US-Saudi-UAE War on Yemen Could Starve Millions of Civilians

As the UN warns 18.4 million Yemenis could soon face starvation, the US is considering more direct military intervention. Shireen al-Adeimi discusses with TRNN’s Ben Norton how a Saudi-UAE attack on the port city of Hodeida could lead to mass catastrophe

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Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

Millions of Yemeni civilians are on the verge of starvation as a foreign military coalition is intensifying its war on the poorest country in the Middle East. Three years of U.S.-backed Saudi and Emirati war have turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian catastrophe on earth.

Every 10 minutes a child in Yemen dies from preventable causes. This is according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, which has warned that there is a, quote: “brutal war on children in Yemen.”

And that war could soon accelerate. Military forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, are preparing an assault on the major Yemeni port city of Hodeida. Hodeida is under the control of the Yemeni rebel group Ansarullah, also known as the Houthis.

American and British-backed Saudi and Emirati forces are planning to besiege the port city of Hodeida to try to force out the Houthis. But Hodeida is also the entry point of 70 percent of aid shipments into Yemen. This humanitarian aid keeps millions of Yemenis alive. And if aid shipments are disrupted, which an attack on Hodeida would virtually guarantee, it could lead to a mass famine.

A staggering 8.4 million Yemenis are already on the verge of starvation, and in late May the United Nations emergency relief coordinator warned that another 10 million Yemenis could be pushed into starvation by the end of this year. This means that 18.4 million Yemenis are potentially on the brink of starvation.

And yet the war is continuing. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 3 that the Trump administration is considering more direct military intervention in Yemen to help Saudi Arabia and the UAE conquer Hodeida.

Joining us to discuss this is Shireen al-Adeimi. Shireen is a Yemeni-American activist and scholar. She was born in Yemen, and spent part of her childhood living in Hodeida. And Shireen also just finished her doctorate at Harvard University, and accepted a position as an assistant professor at Michigan State University. Thanks for joining us, Shireen.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thanks so much for having me, Ben.

BEN NORTON: So there are a few different things I want to discuss today. First, let’s just talk about the humanitarian situation in Yemen, because as I mentioned, the United Nations has warned for years now that Yemen is suffering from the worst humanitarian catastrophe on earth. Worse than even Syria, worse than Libya, worse than Iraq. And yet it doesn’t get much media coverage. Can you reflect on this?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: It really doesn’t. And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. What you mentioned just now is that 18 million people are supposed to, you know, almost reach starvation level if this crisis isn’t lifted by the end of the year. And so it’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t get any worse than this. People are relying on food that just isn’t coming in.

You mentioned that the Houthis control Hodeida, which is true, they control the city of Hodeida. But the Saudis and the Emiratis, they control that port. They control whatever comes into that port. And they have been disrupting shipments, which is why, you know, a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen because 70 percent of aid is coming in through Hodeida, and the Saudi-led coalition is deciding what comes in and what comes out, and at times they’ve blocked it entirely.

So it’s really the worst humanitarian crisis, but you know, and it should be on the front pages, it should be on the headlines every single day, especially given the U.S.’s role in this conflict. But we still don’t hear very much about it.

BEN NORTON: Let’s talk more about that. There was a Wall Street Journal report on June 3 that the Trump administration is reportedly considering an Emirati request to send direct U.S. military forces into Hodeida, to help them seize the city from the Houthis.

Humanitarian organizations and aid organizations like the Red Cross and the United Nations have warned that this could lead to a catastrophe. And in fact, a U.S. official quoted by The Wall Street Journal openly admitted that they could not 100 percent guarantee that there wouldn’t be a humanitarian catastrophe as a result of this attack. Can you respond to this report?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Right. They haven’t been able to guarantee that any civilian lives are averted over the past three years, more than three years. The U.N. describes Saudi and UAE attacks on civilians as widespread. So an attack on a port that so many millions of people rely on for sure is going to have devastating consequences on the people there, on human life.

You know, the Saudis and the Emiratis have shown no interest in the past for protecting civilians. They have targeted civilians in their homes and schools. And you know, even on refugees who have been trying to flee by boat, they’ve targeted them.

So there’s no, I mean, it’s not even a guarantee that they won’t attack civilians. There is a guarantee that they will. And there is a guarantee that they will cause the death of many, many more people.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and that’s what humanitarian organizations in the United Nations have been warning in response to these reports. Can you also talk a bit more about Hodeida? I mentioned in the beginning of my report here that you were tweeting about your childhood in Hodeida, that you spent summers there. Can you talk about this important port city, where 70 percent of humanitarian aid shipments into Yemen go through?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yes. I was born in Aden and I grew up in Aden, in the south. But we have family in the north, in Hodeida, specifically. And so that’s where my grandparents lived, and that’s why we would spend every single summer, every single holiday. It’s a very, very hot, hot city, and perhaps that’s the defining aspect about Hodeida, which is unfortunate because people have been without electricity now for over three years.

But that port is the lifeline of Yemen. It’s where 70 percent — so even before the war, Yemenis relied on imports, food and water, even, imports from foreign countries, up to 90 percent. Sometimes over 90 percent. And most of that is coming in through Hodeida. 70 percent of that aid and commercial shipping and all of that takes place in Hodeida.

And so if they disrupt Hodeida, if they attack that port, then, you know, millions of people literally starve to death, because the only other port of entry is in the south, in Aden, where about 20 percent of the food comes in, and also we’re about 20 percent of the population lives. Most Yemenis live in Houthi controlled areas, so around 80 percent.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And then let’s talk a bit more about the humanitarian aid shipments. Mainstream human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, even the United Nations, have reported that multiple sides in the conflict, but especially the Saudi and Emirati forces, which are imposing a naval and air blockade in Yemen, have intentionally prevented aid, and specifically food aid, from getting to civilians.

They are essentially holding this aid hostage and using it as a political weapon. The Houthis have also been accused of this. Can you respond to these reports that food is being used as a weapon to try to force Yemenis into submission?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Yeah, the Saudis openly say that yes, we are starving the Houthis. Of course, Houthis, for them, is a term that encompasses all Yemenis. Because when they say, we only bomb Houthis, we only target Houthis, well, then you see dead children on our screens. So they must be classified as Houthis, too, according to the Saudis and the Emirates. So the Saudis say that they are using starvation to try to force Houthis to submit.

But you know, the Yemeni population is the population that’s getting starved to death. You see children. We have evidence of this. We don’t need to have journalists in the country, from foreign journalists in the country, to know that there are children that are dying of starvation and of preventable diseases because the Saudi-led coalition withholds food, they decide which ships come into the country through Hodeida, which don’t.

Back in November, when they imposed a total blockade for a couple of weeks, you know, they essentially said nothing is coming into the country from Hodeida. People suffered tremendously. And so, you know, the Saudis have the power to essentially tell UN ships, to divert UN ships, tell them to, that they’re not entering through Hodeida when they see fit.

And you know, this is the reality that we’re confronting, that you have all of these foreign countries deciding who and what comes into the country. And you know, they’ve disrupted the flow, and at times blockaded food entirely. And if they attack now that port, then, you know, of course shipments are not going to be able to come into the the country.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, let’s talk a bit about the political situation here in the U.S. The U.S., and also the UK, have played a key role in this conflict from the beginning. The U.S. has sold billions of dollars in arms and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia, as well as to the UAE. It’s been well documented by human rights organizations that U.S. weapons have been used, including cluster bombs and other munitions, to attack civilian areas in Yemen.

And what’s interesting is there was little reporting about this during the Obama administration, which is when the war began in March 2015. But even under Trump, when there are a lot of figures who, you know, are calling themselves part of the resistance, The Washington Post has ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ as part of its slogan. And yet we haven’t really seen much critical reporting following what the Trump administration is expanding, this bipartisan war being waged in Yemen.

Why do you think that even from some of these Democrats who claim they’re part of the resistance that there’s so little interest in the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, which again, to stress the point, is the worst on earth?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: You know, the consensus among Democrats and Republicans seem to be that, you know, Saudi is a powerful ally, and it’s worth supporting them at any cost. We’ve seen this with the Obama administration. We’ve seen it now with the Trump administration. Like you said, there’s very little critique, or any analysis, really, on mainstream television or news sources.

And so Yemenis suffer at the expense of this important relationship that the Saudis have with the United States. And we know that the U.S. has already been involved much more than weapons sales, which have totaled in the hundreds of billions of dollars over the last three years. But we know that they help them with targeting, with refueling, with, you know, mid-air refueling, with maintaining and upgrading their vehicles.

And more recently we found out that there are Green Berets, U.S. Special Forces, on the ground in Saudi Arabia fighting alongside the Saudis against the Houthis. So the U.S. is involved directly in Yemen already.

And now there’s this extra push to try to, the Emiratis are, the Emiratis and the Saudis are getting desperate. They haven’t been able to control a country that is not supported by any powerful ally, and like themselves have supported basically by every, you know, many world powers.

And so in their desperation now they’re calling for the U.S. to help them with a direct assault on Hodeida, which I hope doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen, because we are already entrenched in the war in Yemen, and we should be extricating ourselves from that war, not causing further humanitarian [inaudible].

BEN NORTON: Yeah, that’s a very important point. Not only has the U.S. and the UK sold billions of dollars, as you mentioned, the Obama administration did more than $112 billion alone in arms deals with Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has pledged another, more than $100 billion.

But not only that, the U.S. military is refueling Saudi warplanes. We’ve even seen reports that American and British military officials have been physically in the command room with Saudi bombers. And then, of course, you mentioned that there have been U.S. Special Forces on the ground.

So considering the key role that the U.S. and also the UK have played in this conflict, we’ve seen some resistance in the form of antiwar protests here, some organizing among the Yemeni community. We’ve also seen some action that has at least tried to be taken by members of Congress. And you yourself have been working on getting members of Congress to support legislation to block arms sales to Yemen, to stop the war in Yemen.

The House of Representatives passed a bill that recognized that the U.S. played a key role in this, and that this is actually not, this is an unauthorized war. It has not been authorized by the legislative branch. It’s being waged solely by the executive branch. Concluding here, can you talk about attempts being made by both grassroots activists and politicians to curtail this war, to pull back from it, and to bring about peace?

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: I think the sad reality, Ben, is that nobody really cares so much about the humanitarian crisis, because if they did then this war wouldn’t be in its third year, now. But what people do care about is legality, and the fact of the matter is that this is an illegal war. It’s unconstitutional.

We should not be supporting the Saudis in any way, shape, or form, let alone, you know, helping them essentially wage this war in Yemen. So Yemenis in Yemen view this war as a U.S.-Saudi war on their country, not just a Saudi or Emirati war on their country. They see the U.S. as much being central in this, in this war against their country.

So here in the U.S., like you said, the Congress has already recognized. It was a nonbinding bill, but at least it recognized that U.S. forces should not be in Yemen. The War Powers Resolution has been invoked a couple of times, both the House and the Senate. Most recently in the Senate by Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy. So it was a bipartisan bill, and you know, my hope is that we continue to, I mean, very urgently, not wait around but really urgently try to introduce more legislation in the Senate to try to get things moving.

Because we recognize it’s an illegal war, and now we have to do something about it. We need to pull U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia, because the Saudis are so entirely dependent on U.S. support that they cannot wage this war much longer without extensive support that they’ve been receiving from the U.S.

BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were joined by Shireen al-Adeimi. Shireen is a Yemeni-American activist and scholar. She just finished her doctorate at Harvard University and it will soon be beginning a position as an assistant professor at Michigan State University. Thanks for joining us, Shireen.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Thanks so much for having me.

BEN NORTON: This is Ben Norton, and I’m reporting for The Real News.