A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with training, weapons, and technical support from the United States and United Kingdom—has been waging a brutal war against Yemen. It has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: So far, more than 100,000 children have died of starvation, malnutrition, and disease as a result.
Since the Saudi strikes began in 2015, Shireen Al-Adeimi, a professor of education at Michigan State University, has been at the forefront of anti-intervention efforts. For her, this activism is personal; she grew up in Yemen, and her extended family remains scattered across the country. Al-Adeimi has launched petitions, written op-eds, given talks, and updated her growing Twitter following on efforts to curb the US’s role in the war, which recently took a positive turn as the Senate passed a resolution demanding that the military end its support for the Saudi-led coalition. I caught up with her recently to ask about her advocacy and the urgency of the situation.
CG: You grew up in the southwestern city of Aden, and you lived through tumultuous political times that included two wars in Yemen. Can you tell me about that, and how you and your family came to leave?
SA: The first war was in 1986. I was too young to remember it, but it was a power struggle among leadership in the south of Yemen, and in Aden itself. It was a very short, two-week war, but extremely bloody.
In 1994, south Yemen declared independence from the north, and that was another civil war. That’s the one, of course, that I remember; that’s the one I lived through. It was a very difficult time for anyone who was living in south Yemen, including my family.
We ended up leaving a couple of years after that for various reasons. But the aftereffects of the war were what drove us out of Yemen and into Canada.
CG: Can you explain a bit about the origins of the conflict?
SA: It can be traced back to 2011, when the Arab Spring protests were happening. Yemen had its own Arab Spring, and there was a lot of hope that maybe we could usher in a new government and a truly democratic process in Yemen. But Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president at the time, refused to step down.
The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful—which is great in a country that is heavily armed. But then different political groups like the Islah Party [a coalition of tribal Islamist groups] got involved. The people were revolting against the entire system, of which Islah was a part, but they joined the protests, and attempted an assassination on Saleh.
When Saleh did resign, he transferred power to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was supposed to have a two-year term. It expired, so the parliament granted him one more year. That term expired, and by then there was a lot of frustration with his ability to move things forward.
One of the groups that ended up staging a coup at the end of 2014 was the Houthis, a rebel group in the north. Within months of that, Hadi [temporarily] resigned, and then Saudi Arabia began bombing.
CG: Why did the Saudis decide to intervene?
SA: The Saudis have always intervened in the affairs of Yemen, [which has] a strategic location; it controls the Bab el-Mandeb strait, where about 4.8 million barrels of oil travel a day—largely Saudi oil. So Saudi Arabia has an interest in maintaining control over Yemen.
King Salman took power in Saudi Arabia in January 2015. He appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince—he’s since become crown prince—and as defense minister. Within two months of his appointment, he was bombing Yemen.
Many see Mohammed bin Salman’s attack on Yemen as a résumé war: Here’s who I am, here’s what I can do. Nobody really knew who he was before. It was impulsive, and as you can see with the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, this man doesn’t really think through the things he does.
CG: How urgent is the humanitarian situation, and what are the prospects for, if not peace, at least some relief?
SA: There is no crisis right now that is more horrific than what is going on in Yemen. Half the population is facing famine. Half. Fourteen million people. They will starve to death if the Saudi blockade isn’t lifted, if aid isn’t allowed to come into the country, if trade isn’t resumed.
We have people dying of diseases like cholera, which really should not be happening in the modern world. But they don’t have access to clean water, and so we’re seeing the worst outbreak in modern history.
It’s catastrophic, and it is definitely going to get much worse if we don’t do something about it. And “doing something” is really to stop what we’re doing—for the US to stop supporting the Saudis and perpetuating this war.
CG: What role does or doesn’t Iran play in all this?
SA: The Saudis’ line from the beginning has been that they are trying to curtail Iranian influence in the region, and that Iran is supporting the Houthis. Well, they’ve provided very little evidence to show that Iran is helping in any substantial way. We know that the Houthis have a very positive relationship with Iran, and they get media support from them. There may be some smuggling of arms, though it’s really difficult to imagine Iranians being successful at that given that the country is blockaded by land, air, and sea by the Saudis with the help of the US Navy.
CG: On November 9, The Washington Post published an op-ed from a leader of the Houthi rebel movement accusing Saudi Arabia of committing various human-rights violations in Yemen. It created a lot of controversy, because the Houthis are responsible for plenty of abuses themselves, like recruiting child soldiers, assassinating journalists, and torturing civilians. One activist—Radhya Almutawakel of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights—put it well when she told The Nation that, “in Yemen, there are no heroes.” How do we work toward ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition without absolving other parties’ wrongdoing?
SA: I think that’s a really great point. From the beginning, there have been many of us calling for an independent investigation into all the crimes committed by all the people in Yemen, and I think that’s something that we’re going to continue to call for.
At the end of the day it’s up to Yemenis to decide who is going to be involved in shaping their political future. The Islah Party is not absolved of any of this, but they have large factions within Yemen who support them. Saleh’s government is not absolved, the Houthis are not absolved—but they do have a lot of support in Yemen, and the people of Yemen are going to have to decide for themselves what they want moving forward without foreign intervention.
CG: Along those lines, some observers have complained that tribal leaders and marginalized groups like women and youth have been absent from United Nations–led negotiations. How important is it to include their voices, and how do we get them into the conversation?
SA: I question what more they can add right now when the warlords are really controlling the destiny of Yemen. We’ve got Hadi’s government, based in Saudi Arabia, condoning and supporting all of these attacks. We’ve got the Houthis who are seen by many as defenders, but they are also committing abuses against human beings in Yemen.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia play such a huge role. If they don’t stop bombing, then how do we even move forward? I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of saying that right now is the time where we have to focus on women’s voices or youth voices. Right now is the time to get these people to stop bombing and starving Yemen. Then we can see where we can move forward as a country.
CG: What misconceptions about the war in Yemen are most commonly held by Americans, and how might advocates counter them?
SA: For the longest time—up until this summer, really—when Yemen was mentioned, the role of the US was really not highlighted. The US is not an observer; they are incredibly involved. It’s up to journalists to challenge the role of the US more aggressively, so that people here can know that they can do something to stop it.
The other thing is the incredible focus on Iran. Iran has no stake in the game when it comes to Yemen. But it has been framed from the beginning as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that’s just taking the Saudi narrative without challenging it.
CG: What comes next? And what can readers do to help?
SA: What comes next, for us in the US, is to get our senators and our representatives to stop the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—to stop supporting these war crimes that are occurring every single day in Yemen in our name.