much more than moral support to the Houthis, and many of the Houthi’s weapons seem to have come from the black market and military defectors rather than Iran. The American public appears less than enthusiastic about the government’s perpetual military interventions and its close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Though war in the Middle East may fail to excite the US population, the establishment never seems to run out of new reasons for more war. Certainly, the majority of the press and politicians of the early 2000s happily rushed into Iraq but learned nothing from that mistake. This unhealthy obsession remains invisible most of the time, yet still permeates mainstream political dialogue and creates a structure sympathetic to the perpetual continuation of terrible wars. But President Trump opted this week to pull American troops out of Syria despite considerable opposition and he could do the same here without nearly as much pushback. If not, the Senate recently voted to force the United States to pull out of the war by invoking the War Powers Resolution for the first time, and the next Congress in January could act quickly to force the military to pull support for the war in Yemen.
The situation in Yemen calls for immediate action, and every second the United States delays means the Yemeni people continue to suffer needlessly. Our government and private defense contractors profit from Yemen’s tragedy, and we must demand they take responsibility for how their clients use their weapons. Saudi Arabia’s unnecessary war has a high human cost, and we have a moral duty to end it. The people of Yemen deserve peace, and they cannot begin the decades long process of rebuilding their country until we deliver it.
The next Congress begins January 3rd, call your representatives and tell them to end this war as soon as possible
The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War — photos that illustrate the soul-crushing despair of war and famine
How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate — and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World — a lengthy essay that dives into the context and present state of the war
Your Tax Dollars Help Starve Children — an unsparing look at America’s moral culpability in the Yemen tragedy
From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb — a gruesome narrative on the trauma of airstrikes
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