Yemen was already in turmoil before Donald Trump became president, but conditions in the country have become worse in the last few months. Trump’s cordial relationship with the House of Saud hasn’t been helping.
Since he came into office, Trump has shown an overt deference to Saudi Arabia and its foreign policy vision in the Middle East; he’s gone so far as to announce a massive new arms deal, embrace much of the Saudi government’s hostile rhetoric towards Iran, and even open a “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” in a country where women still aren’t allowed to drive. But Trump’s tacit endorsement — or willful ignorance — of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen are on another level. In announcing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia last month, Trump specifically praised the country and its regional coalition for taking “strong action against the Houthi militants in Yemen.”
As a result, the conditions in Yemen have been steadily deteriorating.
On Friday, news reports emerged that the nominal government in Sanaa, backed by Saudi Arabia, is preventing journalists and human rights activists from visiting the capital on UN-chartered planes, thus severely restricting their access to the country.
“Two weeks ago I was trying to go on an UNHAS flight to cover the cholera and so I contact the UN, who actually organize who gets on the flights,” a reporter based in Europe told IRIN. “I was told they had been given blanket orders to not allow any journalists, researchers, or anyone who is not a humanitarian.”
The media environment in Yemen was already in seriously bad shape, but this latest obstruction means even less clarity into what is happening in Yemen, including into possible human rights abuses.
On Thursday, a bomb in a market in the north of Yemen killed six civilians and wounded 15 others. It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack, but there were many shoppers at the market when it took place, according to officials who spoke with Reuters on the condition of anonymity. The attack occurred less than one week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
And earlier last week, the United Nations warned that Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis and is in desperate need of a peace agreement. UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned that the crisis wasn’t “an unforeseen or coincidental result of forces beyond our control,” but a direct consequence of those involved in the conflict as well as “inaction — whether due to inability or indifference — by the international community.”
“The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease and death as the world watched,” he said. “Crisis is not coming, it is not looming, it is here today — on our watch.”
Given the great imbalance of power in the conflict, a real peace agreement in Yemen seems unlikely. The Saudi-led regional coalition that has been bombing Yemen since March 2015 has received a large amount of military aid from the U.S. government. And Trump’s new arms deal means the United States is risking complicity in war crimes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch warned.
Of course, the conflict in Yemen — and U.S. involvement in it — didn’t begin with Trump. Under the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia used American cluster munitions to attack crowded cities in Yemen, and many strikes by the Saudi-led coalition were “carried out by pilots trained by the United States, who fly American-made jets that are refueled in the air by American planes,” the New York Times reported last fall. The conflict over the last two years has hit hospitals, schools, bridges, farms, a wedding, and a funeral — and at every point of the way, the United States has been aiding the Saudi-led coalition.
But Trump’s silence on human rights abuses has given Saudi Arabia further license. Trump has praised authoritarian leaders throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. Elsewhere in the Gulf, authoritarian states have already begun a crackdown on human rights activists and dissent, after receiving assurances from Trump.
Today, Yemen is in a humanitarian crisis, with over 18 million people currently requiring some form of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. The country is facing severe health issues, with at least 70,000 reported cases of cholera in Yemen. Almost 600 have already died from the bacterial disease, and the number of total cases of cholera could increase to as many as 130,000 in the next two weeks, the UN warned. Yemen is also close to running out of water — in part due to the war, and in part due to the effects of climate change.