When President Joe Biden announced in February that he was ending US support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, phoned her colleagues in Yemen. “I was calling them to say, ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel,’” said Jumaan, who is Yemeni American.
“Not a single person believed it,” she said. “They knew better.”
So far, the skepticism of Jumaan’s coworkers has been vindicated. Nearly three months have elapsed since Biden’s statement, and he has yet to specify what constitutes an “offensive” operation. It remains unclear what, if anything, his administration has actually done to stop the Saudi Arabia–led military intervention. When asked by Congress last week for updates, Biden’s Yemen envoy, Tim Lenderking, claimed ignorance. And this month, the White House announced that it was moving forward with a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, one of the main players in Yemen’s war.
The Biden administration also recently played down one of the main drivers of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis: a Saudi naval and air blockade that is preventing fuel and other critical supplies from entering the country. Rather than answer questions about US support for the Yemen intervention and blockade, ongoing since 2015, a State Department spokesperson told Vox that the blockade “is not a blockade,” quibbling that some food and other supplies are getting into Yemen and that Yemeni authorities are also contributing to import problems. The denial followed comments from Lenderking, who last month attempted to shift the blame for fuel shortages onto Yemeni rebels, despite United Nations and press reports pointing to the Saudi blockade as the most immediate cause.
“The fact that the Saudis determine what gets into Yemen and what doesn’t and when, that is a blockade,” said Jumaan, adding that her organization hasn’t been able to send medicine to Yemen in over a year.
The Biden administration’s equivocating and willingness to cover for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and its opaqueness about its own continued involvement in the conflict track with a trend in US policy in the region—one that far predates the six-year war. Even though the United States boasts tremendous influence over Yemen and the regional powers jockeying for control over it, Washington has for decades treated the country as a tool for pursuing tangential foreign policy goals—usually countering terrorism and maintaining warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
“There is no US Yemen policy,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch and a former journalist. “There is counterterrorism. There is Saudi. There is the Gulf. There is Iran. But there is no Yemen policy for Yemen.”
As the Biden administration continues in the tradition of US nonpolicy, the humanitarian situation in Yemen, which has been widely considered to be the world’s most dire for roughly five years, grows more calamitous. Two and a half years ago, Save the Children estimated that around 85,000 children in Yemen under the age of 5 had died of malnutrition, and under current conditions, 400,000 more children could die by the end of this year, according to a February report from four UN agencies. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimates that fighting itself has so far taken around 100,000 lives.
Biden “has been given a very rare chance to correct the wrongs [the United States has] inflicted on the Yemeni people,” said Jumaan. “And instead of [his] taking the chance to correct that, we’re seeing the same old story and same old behavior.”
Yemen’s most recent iteration, the Republic of Yemen, has suffered as a pawn for international powers since its inception in 1990, when the country’s north and south reunited under the leadership of the northern president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. That year, Yemen, a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, voted against a US-spearheaded resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. After the vote, an infuriated US ambassador to the UN informed Yemen that it was “the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.”
And it was. The George H.W. Bush administration immediately cut off the United States’ $70 million in annual aid to Yemen. Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states expelled some 800,000 Yemeni workers whose remittances were essential to Yemen’s economy. And the Security Council vote was likely part of the reason World Bank financing for projects in Yemen slowed and the International Monetary Fund stayed clear of the country for five years, according to Helen Lackner, author of Yemen in Crisis. Yemen’s economy contracted every year from 1990 to 1995. And when the IMF and World Bank reengaged with the country in 1996, they immediately put it on a path of privatization, emphasizing fiscal balance and hospitableness to foreign investment over poverty reduction and sustainable development, according to Lackner.
Meanwhile, Gulf countries meddled in Yemen’s internal affairs, mostly to try to keep the government stable yet subservient. With Yemen’s reunification, Saudi Arabia was concerned about “the presence of a functioning parliamentary democracy in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to a recent report from the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, an independent Yemen-based think tank. To ensure that Yemen’s central authority remained weak, but sturdy enough to ward off overthrow, the Saudi government provided financial support to the national government and to competing tribes and political parties.
Widespread poverty, economic strife, and foreign-managed internal discord allowed President Saleh to continue his dominance of the national political scene. He established a complex patronage system that allowed him to broker power to tribal leaders, rendering Yemen’s democratic institutions relatively powerless. To do this, he relied on Yemen’s oil revenue, which, in the late 1990s was substantial enough to buy enough support to continue his reign but didn’t leave funds for much else.
When Yemen’s oil output began to be depleted in the early 2000s, Saleh was able to turn to Washington: Within hours of the events of September 11, 2001, Saleh sent a message of support to George W. Bush. Saleh must have known that the United States was only interested in Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s home country, as a venue for its global War on Terror. His cooperation with US counterterrorism operations won tens of millions of dollars in annual military assistance over the next decade, which he used to prolong his rule.
When Arab Spring protests broke out in Yemen in 2011 and the Saleh regime finally fell, Yemenis took to debating their own political future. Then, in 2014, toward the conclusion of a promising national dialogue process, a rebel movement from Yemen’s north, colloquially known as the Houthis, stormed southward until it captured the capital, Sana’a. Six months later, in March 2015, Saudi bombs started dropping.
In the months following the start of the extensive, often indiscriminate air campaign against the Houthis, the Obama administration gave several explanations for the targeting assistance, midair refueling, arms sales, and diplomatic cover it provided to the Saudi-led coalition conducting it. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington needed to help protect Saudi Arabia, which was “literally threatened by virtue of [the Houthis] placing missiles along the Saudi border.” Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes insinuated that it was a way to “counter” the “destabilizing actions” of Iran, from which the Houthis receive marginal support. (Three and a half years later, out of office, Rhodes admitted to The Nation that the Obama administration “did not share” the Saudi analysis that Yemen was “part of a broader Iranian ascent in the region.”)
The main reason for such extensive US support, however, was diplomatic. In the spring of 2015, world powers were in the final stages of negotiating the historic nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Yemen intervention was planned as a “decisive” blow to the Houthis, the Obama administration saw US support as a way to appease Riyadh’s frustration over the Iran agreement.
The Houthi insurgency proved formidable, however, outlasting both the Obama and the Trump administrations’ support for the Saudi-led assault. Today, the Houthis control roughly the same amount of territory as they did in 2015, and they’ve established a brutal regime that has detained, tortured, and killed dissidents and journalists; blocked and confiscated aid meant for civilians; and likely committed war crimes. The Houthis have also reneged on several negotiated agreements with the Yemeni government during the war, likely betting that the Saudi-led coalition can’t be trusted and instead falling back on their military upper hand. The most recent negotiations, predictably mired, center on a Houthi offensive on the oil- and gas-producing region of Ma’rib, which threatens the roughly 800,000 internally displaced people currently stuck there.
Six years of Houthi resilience make it clear to advocates that peace will come to Yemen only through diplomacy. And there is precedent for it.
“When Yemenis start talking anything is possible,” diplomat Jamal Benomar wrote in The Guardian last month. Benomar was the UN special envoy to Yemen from 2011 to 2015, during the protest movement and the resulting National Dialogue Conference, when Yemenis of all political stripes spent 10 months deliberating an outline for a new federal system. Some participants, including the Houthis, found details of the system to be unacceptable, leading to its downfall and the Houthi uprising. But Yemeni parties were working on negotiating a power-sharing agreement to prevent a full-blown civil war when the Saudi airstrikes began. A few weeks later, progress was further erased when the UN Security Council passed a Saudi-drafted resolution effectively demanding that “the Houthis surrender unconditionally,” according to Benomar.
With that prior dialogue process in mind, Benomar has joined Yemeni advocates who have long argued that peace is possible if warring parties, including the United States and the Saudi-led coalition, drop preconditions that have eroded past cease-fire negotiations. Outside of Houthi-controlled territory, reconciliation is already taking place: In December, the government formed a new power-sharing cabinet, which includes regional representatives, members of Yemen’s big-tent Islamist party, socialists, members of Saleh’s party, members of a UAE-backed southern separatist movement, and others.
There is no guarantee that that cabinet’s particular power-sharing model will hold. Yemen is as politically pluralistic—and divided—as ever; the new cabinet survived a missile attack, presumably a Houthi assassination attempt, less than two weeks after it was formed. Whatever the ultimate solution, however, “the least [the United States] could do to give Yemenis the best chance at moving forward is step out of the way, and then get their allies to step out of the way,” said Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni American Michigan State University professor and anti-war advocate.
With the Biden administration’s lack of clarity and action, Congress is considering stepping in. In late February, 41 Democratic representatives sent a letter to Biden asking him to elaborate on his commitment to end support for the Saudi-led offensive. But they never heard back, and, as The Nation reported this month, members of Congress are currently “assessing” whether to introduce a War Powers Resolution to force Biden’s hand.
“The idea that we’re just going to trust Biden to end this war is really problematic,” said Al-Adeimi. “He said he is ending ‘offensive’ operations, but this whole war from 2015 was framed as a defensive one.”
Jumaan of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation noted that in some ways 2021 looks a lot like 2015: The US administration is trying to get back into the Iran nuclear deal, while appeasing Saudi Arabia and talking out of both sides of its mouth on Yemen—which doesn’t bode well for ending the offensive. “I fear right now that history is repeating itself,” she said, “that they are going to sacrifice Yemen again to please the Saudis.”
Al-Adeimi recalled that during the 2020 campaign, one of Biden’s senior national security advisers told her and a group of Yemeni Americans in Michigan that Biden would quickly end “all” support and arms sales for the war.
So when it comes to Biden’s promises, “these are just, as far as I’m concerned, words,” she said.