The War Nobody Wants to Know

Varisco
City of Sa’da in Yemen’s north from 1978, now almost completely destroyed by the Saudi campaign. Photo courtesy Dan Varisco

First there was the first Gulf War, then the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, then the second Gulf War that took out Saddam Hussein, then the Arab Spring, then the rise of the Islamic State Caliphate.  All these events in the Middle East made the news, on top of the ongoing strife between Israel and the Palestinians.  One war you have heard very little about, if anything, is the blatant destruction of Yemen by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf States (apart from Oman), Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and a host of countries willing to trade their soldiers’ lives for Saudi petro dollars.  This coalition would be totally ineffective without the tacit help of the United States, which is providing all the bombs and weapons the Saudis can buy, technical support for targeting and refueling the daily bombing runs, and ensuring a total blockade of Yemeni ports. Britain and France are as complicit.

What was so egregious that Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, has now been bombed into a living hell with massive destruction of lives and infrastructure? The Saudis claim that a local rebellion against a totally inept puppet government ( installed by the GCC) from a Zaydi political force called the Huthis was a direct threat from Iran, their arch enemy in the Muslim world.  Unwilling to allow Yemen to sort out its own internal differences, the new Saudi king decided to bomb the Huthis, who were allied with the major army troops under the influence of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih, into submission.  While there have been minor victories for the Saudi and Emirati ground forces (which now include Colombian mercenaries hired by the metamorphosis of the infamous Blackwater group), a campaign that started in March has not been able to beat the Huthis and Salih’s forces after nine months of almost daily bombing and a small fighting force on the ground.  Indeed, the Huthi/Salih alliance has been able to make inroads and capture some land within the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. Far more damaging, much of Yemen’s south is now under the nominal control of al-Qaida, known locally as Ansar Shariah.

The humanitarian crisis resulting from the bombing and blockade is staggering, destroying Yemen in a few months what took several years to do in Syria.  There are no smart bombs in this campaign.  Thus far well over 50 hospitals and clinics have been bombed, more than 1,000 schools destroyed or damaged, much of the infrastructure destroyed, and major damage to Yemen’s rich cultural heritage. The fighting on all sides meets all the criteria for war crimes, as noted by Amnesty International.  The death count is well above 7,000 and there are many thousand more injuries. Due to the blockade, medical supplies are in short supply, if available at all.  Yemen’s dependence on foreign food supply means that the country is on the brink of famine.

As bad as this destructive war is, the situation is made worse by the almost total blackout of coverage by the major media.  It is not surprising that the Arab media controlled by the Saudis should ignore the Yemeni suffering, but it is strange that Western media should also cave in to the Saudi position.  After all, Saudi Arabia is not all that different from ISIS in its intolerant brand of Islam: it still uses beheading as capital punishment, denies women the right to even drive a car,  mistreats its eastern Shi’a population and has transformed the holy city of Mecca into a Wahhabi Disneyland, replete with a giant clock Tower mall overlooking the kaaba. The crude behavior of Saudi princes abroad would seem newsworthy as well.

As I write this column a cease fire is being planned.  If that happens, despite the fact that previous cease fires never caught hold, there may be a respite, but the damage done will take years to fix.  Meanwhile Yemen has sunk deeper into poverty, the victim of a neighboring regime fighting a proxy war that has further destabilized the region.  This may be a war that nobody wants to know about, but the impact will be felt for years to come.

Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies. He is Research Professor of Social Science at Qatar U. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (U of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net).

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