Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates Are Starving Yemenis to Death
The world was rightly outraged by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but the bombs of Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati allies are killing dozens each day in Yemen.
Jamal Khashoggi was but the latest victim of a reckless arrogance that has become the hallmark of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Yemenis were saddened, but not surprised, at the extent of the brutality exhibited in Khashoggi’s killing, because our country has been living through this same Saudi brutality for almost four years.
As human rights advocates working in Yemen, we are intimately familiar with the violence, the killing of innocents, and the shredding of international norms that have been the hallmarks of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in our country. For nearly four years, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition, along with the United Arab Emirates, that has cynically and viciously bombarded Yemen’s cities, blockaded Yemen’s ports, and prevented humanitarian aid from reaching millions in need.
According to the Yemen Data Project, Saudi and Emirati aircraft have conducted over 18,500 air raids on Yemen since the war began—an average of over 14 attacks every day for over 1,300 days. They have bombed schools, hospitals, homes, markets, factories, roads, farms, and even historical sites. Tens of thousands of civilians, including thousands of children, have been killed or maimed by Saudi airstrikes.
But the Saudis and Emiratis couldn’t continue their bombing campaign in Yemen without U.S. military support. American planes refuel Saudi aircraft en route to their targets, and Saudi and Emirati pilots drop bombs made in the United States and the United Kingdom onto Yemeni homes and schools Nevertheless, U.S. attention to the war in Yemen has been largely confined to brief spats of outrage over particularly dramatic attacks, like the August school bus bombing that killed dozens of children.
Saudi crimes in Yemen are not limited to regular and intentional bombing of civilians in violation of international humanitarian law. By escalating the war and destroying essential civilian infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is also responsible for the tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians who have died from preventable disease and starvation brought on by the war. The United Nations concluded that blockades have had “devastating effects on the civilian population” in Yemen, as Saudi and Emirati airstrikes have targeted Yemen’s food production and distribution, including the agricultural sector and the fishing industry.
Meanwhile, the collapse of Yemen’s currency due to the war has prevented millions of civilians from purchasing the food that exists in markets. Food prices have skyrocketed, but civil servants haven’t received regular salaries in two years. Yemenis are being starved to death on purpose, with starvation of civilians used by Saudi Arabia as a weapon of war.
Three-quarters of Yemen’s population—over 22 million men, women, and children—are currently dependent on international aid and protection. The U.N. warned in September that Yemen soon will reach a “tipping point,” beyond which it will be impossible to avoid massive civilian deaths. Over 8 million people are currently on the verge of starvation, a figure likely to rise to 14 million—half of the country—by the end of 2018 if the fighting does not subside, import obstructions are not removed, and the currency is not stabilized.
To be clear, there is no party in this war is without blood on its hands; our organization, Mwatana, has documented violations against civilians by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, not only Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have killed and injured hundreds of civilians through their use of landmines and indiscriminate shelling, while militias backed by the United Arab Emirates, Yemeni government-backed militias, and Houthi militias have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured civilians. But the de facto immunity that the international community has given Saudi Arabia through its silence prevents real justice for violations by all sides.
The people of the Middle East have long and bitter experience with international double standards when it comes to human rights, as purported champions of universal rights in the West regularly ignore grave violations by their allies in the region, from the former shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein to Saudi Arabia’s current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
This double standard was on display during the crown prince’s recent tour of world capitals and Silicon Valley, where he was generally praised as a “reformer,” and media figures recited his vision for Saudi Arabia in the year 2030 without asking what will be left of Yemen by the year 2020 if the war continues.
Similarly, this double standard is on display when Western policymakers downplay Saudi and Emirati violations of Yemenis’ human rights by claiming that a close partnership with Riyadh is needed to prevent perceived Iranian threats to the international community, without asking whether that same community is also endangered by Saudi Arabia’s daily violations of basic international norms. And yes, there is a double standard in the wall-to-wall coverage of Khashoggi’s horrific murder, when the daily murder of Yemenis by Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict in Yemen hardly merits mention.
Those in the United States and elsewhere who are incensed by Khashoggi’s murder must summon similar moral clarity and condemn Saudi Arabia’s daily killing of innocents in Yemen. If Saudi violations are to be genuinely curtailed, Khashoggi’s killing must mark the beginning, not the end, of accountability for Saudi crimes. Khashoggi’s death has been reduced to a single data point, rather than being seen as the result of subverting universal values in favor of geopolitics or business interests.
Reversing course—ending U.S. military support for the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen and supporting U.N.-led peace efforts and the reopening of Yemen’s air and sea ports—can still save millions of lives.
If U.S. lawmakers had spoken up and taken action on Yemen years ago, when Saudi Arabia’s rampant violations were already well known, thousands of Yemeni civilians who since then have been killed by airstrikes or starvation would still be alive today—and perhaps Jamal Khashoggi would be, too.
Radhya Almutawakel is a co-founder and leader of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, which recently received the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty, a biennial prize awarded by U.S.-based Human Rights First. @RAlmutawakel