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Famine in Yemen: long announced, now on our screens

What are world leaders doing? Where is the ‘international community’ Yemenis so often appeal to?

lead A boy receives treatment at al-Sabaeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 24, 2018. Mohammed Mohammed/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Almost two years after the UN first told the world that the war in Yemen was about to cause famine, we are informed that 14 million are at risk of dying from starvation and that the earlier figure of 8 million was an underestimate.  The increase is explained by the dramatic collapse of the Yemeni riyal in the last two months.

Wasn’t such a currency crisis predictable? The country is still described as being ‘on the brink’ of famine, simply because statistical verification of death rates, which would fit official definitions, is not available. These figures are mind boggling beyond imagination, and represent millions suffering the psychological, physical, agony of watching loved children, parents, siblings and partners, dying before their eyes… Many people are expecting the same fate themselves, some of them probably even looking forward to death, as it would end the pain. So the famine is here, with or without official definition! So the famine is here, with or without official definition!

Daily, we see images of starving children on our screens as we snack in front of our TVs, smartphones or whatever… Many of us then rush off to send money to our favourite charities or friends and families in Yemen, knowing that this is the only practical thing we can do to help people buy the food whose prices have rocketed due to blockade, collapse of currency, reduced imports, and indeed, drought which means that this year there is hardly any locally-produced food (at the best of times, the country only produces about 15% of its entire grain needs).

We consider political action, write to legislators and government, somehow hoping that it will achieve something, although experience has shown that these efforts are largely ineffective. We feel helpless in the face of disaster. What are world leaders doing? Where is the ‘international community’ Yemenis so often appeal to?

The risks of speaking truth to power in Saudi Arabia

We may also wonder why Saudi strong man Mohammed bin Salman (variously known as MBS, Crown prince and Minister of Defence) is not ending this futile war which causes unmentionable suffering for Yemenis and zero achievement for the coalition he leads. After all the Saudi-led war in Yemen has now been going on for a full three and a half years, rather than the couple of weeks or so expected when MBS launched ‘Decisive Storm’ in March 2015. The excuse that this failure is due to considerable Iranian military support for the ill-armed Huthi movement is wearing thin, in the absence of meaningful evidence. Meanwhile, some of us are also exercised at the ‘alleged’ murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoqji in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, something Saudi authorities stopped denying two weeks after his disappearance. Why is no one ‘telling truth to power’ to MBS? The answer to this question is most obvious in Khashoqji’s fate.

Why is no one ‘telling truth to power’ to MBS? The answer to this question is most obvious in Khashoqji’s fate: if a highly respectable, conventional and well-connected Saudi national who is mildly critical of the regime and by no means a dissident, can come to such an end, fear must reign in MBS’s palaces. Last August, the Canadian Foreign Minister tweeted criticism of the human rights situation in SA: MBS’s response was to order 8,000 Saudi students in Canada to leave, cut air links and all economic ties, and expel the Canadian ambassador, something of an over-reaction by any standards.

Another example of MBS’s sophisticated foreign policy initiatives was the forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri last year (withdrawn as soon as Hariri managed to get back home).  Within the country dozens of men and women are held without trial, including senior Islamist scholars, for expressing slight criticisms of the regime. This time last year, dozens of senior Saudi investors were imprisoned in a luxury hotel until they paid heavy ransoms for their release. This is an incomplete list, all coming on top of the war in Yemen started only 2 months after MBS became Minister of Defence and the siege, since mid-2017, of Qatar whose leaders had the nerve to have a foreign policy diverging from that of Saudi Arabia.

So back to Yemen. In this context it is not so strange that close associates have failed to tell MBS how badly his war is going. Not only has there been little progress on military fronts for nearly three years, but the war is costing his country billions, has considerably damaged Saudi Arabia’s already pretty dismal international reputation, and is now causing the deaths of thousands, possibly soon millions, Yemeni children, adults and older people by starvation.

Internationally, civil society and parliamentary moves to take action against Saudi Arabia, and particularly to stop its purchase of lethal weapons, stumble against two obstacles: for all major exporting countries, USA in the lead, UK close behind, these sales play an important political and economic role in maintaining their regimes in power. 

Trump made the position clear when he pointed out that he would not jeopardise USD 110 billion of arms sales because of the murder of a mere opposition journalist in Istanbul. As all of us living in the UK know, regardless of evidence to the contrary, May’s government is relying on Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to invest and rescue the British economy when the expected major financial problems emerge post-Brexit. So arms sales will continue to cause the majority of directly war-related casualties from air strikes, ‘officially’ still estimated at under 20,000, a laughable figure by any standards.

Most people of all ages are dying away from the few record-keeping institutions. They are dying from diseases caused by malnutrition, resulting in weakened resistance to health risks, particularly those caused by polluted water. As the country depends on imports for most of its staples, the Coalition’s effective blockade of Red Sea coast ports bears the main responsibility for the lack of food in the country; as is well-known, scarcity means increased prices, so the famine is worsened by the fact that about 9 million people depend on the salaries of 1.2 million government staff who have remained unpaid for more than two years now. 

While UN and other humanitarian agencies’ systematic protests at the severe restriction of imports have resulted in some supplies coming in, they are way below needs. The current military offensive on Hodeida is worsening the situation as the coalition siege has closed the main roads used to bring food and other basic supplies from the port to the neighbouring densely populated mountainous highlands under Huthi control. Starvation of the people appears to be a coalition military strategy: the UN and others repeat daily that this is a breach of International Humanitarian Law and can be described as a war crime. The coalition persists, indifferent to the human cost and international law.

Who is benefiting from the suffering and starvation of Yemenis?

Officials everywhere claim loudly that the only solution to the Yemen crisis is political and that the war cannot be won militarily. So why is so little being done to end the fighting? Well, of course, a regular supply of weapons and ammunition and logistical support ensure that believers in a military solution can continue on their path (in the process enriching the arms dealers, small, medium or large, internationally and locally). Alongside the ‘internationally recognised government’ of President Hadi, the Saudi and Emirati coalition leaders are the main believers in the military solution, and their media loudly proclaim progress, regardless of the situation on the ground. 

There are other individuals and groups who use the war to pursue their partisan and personal interests at the expense of Yemenis who, I repeat again, are suffering beyond belief. First and foremost among those exploiting the war for their own benefit are the actors of the war economy, local powers ‘taxing’ goods, armed men at all levels, from those manning checkpoints to their leaders. While the actions of foot soldiers can be justified by desperation to support families, higher up the chain profiteers use these ill-gotten gains to fill their foreign bank accounts and buy luxury properties in the Gulf and beyond, using money which would otherwise keep ordinary people alive. Higher up the chain profiteers use these ill-gotten gains to fill their foreign bank accounts and buy luxury properties in the Gulf and beyond.

Other beneficiaries of the war include different elements of the southern separatist movement who, currently aligned with the UAE, follow its lead in exchange for practical and diplomatic support to promote their political ambitions for independence, regardless of the lack of evidence of popular support for their demands. Leaders of the rival Yemeni ‘governments’ complement the list of those benefiting materially from the suffering. The actions of all these groups prevent any political progress by undermining efforts to bring about peace negotiations, whether led by the UN Special Envoy or any other agency trying to do anything to alleviate the suffering of the population.  

What is being done to end this disaster?

A few words on the attempts to bring about peace negotiations: the recently appointed British Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, Martin Griffiths, has now been in position for 8 months. Starting with good will from all sides, his reputation took a serious blow when his proposed Geneva ‘consultations’ between the two main warring parties aborted in early September. While this was apparently due to his and his team’s inability to ensure safe travel for the Huthi delegation, the fact that this issue had not been solved upstream with the coalition raises questions about the quality of preparation for these talks. Why doesn’t Griffiths attempt to have UNSC resolution 2216 updated or replaced? It is widely seen as a war rather than a peace resolution.

There are many other unanswered questions around the UN’s role: why did the coalition decide to launch its offensive on Hodeida precisely when Griffiths was due to present his new peace plan? Why doesn’t Griffiths attempt to have UNSC resolution 2216 updated or replaced? It is widely seen as a war rather than a peace resolution, as it effectively demands complete Huthi surrender, something which both the coalition and the Hadi ‘government’ want, but can’t be the basis for successful negotiations with a group which is far from being defeated. If he really wanted to achieve peace, Griffiths’ first move should have been to try and get the UNSC to approve a resolution facilitating negotiations and recognising the reality on the ground, something which he has apparently not focused on. Why are others, such as the EU or its member states, or indeed anyone willing to try, being discouraged from attempting to negotiate? In view of the stalemate for the UN, any attempt to end the fighting should be strongly supported, if only to save lives of ordinary Yemenis from starvation.

Immediate prospects

Since the aborted Geneva ‘consultations’ the UN Special Envoy has made statements announcing new talks soon. Meanwhile, the coalition offensive on Hodeida is proceeding with significantly increased airstrikes and ground shelling. In the first two weeks of October, the World Food Programme ‘was unable to access the Red Sea Mills where 51 000 metric tonnes of wheat is stored, enough to feed 3.7 million people for one month.’[1] Overall, the UN last month estimated that the country had only about 2 months’ worth of food supplies left. UN and humanitarian agency officials are daily, and increasingly desperately, calling world politicians to take urgent action to prevent a full-scale famine and millions of deaths, calls which appear to be falling on deaf ears. Overall, the UN last month estimated that the country had only about 2 months’ worth of food supplies left.

It may be worth noting that internationally recognised president Hadi suddenly replaced his Prime Minister bin Daghr on 15 October, ‘referring’ him to investigation and blaming his government for ‘negligence… failure to alleviate suffering, inability to stop economic deterioration…’ and more, all very accurate accusations, but why did it take him so long to notice? The situation has been deteriorating steadily since April 2016 when bin Daghr took office.

While this move may, in the best case scenario, reduce the level of corruption of his government, it is unlikely to provide effective governance in the so-called ‘liberated’ areas, whose people have seen little sign of government presence since their ‘liberation.’Yemenis there have been waiting and hoping for better days for more than three years now. Either way, the new government is unlikely to have any impact on the war, something which is decided in the Saudi and Emirati ruling courts, not the offices of the Yemeni President, even if the latter are in the Saudi capital. 

Meanwhile, Yemenis continue to suffer and die, mostly out of sight. Can we do more to help save them from the indifference of the ‘international community’? In the absence of political clout, readers are urged to write to politicians, donate to organisations which work effectively in Yemen and anything else they can think of. 

[1] OCHA, Yemen al Hudaydah update, situation report 13, 3-15 October 2018

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October, 2017.


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