By Matthew Cunningham-Cook, who has written for the International Business Times, The New Republic, Jacobin, Aljazeera, and The Nation and has been a labor activist
It was a grim Christmas in the Houthi-supporting Yemeni countryside, where the peasants backing a right to national self-determination are subjected to an old form of population control: starvation. The Yemenis have the misfortune of sitting at a key strategic chokepoint in global production: the Bab el-Mandeb at the southern base of the Red Sea, passing 13% of global oil production annually through its waters. The Bab el-Mandeb is just 25 miles across, making it difficult to navigate–and easy for a small group of “pirates” to disrupt.
Management by Instability
Directly west of Yemen sit Eritrea, Djibouti, and then Ethiopia–three countries that are active targets of US intervention. Djibouti features Africa’s only permanent US military base, Camp Lemonnier, which hosts over 1000 highly trained special forces. Eritrea’s fiercely independent government is an ongoing target of the State Department and liberal NGOs. Ethiopia’s sociopathic leadership–composed of the henchmen of the now-deceased brutal despot Meles Zenawi–makes Ethiopia the largest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa. Bordering Ethiopia and south of Yemen lies Somalia, the site of arguably the most sustained campaign of American-European-Saudi intervention anywhere in the world. Persistent overt and covert meddling in Somali affairs has made it without a functioning national government for over a quarter-century. Directly north of Yemen sits Saudi Arabia–to paraphrase Porfirio Diaz, poor Yemen, so far from God–and so close to the Saudis.
The region surrounding the Bab el-Mandeb–the Horn of Africa–is a hot spot at the center of global production, and a site of ongoing neoimperialist assault. Exemplifying the ongoing, multiple and converging crises that humanity faces, what happens there is of deep import to us all.
The facts on the ground are this: Nearly four years of upheaval culminated in a nationalist revolutionary militia, the Houthis, seizing the capital in 2015, demanding recognition as Yemen’s civil government. The Houthis have a primary demand: an end to US and Saudi imperialism in the Middle East. They have denounced the Saudi government, and particularly the Saudis’ family ties to al-Qaeda and Salafism-Wahhabism more broadly.
Riyadh and the Gulf States have not responded kindly to such broadsides, beginning a horrifying bombing and blockade campaign in March 2015, with the crucial logistical support of the US and the UK. The US has sold over $115 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2009; the UK has sold over $4 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the war began. Over three million people have been displaced by the bombs, with 600 hospitals and health centers destroyed. Seven million people are on the brink of starvation, and as of December 15 all further wheat imports have been halted in a country dependent on imports for 90% of its food, due to the chicanery of the puppets at Yemen’s new central bank (the old central bank was shut down by the government-in-exile in September and moved from Sana’a to Aden in the South–much more on this below).
It appears the Saudis have a plan for complete extermination. Their murderous campaign is being led by King Salman’s son, 31-year old defense minister and second deputy crown prince Mohamed bin Salman al Saud, who among other things happens to be buddies with both President Obama and the patron of leading ISIS/Al-Qaeda theocrat Mohamed AlArefe.
While mass starvation deepens, the bombing continues apace, with the Saudis dropping cluster bombs on Hajja governorate on December 26, according to Al-Manar. (Cluster bombs are a particularly nasty product of the military-industrial complex, with collateral damage a built-in feature.) This fall also notably featured the Saudi bombing of a funeral, with 140 civilians dead.
Amidst a foreground cast of Arabs, the war has brought from his blood-splattered cave the likes of the brother of Secretary of Education-designate Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince of Blackwater fame, who trained 450 mostly-Colombian mercenaries (paid a reported $1000 per week) to fight on behalf of the Emirates’ presidential guard, led by Australian citizen Mike Hindmarsh.
It’s a cruel war with no beneficiaries outside the leaching fingers of the Saudi royal family and the boardrooms of Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon–but those actors combined are far too powerful in today’s world to be stopped by a ragtag band of poverty-stricken Yemenis like the Houthis.
None of this humanitarian catastrophe would be possible without the craven role played by the media in London and New York, which has vastly underreported the scale of Saudi atrocities (which include, at this juncture, the bombing of no less than six Doctors Without Borders clinics and hospitals), the pressing and desperate nature of the pending mass starvation, and, most importantly, the cynical and criminal role played by the arms manufacturers, making a literal killing yet again off of death and destruction.
Mainstream human rights organizations, while recognizing the scale of the problem, resort to “both-sides” critiques that fail to recognize that both the famine and the ongoing bombing-related destruction are products of Saudi aggression: it is the Saudis that are exclusively bombing, and the Saudi bombing of Yemen’s agricultural infrastructure–combined with the Saudi naval blockade–precipitated the mass starvation now.
Also vastly underreported is the crucial role of the shutdown of Yemen’s Central Bank in Sana’a and the firing of the neutral central bank governor, Mohammed Awad bin Hammam, a brave man who during the course of the war has prevented complete famine from emerging. Until now.
Mass Starvation by Finance
Mohammed Awad bin Hammam had served under Ali Abdullah Saleh, the US-backed dictator who ruled from 1979 until 2011 (and is now aligned with the Houthis), and under Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Saudi puppet with no army or coherent base of supporters to speak of. (Hadi has had to depend on Emirati-paid mercenaries and Saudi air power for his armed forces in the civil war.) When Hadi resigned in January 2015 as the Houthis approached, bin Hammam stayed. The governor is widely respected, even earning praise from the usually taciturn IMF.
Of chief complaint to the Saudis is that bin Hammam had continued to pay the salaries of civil servants and soldiers who may be Houthis. That bin Hammam was also continuing to pay the salaries of civil servants aligned with Hadi has been shunt from view.
What is indisputable is that bin Hammam is a neutral actor attempting to make the best of a bad situation. The central bank in Sana’a was the only institution capable of paying salaries across the country and preventing the rise of famine.
In September, Hadi sacked bin Hammam and ordered that the central bank be moved to Aden, where his puppet government resides. Bin Hammam had begged that Hadi hire a Big 4 audit firm to review the practices of the Central Bank–in particular, any wavering on neutrality–before attempting to move the bank to Aden. Hadi and the Saudis demurred. The Aden bank is incapable of getting food into Yemen, which has resulted in the end of wheat shipments–a disaster of Biblical proportions, inflicted on Yemen’s most vulnerable civilians, in particular 2.2 million children.
Despite the desperate pleas of bin Hammam, the IMF, Wall Street and the Treasury Department appear to have recognized the Aden bank as the sole monetary authority in the nation, making the Saudi-Hadi gambit 100% successful so far. More ordinary concerns, like the starvation of 7 million people, have not risen to the level of concern for Masters of the Universe. John Kerry has emphasized a defunct “peace process” which include the preconditions of the Houthis leaving Sana’a and giving up all of their heavy weaponry (lambs to the slaughter, etc. etc.) while letting the fact that a child dies every ten minutes in Yemen due to this vile blockade go unmentioned.
Were the IMF or the Treasury Department to declare the Sana’a bank a legitimate monetary authority, it is likely that food shipments could begin immediately. The Aden bank has nowhere near the level of technical expertise (nearly all of the civil servants appear to have remained in Sana’a) needed to be able to bring food in–nor is it clear that the leaders of the Aden bank would like to. The Saudi military has suffered setback after setback on the battlefield, and mass starvation is the response by Riyadh to this string of defeats–starve ‘em out.
On December 16 Reuters published an astounding article detailing the distressing circumstances behind the cancellation of wheat shipments. One of the largest food importers, the Fahem Group, sent a letter to both the Sanaa and Aden banks saying that they could not process their transactions in United States dollars. Further detail was not provided, but the two banks were advised that this was a serious problem that needed to be addressed.
The December import cancellation is not the first time that Yemen’s ability to import food had been financially (rather than directly via Saudi naval blockade) hampered. In July, the bin Hammam-led Central Bank of Yemen was cut off from access to $260 million in foreign currency–stored in Yemen rather than abroad–because international financial institutions were refusing to cooperate with it. This means that the currency must travel by plane to be deposited in a foreign financial institution–at great expense to an impoverished nation. It is unclear–but highly, highly unlikely–that the bank has been able to deposit these funds successfully in the succeeding months.
At this point, it is apparent that the Treasury Department and the IMF are actively working to undermine the–again, neutral–Sana’a bank. The problem is that the private financial sector does not have faith in the creditworthiness of Yemeni institutions, a faith that could be easily granted–and in fact, is the oft-ignored mission of–the IMF. Given the US’ extensive support for the war thus far, Treasury involvement in propping up the Aden bank at the expense of the San’a bank is guaranteed. The bait and switch reveals itself: as Obama finally cancels some arms exports to Saudi Arabia–an acknowledgement of the barbaric nature of this war–the US financial apparatus and the IMF agree with the sacking of the neutral central bank governor and replacing him with a puppet determined to starve the nation’s people until Saudi victory. (It’s worth noting that the US has both formal and informal veto power over IMF decision-making). Convicted criminal Christine Lagarde apparently is too busy destroying what remains of the Greek welfare state to focus on stopping a food-based genocide. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, meanwhile, appears to be too fraught with the dilemma of aubergine or burgundy drapes for his new, much-grander-than-before office at Citigroup to be able to help any starving Yemeni babies.
The December Reuters article also contained this little gem:“The Houthis try to play this card of the starvation of people to gain more international media attention”– Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, spokesman for the Saudis.
Where’s the Opposition?
So far we’ve concluded that the Saudi-led war, naval blockade, and IMF/Treasury-assisted financial blockade in Yemen is 1) destructive and depraved; wretched, and 2) that these vile attacks on the Yemeni people could not have happened without the active support of the United State government, the country most of you, dear readers, live in.
So who is standing up to say “Enough!” of this deadly aggression, and “Stop!” to the genocide of a people? Certainly not leading intellectual huckster and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who has now stamped her name on the term “genocide” in more ways than one, in part by helping to stamp out a Dutch effort to have the UN investigate the war. Then we have an ostensibly “progressive” “movement” debasing itself with absurd claims of Russian hacking rather than focus on the real issue: who gets to live or die on planet Earth today.
That said, there are some names worth noting in the small opposition that has begun to form against the war on the Yemeni people. The first casualty of war is truth, so we’ll start with the rare voices in the media. Ben Norton’s dispatches, formerly of Salon, have consistently drawn the contrasts necessary to explain this conflict succinctly: namely, that this is a war of Saudi aggression. Iona Craig of the Intercept has provided the most desperately needed on the ground reporting on the brutal and punitive nature of the war. Reuters’ coverage of the central banking crisis has been invaluable (linked profusely throughout this article.) Andrew Cockburn of Harper’s published in September the only long-form overview of this catastrophic war I can find, an article which in part inspired this one. And the BBC’s documentary on starvation in Yemen has been an incitement to action. The Real News Network and their Yemen source, Bilal Zaneb Ahmed, have also been doing vital work on the roots of the conflict, as has Democracy Now!
In politics, Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) has played a yeoman’s role in attempting to whip opposition to the Saudi aggression in Congres–resulting in a near victory of an amendment to ban transfers of cluster munitions in June 2016. Lieu was helped in this effort by John Conyers (D-MI), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Barbara Lee (D-CA).
Likewise, the bipartisan coalition of Senators Rand Paul, (R-KY), Chris Murphy, (D-CT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Al Franken (D-MN) successfully raised the issue in the Senate in September, but further action has not been taken. A key question is if this opposition will be raised in Senate confirmation hearings for James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. Mattis was an advocate for aggressive US intervention against Iranian humanitarian support for Yemenis while head of Middle East-based CENTCOM from 2010-2013. Such opposition could also be raised during confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Tillerson has deep experience in Yemen, once working as head of Exxon Yemen.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been a vocal site of resistance to the British role in the conflict–proving that socialists tend to provide the most able critiques of imperial wars.
In the streets in the US Medea Benjamin’s Code Pink has been the most strident voice of opposition to the War in Yemen.In the UK, that role has been filled by the Stop the War Coalition.
A ramping up of “No!”s desperately must happen, however. In the media, in Congress, and in the streets. And at this crucial juncture, the No.1 priority should move from stopping arms shipments to restoring the functionality of the neutral Sana’a Central Bank of Yemen and restoring Muhammad Awad bin Hammam to his position as Governor of the bank. The Saudis have shifted their focus from the battlefield–which invites unfortunate headlines–to the shadowy levers of global finance. The potential casualties–at 7 million, including 2.2 million children–will be far higher, lest we stop them.
Further actions and dispatches will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. If interested in getting involved, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.