War & Cholera Decimate Yemen, But Saudi Bombing Gets More US Help

In this Real News Network interview, AlterNet reporter Ben Norton calls out US complicity in the Saudi-led war agains Yemen. This conflict has spawned a  humanitarian crisis, including a cholera epidemic and a famine that threatens millions.

Aaron Mate : It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The UN says Yemen’s cholera epidemic is worse than ever. At the same time it’s canceling a new effort to help. The World Health Organization has scrapped a new vaccination program inside Yemen because it says the country is too dangerous. Yemen has been decimated by a Saudi led bombing campaign. The WHO decision means nearly one million cholera vaccines won’t be delivered. On Wednesday, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien blamed outside parties for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Stephen O’Brien: This cholera scandal is entirely man made by the conflicting parties, and those beyond Yemen’s borders who are leading, supplying, fighting, and perpetuating the fear and the fighting. This is a manmade crisis, and the sheer scale of humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people is a direct result of the conflict and serious violations of its national law. Humanity simply can not continue to lose out to politics.

Aaron Mate : The UN says seven million people, including more than two million children are on the cusp of famine. The US has been key backer of the Saudi led war on Yemen, and appears to have intensified that support since President Trump took office. Ben Norton is our reporter with AlterNet Gray Zone Project. Welcome Ben.

Ben Norton : Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Aaron Mate : Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with the humanitarian situation. The UN warning of millions of being on the cusp of famine, and canceling a cholera vaccination program just as the epidemic is spiraling out of control.

Ben Norton : This is absolutely catastrophic, and in general there hasn’t been enough attention for the past 27 months to the war in Yemen in which the US and the British governments are entirely complicit. But this has really pushed things beyond the brink. For more than two years now, humanitarian organizations have warned that millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine. But compounding that even further is starting on around April 27th there has been a massive outbreak of cholera. And for those who don’t know, cholera is, as the World Health Organization puts it, a quote, “Easily treatable disease.” This is a disease that’s been eradicated in the West. That in much of the world is not a problem. But in war torn Yemen there has been a horrible epidemic. Just since April 27th, according to the UN, there have been more than 320,000 cases. Every several seconds, there is another case suspected. At least 1,700 people have died. And those are just the recorded the numbers. The actual figures are probably even higher.

This is really tearing a country that has already been torn apart by war even further. And the fact that the UN is now abandoning their vaccination program against cholera should be an enormous scandal. It should fill all the front pages of newspapers, and the headlines of large media outlets, but of course, there is very little attention. And even when there is media attention, it frequently downplays the complicity, the leadership role of the US in this conflict. Many leading experts, even the New York times editorial board and others, have acknowledged that were it not for US support, the Saudi led war against Yemen could not be waged.

So I mean, looking at the role of our government as Americans, and seeing that the blood that not only Donald Trump has, but also the Obama administration had, these are things that we can’t ignore. And the cholera epidemic is unfortunately only one development of the extreme crisis in Yemen which the UN has repeatedly warned is the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The worst in the world. Even worse than Syria.

Aaron Mate : But Ben, in that clip I played before from the UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, he didn’t name names. He blamed the warring parties and the outside powers who are fueling the war. But someone could interpret that to say that he means all sides. So equally the Houthis and their backers on one side, fighting the forces on the ground loyal to the former president who they deposed, as well as the Saudi led campaign from above. So to what extent can we pin the blame for this crisis on just one side?

Ben Norton : Well of course the blame for the crisis is the war, and there are two sides to the war. So of course everyone is complicit in creating that, however not everyone created the war. Saudi Arabia with the backing of the US and the UK, and also the United Arab Emirates, is what began the war. Again, this doesn’t mean that the Houthi rebels, and that their allies who are loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh that doesn’t mean that they haven’t committed atrocities of their own. But the vast majority of the atrocities, the vast majority of the civilian casualties have been perpetuated by the US backed, Saudi-led coalition which has relentlessly bombed civilian areas, which has targeted civilian areas intentionally, and which has led to the destruction of more, or at least the damage of more than half of the medical facilities in Yemen.

At this point approximately 55% of medical facilities and health centers in Yemen are either completely not functional or only partially functional. That is not … I mean the majority of that damage is because of airstrikes and fighting. The Houthis don’t have an air force. They’re not bombing South Yemen, and also at this point the Houthis in alliance with elements of the former Yemeni government that were allied with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have kind of a coalition where they’re sharing power together, they controlled the majority of the populated areas of Yemen. And again this is an endorsement necessarily for what they’re political program is, but the fact is that they control the majority of the populated areas and in order to restore power to a leader named Hadi, the former leader, who actually fled to Saudi Arabia after stepping down himself after staying too long through his term and canceling elections.

In order to put him back in power, in order to restore a pro American, pro Saudi government, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen and began a brutal bombing campaign carrying out more than 90,000 air sorties to restore this unpopular, unelected leader. Yes, it is true everyone involved in the war has dirty hands. That’s why we need to oppose war. Wars are absolutely catastrophic for civilian populations. However, both sides are not equal. You have the coalition which is led by Saudi Arabia and backed by a dozen countries and you have the Houthi rebels who is only real major political ally are elements loyal to the former ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh. So this is not … They’re not equal sides and there’s not equal complicity. It’s very clear that the majority of the civilian suffering has been caused by the US-backed coalition.

Aaron Mate : Yeah, I think that point you make about the only party in the conflict which has an air force is the Saudis, is a very important one, in the same way that in Syria for so long only one side, the Saudi regime in Russia were the ones bombing from the air. On the front of US support for the Saudi campaign, there’s a new report today in The Intercept that says that the US has doubled its fuel support for the Saudi bombing campaign since the deadly strike on a funeral not too long ago.

Ben Norton : Absolutely. Yeah. In October of 2016, the US-backed Saudi coalition bombed a funeral gathering three times. It was a triple strike attack, killing well over 100 civilians and injuring more than 500. So more than 600 casualties including both injuries and deaths in this single attack. And this is one attack out of thousands. The Yemen data project which is a project organized by Western academics, Yemeni academics, and former Yemeni government officials and even some current Yemeni government officials, has been meticulously gathering information about the bombing campaign, and also about the atrocities committed by the Houthis and Salla alliance. And they found that of the thousands … Of tens of thousands of airstrikes carried out by the US Saudi coalition, at least one third have hit civilian areas.

And I’ve actually interviewed myself, Martha Mundy who’s a professor of emeritus of the London School of Economics, who is a specialist, a leading expert on the agricultural economy of Yemen. And she, who is a part of this project, has meticulously gathered this data and shows that there is basically no doubt, considering the targets that have been hit, considering the extremely small probability of them being hit, there is almost no doubt that the US-Saudi coalition has been intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. Especially production of food. So related to all of this is not only is there a complete imbalance for the two sides but there are mountains of evidence suggesting that the US-Saudi coalition has in fact intentionally been targeting civilian infrastructure including food production and health services, exacerbating the crisis. And the goal has been to create such an incredible crisis within Houthi Saleh held territory which is the majority of the civilian population, that they rebel and ask for intervention from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

And another point to mention that’s really important. When we’re talking about the retake in areas in Yemen, the major city that the Saudi, UAE, US coalition controls in Yemen is in the South. And it’s the heart of the South in at city called Aden. Aden is probably the second most important city in Yemen after the capital in the North, Sana’a which is controlled by the Houthis and the popular committees back by Saleh. In the South what is almost never acknowledged is that the horrible government that the Saudis and the UAE have created in this area is actually right now going after many Yemeni activists. The government is in fact infiltrated by a lot of Wahhabi extremists who are from Saudi Arabia who share Saudi Arabia’s extremist ideology. And they’re imprisoning and torturing political opponents. They’re going after LGBT Yemenis. They’re going after progressive Yemeni activists and secular activists. They’re even going after people who are secessionists and at this point it looks very clearly like Yemen is not going to be able to be put back together.

So I mean, the reality is that these areas that have been retaken from the US-backed coalition have not been able to create any kind of functional government that is any better than the other territories. And unfortunately at the end of the day, again it is civilians who have been suffering because of all of this.

Aaron Mate : You know Ben, there are some headlines mad recently about the fact that Saudi Arabia donated $66 million to fight the Yemen cholera epidemic. I won’t even comment on that, and also I want to ask you the figure we have in time so child deaths inside Yemen, is that one child dies there now every ten minutes of preventable illness like cholera. Yet the official death toll that we’ve heard from the UN remains as 10,000. And what I’m wondering is if that death toll takes into account the amount of people who are being killed because of the humanitarian situation that’s been directly caused by the war. Dying from illnesses they can’t be treated for because the bombing has made life so impossible and the infrastructure so devastated.

Ben Norton : Oh, absolutely. And this is a a very important point to underscore. There are very few international observers on the ground inside Yemen. In fact the Saudi-led coalition backed by the US has imposed a blockade on the country. Not only has it been attacking Yemen with more than 90,000 air sorties, it controls its air and water space. So what that means is that the only flights that can go in and out are international aid organizations. Mostly the UN. And even those have been severely restricted. So there are very few journalists, very few observers, and when we look at these figures, they’re all incredible conservative. In January, this is in January of this year, nearly six months ago, the UN estimated that more than 10,000 civilians had been killed in violent deaths. But that is only a small percentage of the overall deaths.

In fact according to the UN, in 2016 more than 63 thousand Yemeni children died from preventable diseases. Mostly from hunger and preventable diseases. And that’s just one year. That’s probably a conservative estimate. This is a war that’s been going for 27 months. The catastrophe, the civilian catastrophe and the toll is unfathomable, and we really only have an idea of a small glimpse of what’s actually happening. I would estimate that in a conservative estimate, very conservative. I would say probably more than 100,000 civilians have died from all these humanitarian causes. Yemen actually has the worst food crisis in the world. I mean Nigeria, and Somalia are on this, and South Sudan, and Yemen are all lumped in the same category but the UN, and Yemen has the worst food crisis, even compared to South Sudan where genocide is ongoing. It’s hard to wrap our minds around what’s been happening, and there’s been very little media attention which has allowed it to happen.

And in response to that, Saudi Arabia of course is carrying out some cynical PR moves. And the donation of $66.7 million dollars by Saudi crown price amount, [inaudible 00:15:29] is complete cynicism and complete public relations. Unfortunately that’s the reality. The reality is also that more than 30,00 Yemeni health workers have been working inside the country without pay for more than ten months. So you have tens of thousands of people who are going without pay, you have international aid organizations like the World Health Organization who are cutting their program for vaccinating against cholera in Yemen, and that one of the main reasons they’re doing that, and this is important to underscore too, is because one they don’t have that much funding. And two, the US is, under President Trump, is significantly decreasing funding for the United Nations and its aid programs. And the US supports about one fifth of those programs, and Trump is cutting that significantly and the US ambassadors Nikki Hayley bragged about it in this kind of macabre, sadistic quote about how the US is saving all this money by cutting support for international aid organizations.

So yes, I mean the Saudi crown prince may throw some pennies at this program, but the reality is that $66.7 million pales in comparison to the more than $100 billion that the Obama administration did in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the additional $110 billion arms deal that Trump just signed with Saudi Arabia. I mean, so Saudi Arabia can’t buy $220 billion in weapons and then donate $66 million and claim that it actually cares about Yemeni lives when it’s using those weapons to continue killing Yemenis.

Aaron Mate : Ben Norton, a reporter with AlterNet Gray Zone Project. Ben, thanks as always.

Ben Norton : Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Aaron Mate : And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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  1. hemeantwell

    Glad to see you’re posting on this horror. That the US is partnering in genocide to prop up an utterly regressive monarchy that has been the source of both ideological inspiration and material support for attacks around the world, including 9/11, shouldn’t surprise me, but I really gag over this. I hope that Moon of Alabama wasn’t just engaging in wishful thinking when he recently forecast regime collapse.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Saudi Arabia is a glorified plantation and nothing more. By monarchy standards, the Sauds are a superfluous lot. The dangers of plantations for the owners apply to the House of Saud. Russia, Iran (Iraq), fracking, and green energy are no different than the threat of the development of the Indian and Egyptian Cotton industries to the Slave South. Slave revolts. The people with guns aren’t in the family.

      The Sauds enjoy the threat of U.S. government retaliation, but a coup government that can guarantee the flow of oil (price isn’t as relevant) with less public beheadings will be preferred. The whole Trumpgasm the Saudis held was to keep Trump from listening to forces that might suggest a coup similar to the one the Sunni officers thought they could pull off in Syria. A few cruise missiles, a few frozen accounts, and some logistical support, and presto the oil shipments flow and there are less beheadings. There are under 5,000 Saudi “princes” who can’t bug out who are not very young and very old. The person on the street would welcome less public beheadings.

  2. Larry

    The world burns while the main action is what stupid thing will Trump Tweet next? Shameful.

  3. sid_finster

    I tell everyone I can about this, and I either get some sheepish response or an attempt to blame the other party when both Trump and Obama are responsible..

    Were to God that I had some way to make my fellow Americans wake the [family blog] up.

  4. Vatch

    It’s truly horrible. People in the U.S. will continue to be manipulated by the theocratic royalists in Saudi Arabia for as long as we are a net importer of petroleum. There is a very strong moral argument in favor of reducing one’s consumption of fossil fuels — it’s not just an environmental issue. For people who drive cars, when it is time to buy a replacement vehicle, please make the fuel mileage one of the most important points to consider. If we use less petroleum, maybe our government will stop being so obsequious towards the Saudi leaders.

  5. Marco

    Thanks Jeri-Lynn. This is why I keep coming back to NC as most leftish sites have degenerated into a state of perpetual ATAT (ALL TRUMP ALL THE TIME). How have American liberals become so hopelessly ignorant at best or deeply calloused at worse regarding our murderous foreign policy?

    1. jo6pac

      True, the lame stream so-called liberal press will not go against their masters that own them and the merchants of death. Money to be earned can’t let this problem of death of others get in the way beside its over there (it’s always over there so they don’t come here) soon or already in Amerika.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I come here for the same reason. An oasis of sanity in the midst of widespread Trump Derangement Syndrome.

  6. Chauncey Gardiner

    Nowhere have I seen any justification of this genocide or how the outcome of this war is critical to the defense of the US or our allies in that region. Given the success of the governments involved in obfuscating this, it is almost like it isn’t even happening. Another remarkable success in neutering the media and carefully negating meaningful public discussion of US geopolitical policy. Seems to tie into the effort to silence al Jazeera.

    1. semiconscious

      they no longer do ‘spin’. there’s just way too much out there, at this point, that’s so twisted that it’s fundamentally spin-proof. what they now do is complete, across-the-board silence…

  7. witters

    I fear the “across the board silence” might reflect the deeplying “there are too many poor people” Malthusianism that appears so often, even, sometimes, here, in the clothes of “environmental concern”. I do hope I’m wrong.

    1. Vatch

      You are quite wrong about this specific issue. People who are concerned about overpopulation don’t want people to die; we want them to have fewer children.

      The silence about this issue has several causes, such as indifference about events that are far away, fears about terrorism, bias against Muslims (even though the Saudis are also Muslims), and compassion fatigue (because there are horrors occurring in so many places).

      The only real problem with classic Malthusianism is that Thomas Robert Malthus, Anglican cleric, was opposed to contraception. Neo-Malthusians, such as Francis Place, were and are enthusiastic supporters of contraception. Birth control can prevent population growth, provided people use it.

      1. Arizona Slim

        I have never had children and didn’t want to. At various times in the past, I have been vilified for this life choice.

        However, things seem to be changing. To other people, my reproductive status isn’t as big of a deal as it was, say, 20 years ago.

      2. witters

        You do know, I supppose, that the logic of the Tragedy of the Commons – despite all Hardin’s Mathusian confusions and prejudices – only requires 2 players?

  8. Lambert Strether

    Yemen’s problem is that they don’t have an adorable English-speaking six-year-old girl with a blue-check Twitter account making their case for them in the Western press. I can’t think why that hasn’t happened.

    1. Johnnygl

      Because al qaeda hasn’t created one, yet.

      Maybe if the russians start backing the houthis and bombing the saudis we’ll start seeing the doctors who tweet all day and the articulate adolescents that are fluent in english???

      Actually, if anyone ever bombed the saudis, the dc crowd would say f- the PR campaign and just go to war overnight. 82nd and 101st airborne divs would show up the next day!!!!

    2. visitor

      Of course, there is Tawakkol Karman, co-recipient of the Nobel prize for peace in 2011. She used to be a prominent figure of the Arab Spring in Yemen.

      Her open hostility to Houthis and sneaky support for the Saudis do not make her very popular in Yemen any longer, and she has almost completely disappeared from Western media.

  9. Eclair

    In my youth, I had a sneaking fondness for the adventure novels of John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir and once Governor General of Canada. His heroes are upstanding English males, minor gentry or sturdy ordinary types who have succeeded through hard work, a sharp brain and the help of a compliant, but worthy, woman.

    “Greenmantle” was one of my favorites; set in Germany and the Middle East during the run up to World War I, it features evil Germans, assorted interchangeable ‘Arabs’ and, of course, the upright English hero who saves the world for the white race.

    A common thread in Buchan’s stories is the Oxford educated, upper class blonde, blue-eyed, fluent speaker of Arabic and all its local variants, who, with a little walnut dye to darken his skin and a few yards of local textiles wrapped around his head and body, passes in Afghanistan, Arabia and the Levant as a native, picking up crucial intelligence in the bazaars and passing it to the English foreign office. (It always puzzled me that these brilliant Oxford linguists would consistently mangle French pronunciation, but had no problem mastering alien Arabic and Farsi). In “Greenmantle,” the long-awaited leader who will unite all the Arabs actually turns out to be said English man. The conclusion being that these swarthy middle eastern types are just too dumb to recognize a white man in brown face and therefore deserve to be patronized and subjected to the might of the British Empire.

    At one point in the novel, after the hero has been outed as a spy in the castle of the brutal German general (but escapes, of course), he, the hero, thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have to deal with a sneaky Arab, opines that the German may be evil, but he is evil in a manly way; he is ‘a white man,’ a worthy opponent.

    There is embedded in the culture, the psyche, the guiding narrative of the British, and their descendants who invaded the North American continent and built our own white supremacist empire, an unshakable belief in the superiority of the white northern european. Coupled with a real aptitude for violence. It has enabled the genocide of the Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans and the on-going destruction of the lands originally inhabited by the Arabian and Persian and Palestinian peoples.

    So, yeah, every ten minutes a Yemeni child dies of completely preventable starvation or cholera, but it’s a brown Arab child. And, yeah, the Saudi regime is run by brutal, misogynistic wastrels who make Russian robber oligarchs look like Sunday School teachers, but they’re sitting on all that petroleum. And, because, they’re only Arabs, we can use them. Like we use attack dogs. Until they outlive their usefulness to their Masters.

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