A Humanitarian Catastrophe: Understanding the War in Yemen

1 October, 2018


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)
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.

us-drone-strikes-2011-to-2018.jpgAdditionally, 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.