Matthew Cunningham-Cook: How Finance Is Starving Yemen

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

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  1. Donald

    I am stunned at how little attention Yemen gets. The MSM is fulfilling its usual role– they write just enough so you can’t say they ignore the issue altogether. Mainstream liberals are worthless– too busy shrieking about stolen emails and too tribal to care that Obama is complicit in what is slowly turning into genocide. This is to be expected.

    But even the far left is saying very little. I don’t get that.

    Btw, Daniel Larison at the American Conservative has been covering the issue as well as anyone. Larison is one of the best bloggers on foreign policy. Very principled and not a trace of partisanship.

    1. oho

      Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and its Gulf sycophants literally have an army of Western lobbyists and PR peeps. —not to mention Al Gore turning gazillionaire thanks to the Qataris (Current TV) and Bubba Clinton’s special birthday present.

      Shiites/Shia have none of that. And the MSM is ignorant, or purposefully turns a blind eye (can’t tell), re. the differences re. Shia/Sunni/Wahhabism.

      Ironically if the US followed the traditional Western colonization model—the US would be arming the local/regional minority (Shias) and turning them into the puppets against the dominant power (Wahhabi Sunnis).

      Too bad that whole Iranian hostage thing shut the door on that.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Al Jazeera’s backers are part of the Saudi Alliance, and most mid east reporting goes through Al Jazeera.

      Second, most leftists are opposed to nuclear war, and Obama’s thuggery in Syria, consequences of arming Islamic militants everywhere he found them, and new Cold War/Asian pivot are fairly important issues. Politics is still local after all. The Sauds are clearly glorified plantation owners.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      The tentacles of Gulf oil money penetrate everywhere in the west – the political establishment, the media, even academia. There are simply too many people of influence who’s salary is directly or indirectly boosted by Gulf money. Yemeni children are simply expendable in the face of all that cash.

  2. jfleni

    H L Menken said it best: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”. Yemen is
    a perfect example.

    Doggie-patch DC pays no attention to elections, urges
    to clean out the stables, or anything else; meanwhile
    Trumpkins twitters nonsense.

  3. Eureka Springs

    I can’t thank N.C. and Mr. Cunningham-Cook enough for covering this tragedy.

    Why oh why is it seemingly exclusively the ‘far left’ who places anti-war matters at the greatest of import? And if they did rise up in this country they certainly wouldn’t receive any more attention than Yemen does now.. except to be ridiculed, imprisoned and killed.

    And talk about ‘clarifying’… looking at the last three Dem Pres nominees… two of which have led State Dept…. all of whom should be in the Hague right next to The Bushies and Cheney.

    Is it any wonder the American super plurality does not play lessor of two evils at all on election days. De-legitimization indeed. It’s largely here if places like this would simply, repeatedly, acknowledge it.

    1. Foppe

      Don’t worry, once we’re past jan 20, and the Ds no longer have executive power, they’ll start paying lip service again. Just like Larry S., seeing the light only when he starts working for the FT.

  4. TheCatSaid

    I’m grateful for the topic and detail of this article. I particularly appreciate the highlighting of Yemen’s strategic geographic position at a fuel shipping chokepoint.

    Leaving things unsaid–even/especially things that are in plain view–is one of the main tactics of US and global disinformation.

  5. blert

    Yemen and Somalia both have astonishing population growth.

    That’s what’s driving all of the unrest.

    Hence, Thomas Malthus is calling the shots.

    The correct, and brutal, solution is to end NGO food aid. Such aid destroys their farming culture… and enables warfare on a tribal scale… as each faction stops growing food, and starts fighting over foodstuffs provided by the NGOs.

    That scenario has been waged with vigor for the last generation in Somalia.

    The path to strife is paved with do-gooder intentions. (Oxfam, et. al.)

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Matthew Cunningham-Cook provided this link and also noted:

      think my article makes pretty clear that it is Saudi Arabia and the US that are driving the unrest.

      The “astonishing” population growth in Somalia and Yemen is nothing compared to the Baby Boom in the US. That said Eritrea rejects food aid, which has been a boon for local agriculture. It is a common tack of colonialism that they force food aid on nations so as to eliminate the sustenance of local farmers–which in turn produces more hunger. Bill Clinton’s forcing of Haiti to lower their rice tariff to 5% is a good example here.

    2. Foppe

      What’s this, Matt Y. v2, talking about something other than Palestine? More Uncomfortable Truth-telling that oddly always has a reductionist, reactionary bent that totally ignores the facts at hand (see above, Western interests) in favor of “impersonal forces” plus “misguided White Goodness”?

  6. Jeff

    Max Abrams on twitter: if the Jihadists cut off the water supply to 5 million people in Damascus but nobody tweets about it, did it really happen?
    Same goes for Yemen.

  7. Martin Finnucane

    This article posted at least 8 hours ago, and so far there are only 11 comments, one of which comes from our host. Why do we turn away from Yemen? I don’t say this as a scold, if for no other reason than that I’ve often found myself “clicking past” Yemen news. But why?

    1. craazyman

      It’s like something out of Titus Andronicus without the genius of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan iambic pentameter.

      It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing — not the journalist’s work, the events themselves.

      Long, complicated, confusing, full of strange, unfamiliar and dubious personalities, hard to understand, a maze of causations/causes/effects/contradictions. It makes you stare in perplexed incomprehension, your attention fades, the words blur and then it collapses. The lamplights in your room intrude and then the view out the window. Your mind wanders into a forest of personal trivia. Philosophy regroups for a second efffort and tries to frame it but fails from exhaustion and incompleteness. You momentarily reflect upon cultural psychoanalysis and depth psychology. Even the Bible. But in the end everything fails to organize the essential incoherence of the entire phenomenon. It sprawls into an infinity. Finally you give up.

      Other than that, it’s riveting!

  8. gepay

    One reason there are so few comments is the article is well written and the situation described clear. The US through the Saudis is creating a situation worse than than what the Nazis did in Spain in the 30’s.Since Russia has no interests in Yemen unlike Syria, there is no one to stop this. Except the people of the US who believe they are powerless to stop anything connected to the national security -military – industrial complex running amok. Ron Paul is the only Presidential candidate to even mention it. And the media – it is much more important that Megan Kelly has moved from Fox.

  9. Plenue

    If it’s any consolation to the starving and the already dead, the Houthis are winning. The Saudis already lost this war many months ago, they just refuse to admit it. They have large numbers of the most advanced weapons on the planet, but a military that has no motivation to fight. After it became clear their own soldiers couldn’t get the job done, the Saudi’s hired thousands of African mercenaries. They were quickly chewed up by the Houthis and the Yemeni military. Now Saudi Arabia mostly just bombs anything and everything, while on the ground they not only consistently lose within Yemen, but the Houthis regularly counterattack over the border into SA itself. This whole war has become a giant self-inflicted wound for the Saudis. Not only can’t they defeat a materially inferior foe in a another country, they can’t even defend their own border. Saudi Arabia was already a doomed country, but this is only going to significantly accelerate its decline.

    1. Judith

      What are your sources for this? I am not challenging you; I am eager to learn more. Andrew Cockburn and Ben Norton are paying attention to Yemen, but more detailed information would be good.

      (I greatly appreciate the scope of the original post. The geopolitical context was very helpful. And I cannot help but wonder, given the careful work Nick Turse is doing on documenting the increasing presence of the US military in various countries in Africa, including those so close to Yemen, what else is going on in that part of the world that we are not hearing about.)

      1. Plenue

        Moon of Alabama has been periodically covering Yemen, with lots of links to specific sources:

        It’s a Vietnam-style quagmire. The Saudis and their allies and mercenaries have been unable to make meaningful progress inside the hill country the Houthis control. Meanwhile the Houthis and Yemeni army regularly raid across the border and bombard Saudi bases with improvised ballistic missiles they’ve made from otherwise outdated munitions.

        The war is also being extensively documented with video. There’s entire YouTube channels dedicated just to Houthis/Yemeni army footage, this this:

      2. Roch

        Good question– not hearing is that to achieve global supremacy (or what is considered global supremacy) requires a foot in Yemen to easily access -> control the Southern Hemisphere.
        We cannot repeat the PresBush 03-2003 Iraq invasion, so we let the Banks and the Saudis do the work. This is partly the use of the and why PresObama has supported it, even though it is incorrect and illegal, it accomplished part of what he wanted and could not outright do. SosCrookdClinton worked with the WSBanks in trading power and actions– new markets opened exclusively to them if they accorded or refused certain financial structures to certain countries.
        You can fly from the east coast to central africa, refuel in Yemen and you are good to Australia, from there Hawaii and on.
        This is also what the TPP is about, not just commerce but the selling out of american people to guarantee a military open space. It does not come cheap or free.
        Donot know why SenWarren keeps expecting Banks to be corrected in any way, they will not and by these international actions have insured themselves untouchable. Once again it goes back to PresBill and the repeal of GSteagall– only two potus could have the ability and knowlwdge to do this. The ClintonFoundation was the transaction tool to bring all this together.

  10. Jerri-Lynn Scofield

    Thorough and informative post about an important but neglected topic. I especially noted the mention of the inaction of the odious Samantha Power– intellectual huckster indeed. In a just world, her delinquency would not go unpunished. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in.

  11. Scott

    The good banker crushed by the bad bankers same as Capra & It’s A Wonderful Life, but without the angel arriving at the bridge.
    Somehow “My Rich Guy is better than your Rich Guy” doesn’t work. What was it that Ban Ki Moon said, something about not being able to censure the Saudis because they would not provide the budget money the UN needs for work helping others?
    He seemed pretty depressed about it all.
    In North Carolina they don’t bomb the hospital the poor need, but just say it doesn’t make enough money, and demolish it with cranes & bulldozers.
    During the Cold War it was said “the Russians outright censor the books they don’t want their citizens to read. In the US publishers simply don’t publish what is “problematic”.
    Obviously the Financial Terrorists are winning.
    There will be the day when all ironies converge and electric tanks blow the fossil fuels powered off he battlefields where goes on the 100 years & more, oil war.
    The way out of confusion I use is to pick a side. Then I let others try their own arguments against me instead of making ways up for my side to lose before I go to battle.
    I also have praise for the author for explaining the issue in the light of where the territory being fought for is on earth, on a map.
    As I always blame directors for the failures of actors on stage or in the movies, I do not forget that a good editor is responsible for what I read in their book or magazine.
    Since all our heroes are dead or dying, time we are our own heroes.

  12. Roch

    The us targets Yemen as most strategic piece of land– it is being bombed and softened for the us to move on and set up a foothold of bases to protect Yemen– who is in Yemen controls the entire Southern Hemisphere! It is just not about commerce but aboutthe total military control and access of the Southern Hemisphere.

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