by Mary L. Wentworth and Yoav Elinevsky
The Saudis decided to enter an ongoing civil war in Yemen in 2015 for several reasons. The two countries share a long border at the southern end of their peninsula. The length of this border is matched by Yemen’s coastline on the Arabian Sea, access to ocean waters that Saudi Arabia does not have.
Even more important is that the southeast corner of Yemen sits at the point where the Red Sea flows into the Arabian Sea through a very narrow passageway. Influence over this would enable the Saudis to control shipping through the Red Sea.
Furthermore, Yemen has oil that generates revenue from contracts with private producers. Yemen also has natural gas as well as fish, rock salt, marble, and small deposits of coal, gold, lead, nickel, and copper. Also, the soil in the west is very fertile.
According to the UN, the war in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, had already caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services, and infrastructure since it started in 2015.
January 25, 2021 was a Global Day of Action that saw thousands marching across the world, demanding an end to the war in Yemen by halting arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
Ten days later in a major speech on foreign policy, President Biden announced the United States will be playing a more active and engaged role to bring an end to this conflict through diplomacy.
President Biden committed the US to the following:
- Supporting the United Nations-led initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks.
- Appointing a special envoy to the Yemen conflict.
- Ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.
Biden’s Half Measures to End the War in Yemen are Not Enough
While these steps have the potential for ending the war in Yemen, a lot is missing in the President’s announcement. The US is not just an outside observer of the war. Companies in the US military-industrial complex have reaped huge profits from this war. Moreover, President Biden made no mention of withdrawing US military forces from Yemen.
Between 2015 and 2018, the US provided the intelligence for the targeted bombing that destroyed hospitals, markets, and residential neighborhoods, killing large numbers of civilians. In addition, the US had a hand in refueling Saudi planes.
As early as 2015, human rights organizations and the UN warned all sides in the conflict that they are possibly committing war crimes. The US has been targeting those it calls “terrorists” in Yemen since 2002 and is guilty of killing close to 1,000 people in these strikes. In declaring his commitments, Biden does not include any statement assuming responsibility for taking part in a war that has created what is today the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In his speech, the President repeated the word “democracy” seven times and said: “we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values.” Does this principle apply to the medieval-type kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates? Like every president since FDR, Biden confirmed the strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US. The US has more than 80,000 civilian contractors and thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia, even though it is against Saudi law to have foreign troops on its soil.
What President Biden should have said, but did not: “The US will…”
- End all arms sales and maintenance agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as long as they are engaged in the war and beyond.
- Remove the Houthis from the terror list so they can participate in peace talks.
- Acknowledge the role of the US government and the military-industrial complex in the war by apologizing to, and paying reparations to, the Yemeni people. Apologize to the American people who had to pay for the US participation in the war.
- End all US military presence in Yemen.
Reparations to the people of Yemen should not be paid by US taxpayers, but by the arms industry. In the five years before the war, US arms transfers to Saudi Arabia amounted to $3 billion; between 2015 and 2020, the U.S. agreed to sell over $64.1 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, averaging $10.7 billion per year. Sales to other belligerents in the war, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also rose exponentially.
It is no wonder the giant arms manufacturers such as Raytheon and L3 Harris can pay their CEOs an average of more than $40,000 per DAY! These companies should pay reparations to the people of Yemen in proportion to the volume of sales they made to the perpetrators of the war there. The arms manufacturers who benefited so outrageously from the war should also reimburse the US treasury for the amount of money paid by US taxpayers that allowed the US to participate in the war.
President Biden can do better than what he promised in his speech. The opportunity is now before him to do justice and establish peace and friendship with the people of the Middle East and he must do it.
—Mary L. Wentworth and Yoav Elinevsky are members of the Latin America Solidarity Coalition of Western Massachusetts.