A Humanitarian Catastrophe: Understanding the War in Yemen

1 October, 2018

40 Innocent Children Killed on a Bus, Jim Carrey's rendering of the news from Yemen

Why is it that Amer­i­cans know so lit­tle about Yemen, why has the coun­try seemed so off the radar to us?

On Sep­tem­ber 26, 2018, Cal­i­for­nia Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ro Khan­na and about a dozen oth­er House democ­rats put for­ward a bill to stop US sup­port for the Yemen war—the War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion to End U.S. Mil­i­tary Involve­ment in Yemen—because in fact Con­gress has not autho­rized US mil­i­tary and finan­cial sup­port for the war. As of this writ­ing, only two Repub­li­cans, Thomas Massie from Ken­tucky and Wal­ter Jones from North Car­oli­na, were back­ing it. On Sep­tem­ber 27, 2018 Yemeni-Amer­i­can ana­lyst Sama’a Al-Ham­dani spoke in Los Ange­les at UCLA along with Tasleem Mul­hall about the Yemen con­flict in a pro­gram pre­sent­ed by The Markaz and UCLA’s Cen­ter for Near East­ern Stud­ies. The fol­low­ing inter­view was con­duct­ed by Jor­dan Elgrably. 

Sama'a Al-Hamdani, Tasleem Mulhall, Jordan Elgrably (Photo: Jo Anderson)

Why is it that Amer­i­cans know so lit­tle about Yemen, why has the coun­try seemed so off the radar to us? Not to be over­ly cyn­i­cal, but is it per­haps in part because of Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s long-stand­ing rela­tion­ship with the U.S., par­tic­u­lar­ly with respect to the oil and gas indus­try and its lob­by­ists in Washington?

There isn’t a sin­gle cor­rect answer as to why Amer­i­cans know so lit­tle about Yemen, but one must con­sid­er sev­er­al fac­tors at play. It could be as inno­cent as poor edu­ca­tion or lack of inter­est. From one stand­point, Yemeni nation­als are brown, poor and too remote from Amer­i­ca. How­ev­er, to the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans, it is the result of a method­i­cal cap­i­tal­ist agen­da, which sees no prof­it in “sav­ing” Yemen, an impov­er­ished coun­try in a very wealthy penin­su­la with noth­ing finan­cial to offer the world in gen­er­al, and the US in par­tic­u­lar, with­out war and terrorism.

For instance, two of the largest (and grow­ing) mar­kets in the Unit­ed States are coun­tert­er­ror­ism and the arms indus­try, both of which do extreme­ly well when Yemen is in a state of chaos. When it comes to coun­tert­er­ror­ism, the US spends about 16% of the coun­try’s bud­get on fight­ing ter­ror­ism annu­al­ly since 9/11, with an astound­ing $175 bil­lion spent last year alone. Since 2009, Al-Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la (AQAP) based in Yemen was the main focus of US coun­tert­er­ror­ism strate­gies till the rise of the Islam­ic State (IS) in Iraq and Syr­ia. Not to men­tion that Yemen has been one of a hand­ful of coun­tries around the world where the US con­ducts drone strikes. Some mis­sile drones can cost up to $18 mil­lion per unit, and some of the more com­mon­ly used ones, like the MQ‑9 Reaper drone run around $6.4 mil­lion.


Addi­tion­al­ly, the war in Yemen helped gen­er­ate much prof­it for the Unit­ed States’ defense indus­try, with near­ly half of all US arms being sold to the Mid­dle East. The King­dom of Sau­di Ara­bia (KSA) and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE), the heads of the Arab-Coali­tion launch­ing airstrikes into Yemen with the hope of restor­ing Pres­i­dent Abdu Rab­bua Man­sour Hadi back into pow­er in Yemen, are also among the high­est bid­ders for Amer­i­can-made weapons. In May 2017, KSA spent over $110 bil­lion on an arms deal while Pres­i­dent Trump vis­it­ed King Salman in Riyadh and the UAE pur­chased $2 bil­lion worth of weapons around the same time. Just a year lat­er, anoth­er $1 bil­lion deal was approved for KSA.

If it weren’t for these lucra­tive arms deals, the US would be among the first nations in the world call­ing for an end to the dev­as­tat­ing war in Yemen and its cat­a­stroph­ic human­i­tar­i­an consequences.

If Amer­i­cans were to demand that our gov­ern­ment and major cor­po­ra­tions, like Raytheon, Lock­heed and oth­ers dis­in­vest from the Sau­di-coali­tion war in Yemen, what would be some non-mil­i­tary alter­na­tives to resolve the conflict?


There are many alter­na­tives to war, and eth­i­cal­ly speak­ing, war should always be the last resort. Options that are tra­di­tion­al­ly uti­lized include eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, polit­i­cal pres­sure, with­draw­al of finan­cial aid, crit­i­cism from the UN, and so forth. In Yemen’s case, the real mat­ter in ques­tion is not whether Yemen’s war is just or unjust, but whether a side can win with­out the mass destruc­tion of human life in Yemen. Both sides of this con­flict aren’t gain­ing any vast vic­to­ries, and they have proven neg­li­gent to human life. The war, which was ini­tial­ly dubbed “Oper­a­tion Deci­sive Storm” by KSA, employed the most advanced weapon­ry and the largest coali­tion in the Mid­dle East, yet it still rages. Today, more than three years lat­er, the war in Yemen con­tin­ues to destroy life, infra­struc­ture and her­itage while the biggest chal­lenge fac­ing the coun­try is still ahead; build­ing a state. Today, to achieve peace, since all options includ­ing war have been exhaust­ed, there is no choice but lean on diplo­ma­cy for an exit. 

The sec­ond part of that ques­tion is: what argu­ments can peace­mak­ers and diplo­mats fac­tu­al­ly make that would per­suade those who finan­cial­ly ben­e­fit from the war to desist?


Sev­er­al ratio­nal and eth­i­cal argu­ments can be made to advo­cate for peace in Yemen. The most rea­son­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is the sever­i­ty of the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis in Yemen. Accord­ing to CARE, “22.2 mil­lion peo­ple are now in need of human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance among which 11.3 mil­lion are in acute need of imme­di­ate assis­tance to save or sus­tain life, most­ly women and chil­dren.” The Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the World Food Pro­gramme, David Beasley, stat­ed that “Yemen is unde­ni­ably the world’s worst human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis by far” at the Unit­ed Nations days ago. UNICEF has stat­ed that the cholera out­break and lack of edu­ca­tion is now the biggest threat fac­ing Yemeni chil­dren, with “more than 6,500 chil­dren killed or injured in the vio­lence – an aver­age of about five chil­dren every day since the con­flict began. Even after the con­flict ends, the effects of mal­nu­tri­tion – stunt­ed growth and delayed cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment – may linger.” If the human­i­tar­i­an basis not suf­fi­cient to cur­tail the war in Yemen for those who finan­cial­ly ben­e­fit from war, there are sev­er­al polit­i­cal grounds for peace.


Polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing, the involve­ment of the Arab Coali­tion was launched under sev­er­al claims, but two main rea­sons are raised con­stant­ly to jus­ti­fy the war: 1) The Yemeni gov­ern­ment request­ed the help of the Arab coali­tion and 2) to thwart off the threat of Iran­ian pres­ence in Yemen. On the first point, Yemen’s gov­ern­ment was meant to be a tran­si­tion­al gov­ern­ment head­ed by pres­i­dent Hadi to be in pow­er from 2012–2014. In 2018, Yemen still has the same pres­i­dent with an inex­pe­ri­enced and under­qual­i­fied gov­ern­ment that has been resid­ing and oper­at­ing out of Riyadh, the cap­i­tal of Sau­di Ara­bia, for the past three years. The legit­i­ma­cy of his admin­is­tra­tion is in ques­tion and to make mat­ters worse, his admin­is­tra­tion failed to return to Yemen or to restore order and secu­ri­ty in Houthi-free ter­ri­to­ries. It would be in the inter­est of every­one, espe­cial­ly the Yeme­nis, if the gov­ern­ment can return, the infra­struc­ture is rebuilt and the ser­vices restored. Oth­er­wise, we risk hav­ing anoth­er failed coun­try in a frag­ile part of the world. 

On the sec­ond point, one could argue that Iran is now stronger in Yemen than it was before the Sau­di mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion. It was only after the war began that the Houthis launched mis­siles towards Sau­di Ara­bia, one of which was able to reach Riyadh. At the begin­ning of the war, the Houthis shared pow­er and ter­ri­to­ry with for­mer pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh (an alliance of con­ve­nience). Today, after killing Saleh, the Houthis are more deter­mined as they have secured the major­i­ty of the north for them­selves. Final­ly, it is estab­lished that Iran offers logis­ti­cal and tac­ti­cal sup­port to the Houthis, yet their sup­port remains mod­est com­pared to oth­er Iran­ian-backed regimes in the region. There­fore, con­sid­er­ing the war in Yemen an exclu­sive­ly “Sau­di-Iran­ian Proxy” is free pro­mo­tion for Iran. 

In 2017 the Unit­ed States appeal for Yemen assis­tance fund­ing was 1.63 bil­lion but at the April 2018 con­fer­ence on Yemen in Gene­va, the U.N. was ask­ing for 2.6 bil­lion. Iron­i­cal­ly, the U.S. has been the largest donor to such human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance. Can you comment?

The US has always assist­ed Yemen, but it is some­what iron­ic today since they are attempt­ing to “help” Yemen while back­ing the Sau­di-led Arab Coali­tion in its destruc­tion of Yemen, not only through arms sales but also through mid-air jet refu­el­ing and tar­get pre­ci­sion. The US is not alone in this para­dox­i­cal behav­ior, since KSA is the biggest human­i­tar­i­an donor at the moment, with the UAE in sec­ond place—the coun­tries that are pur­pose­ful­ly starv­ing Yemen as an instru­ment of war. These amounts of aid, while they appear boun­teous, are in real­i­ty very mod­est com­pared to the bud­get of war (how much the US makes from arms sales and how much KSA spends on main­tain­ing the war). Con­sid­er­ing the shift­ing dynam­ics of con­flict and the exhaus­tion of aid work­ers in Yemen, the chal­lenge is in main­tain­ing and increas­ing the lim­it­ed capac­i­ty of absorb­ing large amounts of aid effi­cient­ly or effectively.

This war is a civil­ian cat­a­stro­phe, because both the Sau­di-coali­tion and the Houthi fac­tions have hin­dered the deliv­ery of human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance to the needy. But why have the major­i­ty of those killed in the Yemen con­flict been civilians?

With respect to the lat­ter ques­tion, Houthis are often in the mid­dle of civil­ian areas. More to the point, both sides in the con­flict do not val­ue civil­ian life and are insen­si­tive to Yemeni suf­fer­ing. The report­ed sta­tis­tics have not been updat­ed for a while, either due to a cov­er-up or due to the com­plex­i­ty of gath­er­ing sta­tis­tics dur­ing wartime. The last decent update on the death toll in Yemen was avail­able in Jan­u­ary of 2017 and stat­ed that 10,000 Yemeni civil­ians have died. Child sol­diers were used on both sides of the con­flict with the Houthis recruit­ing and using about two-thirds of child sol­diers in their forces, some young­sters as young as 11 years old. Addi­tion­al­ly, one in every three airstrikes hits a civil­ian tar­get (homes, fac­to­ries, farms, and so on) with some result­ing in cat­a­stroph­ic mass deaths. This is not fac­tor­ing in mil­i­tary and mili­tia mem­ber deaths. Today, it is rea­son­able to assume that this num­ber is even higher. 

Final­ly, would you give us your best rec­om­men­da­tions for books, films, music or oth­er cul­tur­al prod­ucts about Yemen to increase our aware­ness and under­stand­ing of the country?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a lot of the cre­ative con­tent on Yemen is most­ly avail­able in Ara­bic, which is why we decid­ed at the Yemen Cul­tur­al Insti­tute for Her­itage and the Arts to pub­lish every week a short sto­ry on Yemen from an Amer­i­can writer in a col­lec­tion called “Post­cards from Ara­bia Felix.” In addi­tion to that, I rec­om­mend brows­ing through al-madaniya mag­a­zine which does a good job of giv­ing a plat­form to artists, writ­ers, film­mak­ers, and young activists.

As for edu­ca­tion­al books on Yemen, I rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing variety: 

Sil­ver Trea­sures from the Land of She­ba: Region­al Yemeni Jew­el­ry by Mar­jorie Ran­som, The Archi­tec­ture of Yemen: From Yafi to Hadra­mut by Salma Samar Damlu­ji; Jam­biya: Dag­gers from the Ancient Souks of Yemen by Stephen Grace; and  Ara­bia Felix: An Explo­ration of the Archae­o­log­i­cal His­to­ry of Yemen (Ori­gins of Ara­bia) by Alessan­dro de Maigret.

Sama’a Al-Ham­dani is an inde­pen­dent researcher and ana­lyst focus­ing on Yemen. She is cur­rent­ly a Vis­it­ing fel­low at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arab Stud­ies at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty and a Research Fel­low at the Sana’a Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies. She is also the direc­tor of the Yemen Cul­tur­al Insti­tute for Her­itage and the Arts, a non­prof­it based in Wash­ing­ton DC ded­i­cat­ed to Yemeni arts and heritage.

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.