U.S.-Backed Saudi Assault Could Cause Famine in Yemen
Professor Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond says the U.S. could help cause a famine in war-struck Yemen if its supports a looming Saudi-led offensive on the port of Hodeida.
Aaron Maté : It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. Could the world’s top humanitarian crisis get even worse? That’s the fear as Saudi Arabia threatens to escalate its war on Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition is reportedly preparing an assault on the key Yemeni port of Hodeida. The port is controlled by Houthi rebels who the coalition has fought for over two years. Hodeida is a critical entry point for a starving country that imports 90% of its food. Aid groups have warned a military campaign there could lead to famine. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen has urged the Saudis not to attack.
Jamie McGoldrick: We continue to advocate to the Saudi-led coalition that the attack on the port of Hodeida and the city itself is not necessary. We need this as a lifeline for our workers, humanitarians, and for the commercial sector to feed and support the population who rely on this port for 80% of the population.
Aaron Maté : A Saudi-led assault on the port could get US help. Defense Secretary James Mattis has asked for permission to increase US support for the Saudi coalition. That support has already come in the form of tens of billions of dollars in weapon sales and the refueling of Saudi jets. Joining me is Sheila Carapico, a specialist on Yemen and professor at the University of Richmond. Professor Carapico, welcome.
Sheila Carapico: Thank you for having me.
Aaron Maté : Before we talk about this, what appears to be an imminent assault on the port of Hodeida, can you help set the scene for us of what’s happening in Yemen two years since the Saudi intervention? It’s an issue that is not talked about very much in the US, which is surprising given the scale of US involvement. But tell us briefly who the main players are and what’s happening right now.
Sheila Carapico: Very briefly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is attempting to reinstate an unpopular president whose term of office is already long since expired and who most people don’t want. That said, the group that they’re fighting, well, there’s actually two parts to the group that they’re fighting. They’re usually referred to as Houthi rebels, but they also have very, we might as well also call them the group that’s aligned with the former president, the previous president who is also deposed, Ali Abdullah Saleh. So those two are fighting against … They’re fighting on the ground to keep control, and Saudi Arabia and its allies are bombing in order to try to get them to relinquish power to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who’s the guy that they support and who lives, incidentally, in Saudi Arabia.
Aaron Maté : And as a part of this campaign against the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition is considering attacking this critical port of Hodeida that I mentioned, a port that is basically Yemen’s window to the world. Can you talk about what is at stake in this potential assault on the port?
Sheila Carapico: In the first place, the premise of attacking the port, which has already been attacked and substantially disabled quite a few times now, but the premise is that somehow the Houthis who are Zaydi Muslims, which is to say that they’re of the Shia denomination rather than the Sunni denomination, and the Saudi claim is that Iran is smuggling weapons and Yemen and to the Houthis through Hodeida. This is a preposterous claim because all aid groups and everybody else points out that no food is getting through, fuel isn’t getting through, urgently needed medical supplies are not getting through. And these things are not able to get in through the port, and yet, there’s the claim that somehow large weapons are being smuggled in. So the premise of the pending attack is preposterous, as I said, and it’s particularly alarming that the United States government seems to be taking that at face value.
Second point is that the Houthis and Saleh may militarily control the port city, but they certainly don’t have the backing of the people of Hodeida. The people of Hodeida are most assuredly not … One thing, they are Sunni rather than Shia, and for another thing, they never did like Ali Abdullah Saleh, the previous president. So the innocence and then the third point is that the Hodeida, the governorate and the city both, is very poor, the poorest part of the poorest country in the Middle East. So we’re talking about people who are already among the very poorest of the very poor and who have no stake in the fighting, the people who are likely to suffer the most from an unnecessary proposed bombing campaign.
Aaron Maté : You mentioned the US taking the premise of this potential attack seriously. I want to read to you a passage from a Washington Post report on the deliberations over whether to support the Saudi assault. The Washington Post quotes somebody from Oxfam International who warns that if the port is attacked, it could lead to closure of the port. He says, “With any closure, we’d almost certainly have a famine in just a few months.” And the Post goes on, “Administration officials have expressed concern about the humanitarian fallout of such an assault but have cautioned that US interest in the region are increasingly at risk unless Washington acts.” So the US having to weigh its unstated interest in the region versus not helping cause a famine.
Sheila Carapico: Either in that article that you just quoted, which of course I’ve read, but I don’t remember. Either that one or another one also in the Washington Post recently mentioned that the US interests that presumably are being threatened by the Houthis, who, by the way, have no naval power whatsoever, is shipping through the Red Sea. Of course, the bombing campaign and the naval blockade also threatened shipping through the Red Sea, so the US interests that are supposedly at stake are already being threatened by an unnecessary war. In terms of the more pressing part of your question, which is about famine, there are about 27 million Yemenis, 17 million of them are considered to be food-insecure, seven million, I believe, these are the rough figures, are on the verge of starvation. There are estimates now that a child dies of starvation every, I think it’s like 10 minutes so by the thousands, and-
Aaron Maté : Professor, let me actually play for you a clip of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, who talked about the dire state right now of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. This is what he said.
António G.: On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every 10 minutes. Many of the children who survive will be affected by stunting and poor health for their entire lives. We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation.
Aaron Maté : We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation. Powerful words there, but the world does not seem to be responding.
Sheila Carapico: Yeah, those are the figures that I was basically citing, and probably a disproportionate share of those deaths are indeed in the governate of Hodeida, which is along the Red Sea coastal plain, again, where the poorest of the poor lives. It’s a very dire situation, and it’s also the case that the bombing campaign seems to have strategically targeted agriculture. There’s a scholar, Martha Mundy, who’s been doing some research on this. And also, of course, bridges and roads to the extent that … Yemen actually is a fairly agricultural country, but the ability to produce food has been crippled also by the war, so the situation, again, is very dire indeed. And it’s a completely manmade humanitarian crisis. One of the things that has been said about the predicted famine or near famine is that it is entirely manmade. It is not due to any natural disaster at all.
Aaron Maté : Sheila Carapico, a specialist on Yemen and professor at the University of Richmond. Professor Carapico, thanks so much.
Sheila Carapico: Thank you very much.
Aaron Maté : And thank you for joining us on the Real News.