Yemen: The forgotten war


In late March of this year, the United Nations brokered a two-month truce between, on one side, Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government, and, on the other, the Houthi-led movement that has been the backbone of the resistance to Saudi-imperialist aggression. The ceasefire, recently extended, is a ray of hope for a Yemeni people that has suffered the double tragedy of seeing their country devastated by a brutal attack by an imperialist-backed reactionary regime, and watching the world generally forget about the conflict.

Since 2015, a Saudi-led bombardment and blockade has ravaged what is one of the Middle East’s and North Africa’s (MENA) poorest countries.[1] The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have supported the Saudi side, making this an imperialist proxy war in pursuit of profits, in particular for the military-industrial, oil, and culture industry sectors. On the other side, Iran, albeit reluctantly, has been supporting the Houthi side.

Yemen is consequently experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since what Yemenis call “the Saudi-American war” began, more than 370,000 people have died, according to the UN Development Programme. Sixty percent of these deaths are from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, and health services. This has also rightly been called “the forgotten war.” Bourgeois media organs such as the New York Times, the Guardian, etc. daily run numerous above the fold articles on Ukraine. By contrast, it is truly challenging to find up-to-date pieces in the same press on Yemen (or Palestine or any of the other devastation zones of Western imperialism). As revolutionary Marxists, we consider the aggressions against both the Ukrainian and Yemeni people to be mass crimes of the capitalist class. The loss of Yemeni lives is equally grievable to that of Ukrainian ones.

The ceasefire deal is cause for guarded optimism on the part of Yemenis: at least for the time being, the bombs will stop falling and the blockade, albeit modestly, will end. It calls for a halt of all offensive military air, ground, and maritime operations inside Yemen and across its borders, allows fuel ships to enter Hodeidah’s port as well as, albeit in a limited way, commercial flights in and out of the capital, San’a’s, airport. The Saudis have pressured the official, though questionably legitimate, president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to step down and hand power to a transition council.

Geographic and historical background

The Bab al Mandab strait, separating Western Asia from East Africa, the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, constitutes Yemen’s southwestern littoral. It is a strategic choke point of global importance, the point along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean where a large portion of global oil supply passes. This has made Yemen the site of struggle between Western imperialism and Iranian regional hegemony, with the latter increasing in confidence after the defeats of U.S. imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

The regime in Riyadh has been ruled by the reactionary Al Saud monarchy since the 1930s. With the exception of the mid 1950s to early 1960s, when it came under the rule of Saud bin Abd al Aziz, who had anticolonialist and Arab nationalist sympathies (he was ousted in a Washington-backed palace coup by his right-wing brother and successor, Faisal), the Saudi regime has been for decades a stalwart vehicle of reaction in the MENA. As it did to its own left and progressive currents historically, it crushed the 2011 Arab Spring revolutionary process both with tanks (Bahrain) and through political support of reactionary capitalist regimes (Egypt). In Yemen, which itself experienced mass uprisings in 2011-2012, the Saudis have used both force and political influence.

The Saudi monarchy is often stereotyped as theocratic, subscribing to the conservative offshoot of Sunni Islam known as “Wahhabism.” This is an orientalist phrase not used locally. he Arabic term is al-Salafiyya or “Salafism,” which refers to the supposed ethos of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions. It is more accurate to say that the Saudi state is in most respects not unlike most secular, modern states insofar as it seeks to control the boundary between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” expressions of public religiosity. One of its most (in)famous violent repressions, for example, was against self-identified Salafists who occupied Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. They accused the monarchy of betraying Muslims and cosying up to the West (not inaccurately, it should be said). The regime continues to repress versions of Salafism—which run the political gamut from more quietist to more politicized, more reactionary to more liberal/democratic—that refuse to offer it fealty. Often this is done to expand and deepen sectors of Saudi monopoly capital, such as real estate.

What is undeniable is that the Saudi regime considers Shi‘a Islam to be an apostasy. It represses, in ways not unlike those experienced by racialized minority groups in the West, the large Saudi Shi‘a minority and views Shi‘a-majority Iran as a mortal enemy. Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, this regime has enjoyed the patronage of the U.S., the UK, and France.

The Houthis, who call themselves “Ansar Allah,” partisans of God, subscribe to the Zaydi offshoot of Shi‘a Islam, a version that is theologically close to Sunni Islam. Viewing the mountainous north of Yemen as their cultural homeland, they trace their roots to Zayd, the great grandson of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son in law. In the 1990s, Zaydis under the leadership of a clan leader named Hussein al Houthi began resisting then dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they criticized as a puppet of the United States and Saudi Arabia. This critique became especially sharp after the U.S. declared its “War on Terror” in the early 2000s. It was at this time that the “Ansar Allah” emerged as an organized political and militant tendency. By 2010, tens of thousands of Yemenis had joined the Houthis.

Saleh, a consummate opportunist, went from modest means to the presidency of the Yemen Arab Republic (aka North Yemen) from 1978 to 1990. With the collapse of the USSR, the two Yemens—YAR and the formerly USSR-aligned PDR, or South Yemen—reunited for the first time since 1967. Saleh would continue as president of the reunited Republic of Yemen until his ouster in 2012. As skillful at bureaucratic maneuvering as he was unprincipled, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez Asad, he did not come from wealth or a notable family. Instead he secured his base within his own tribe and maneuvered through the military to secure, by the mid-1970s, a post as colonel in the YAR military and a military governorship in the coastal province of Ta’izz, western Yemen. After 1990, he aligned with the West and in particular sought Western patronage during the “War on Terror.” Like Hussein, Asad, and Ghaddhafi, he built a patronage system with his family at the top. It was these patronage connections built over decades that helped him maintain a base of power even after his ouster and made him, if temporarily, a valuable ally of the Houthis.

From the Arab uprisings to the Saudi invasion

In Yemen, mass protests during the Arab uprisings of 2011 forced Saleh from power. A Saudi-led coalition subsequently pressured him to relinquish power in favor of their proxy, Saleh’s vice president, Hadi. The latter assumed the presidency after running unopposed in 2012. The Houthis, along with southern separatists—both groups marginalized by Saleh—boycotted the election.

Saleh subsequently allied with the Houthis. His support helped them seize much of the north and west of the country. In 2015, Hadi, by then president in name only and having retreated to Aden in the south, asked the Saudis to intervene. The Saudi intervention—impossible, it should be noted, without U.S. arms, funding, and logistical support—was affirmed by a UN security council resolution 2216, which laid the blame for the conflict solely on the Houthis, helping to perpetuate the conflict (the Saudis would henceforth continually justify their aggressions by referring to 2216).

By 2015 Yemen had been plunged into a grave humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the presence of the al-Qaeda and Islamic State jihadist groups. The Houthi coalition would have probably overtaken all of Yemen by early 2015, had Obama not greenlighted the Saudi invasion to secure their acquiescence to the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPA). By 2017, Houthi-Saleh relations had deteriorated. The former accused Saleh of secret dealings with the Saudis and Emiratis and assassinated him in December of that year.

In February 2021, much to Saudi chagrin, Biden removed the Houthis from the U.S. “terror” list and ended support for Saudi “offensive operations,” while still approving hundreds of millions in “defensive” weapons.

A charnel house created by imperialism

Even before the Saudi-American war, Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the MENA. The war has resulted in unmitigated disaster for the over 30 million Yemeni people. In March of this year, Unicef reported that well over half the population, 17.4 million people, were in need of food assistance. This may reach up to 19 million in the second half of 2022. About 2.2 million children and 1.3 million pregnant or nursing mothers are acutely malnourished. The conflict, with its blockades and the currency devaluation that resulted from it, along with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have led to skyrocketing food prices. Yemen imports almost all its food; 28 percent of its wheat comes from Ukraine and seven percent from Russia. Further, 12.9 million children require humanitarian assistance, 2 million have been driven out of school, and 2 million have been internally displaced. As Tariq Ali has written, Yemen is experiencing “cholera and hunger on a scale that has not been seen since the last century.”

Why a ceasefire now?

What prompted this recent ceasefire? There are, politically, two main, related, reasons: the crisis of U.S. imperialism and, thus, of the Saudi project of regional hegemony; and, relatedly, openings for Iran and, consequently, Houthi military and political successes.

First, it was clear by summer 2021 that the Houthis had defeated the Saudis. The Houthis had always enjoyed more legitimacy in the eyes of the masses than the U.S.- Saudi puppets Saleh and Hadi. They developed a reputation as defenders of Yemeni sovereignty against Saudi Arabia. While the carnage visited by U.S.-Saudi bombs and planes on Yemen is undeniable, the Houthis too inflicted devastating damage to Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) military, which was “designed for show rather than battle” (Tariq Ali).

UN Security Council Resolution 2216 defined the Houthis as responsible for the conflict and established the system of blockages to prevent Iran from sending weapons to the Houthis. Iranian smuggling was, in turn, used by Saudis as pretext for their punishing blockade. Resolution 2216 also demanded that the Houthis relinquish their weapons and territorial gains. Conditions on the ground in 2021-2022—with the Houthis having essentially laid waste to Saudi arms in the north and with southern separatist groups, some supported by the UAE, making inroads in the south—made 2216 outdated.

It also seems that, while Obama gave his approval to the Saudi aggression, Washington came to recognize that MBS was more a liability than an asset. Biden wants to have it both ways—revive the Iran nuclear deal process torpedoed by Trump while also maintaining arms sales, under the transparently hypocritical banner of “defensive weaponry,” to the Saudis and other Gulf clients. The absence of Trump, a virulent supporter of MBS, helped open space for a more balanced (a distinctly relative term) approach by the U.S. Congressional pushback on the Yemen war, in the form of a recent Yemen War Powers Resolution launched by progressive Democrats, indicates fissures within the U.S. regime on the Yemen question.

Second, with U.S. imperialism subjected to devastating blows in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran gained confidence and began to more assertively support the Houthis. This has, crucially, helped the Houthis develop their military capacities. They recently launched drone strikes on Abu Dhabi and missiles into Saudi Arabia, and set off explosives in Jeddah oilfields. The Emiratis and MBS depend for their regional “soft power” on cultivating an image of pro-Western, business-friendly “stability.” Aerial weapons over Abu Dhabi and Jeddah would puncture that, dealing a severe blow to the value of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to global rentier capitalism (real estate, tourism, and finance in particular).[2] It was shortly after these events that the Saudis agreed to talks with the Houthis.

U.S. military-industrial complex in a multipolar world

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the situation facing U.S. imperialism more complex. The U.S. calculated that supporting the Saudis and UAE would bring them closer to Washington and away from Moscow and Beijing. However, the GCC states want to hedge their bets, staying as close as possible to Russia and China, on the one side, and to the U.S. on the other.

Other recent developments, however, indicate that U.S. hegemony, cultivated for over eight decades in the region, is waning. For example, the GCC foreign ministers traveled to Beijing in January 2022, a meeting at which Saudi ministers discussed the possibility of pricing some of their oil in Yuan rather than U.S. dollars. In March, when Biden banned Russian oil imports, Saudi Arabia and the UAE refused to take calls with him but accepted one with Putin. This month, Biden will travel to Riyadh to rebuild ruptured bridges with MBS, hoping that the Saudis will save his bacon in the midterms by increasing oil output now that Russian oil has been sanctioned.

Major beneficiaries of U.S. and UK support of the Saudis have been Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, DynCorp, and cluster-bomb maker Textron, along with consultancy and publicity firms hoovering up multimillions in contracts to to create a positive image for MBS. U.S. arms sales to the GCC are a bipartisan and hugely profitable enterprise. It was under Obama, for example, that arms sales to the Saudis exploded, to the tune of $117 billion.

This was particularly so after the 2011 Arab uprisings, when the Al Saud and other Arab monarchies feared they would be overthrown. Sales spiked again in 2015, following the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The Saudis have used many of the weapons they bought from the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 in Yemen. Surprisingly, new arms sales decreased during the Trump years, in spite of Trump’s even more (than Obama) vigorous support of the Saudi monarchy. But it was during Trump’s presidency that sales of weapons to the UAE increased. This happened after the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel in late 2020 under the Abraham Accords, imposed by the U.S. to fracture Arab states’ solidarity with Palestine. That year, the U.S. made $23 billion in weapons sales to the UAE, including F–35 aircraft and MQ–9 drones. Biden’s claims to “holding Saudi Arabia accountable” to the contrary, U.S. continues its military support, as Washington nervously seeks to keep the GCC out of China’s and Russia’s orbits.

Tasks of socialists in the imperialist countries

Biden will travel this month to Riyadh to meet MBS to rebuild the U.S.-Saudi relationship. At the beginning of his term he promised to “make a pariah” out of Saudi Arabia for their role in the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He is now praising the Saudis for their “courage” in implementing the current ceasefire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken articulated a return to eight decades of bipartisan U.S. policy and vowed to continue the Trump era Abraham Accords policy, normalizing relations between U.S.-aligned Arab regimes and Israel, for which Saudi Arabia “remains the elusive target.”

The barbarism inflicted by Saudi-American weapons on Yemen over the past seven years may take new, less extremely violent, forms in the new phase of U.S.-Saudi reconciliation. But the Yemeni people and their homeland, a continuous culture of Arab, African, and Indian Ocean cultures going back millenia, are still largely isolated and expendable. As the medieval French saying goes, isolated humans are but fodder for wolves. The wolves today take the form of Western and Saudi capitalists, the weapons manufacturers, logistics monopolists, and real estate concerns. The task of socialists in the imperialist countries, the United States, UK, France, etc. is not only to relentlessly pressure their own governments to end arms shipments and aid to the GCC. The war on Yemen is, more deeply, a symptom of imperialism in crisis.

Ending such wars can best be done not by putting our trust in bourgeois parties or governments, least of all the Democrats or Republicans in the United States. Instead, we must put our faith in working-class solutions. Dock workers in the South Africa who have refused to offload Israeli ships offer a model of this internationalist working class solidarity. Working-class organizations should also call for a definitive end to the attacks on Yemen, for restitution to its people for the sufferings they have endured over the past seven years, and for an end to all imperialist wars. This can be done by calling for and building anti-imperialist united fronts of working class parties and organizations such as unions, workers’ centers, etc.

Ultimately, healing the morbid symptoms churned out by this sick economic system will require a totally new society, based on international cooperation rather than imperialist competition, on human need rather than exploitation. Only a revolutionary movement of the working class, enacting international solidarity—both in the imperialist countries and in the colonized, but above all in the imperialist—can abolish the system of exploitation, which inevitably leads to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Photo: A man carries a young girl wounded in Saudi bombing of San’a in 2017. (Khaled Abdulla / Reuters)


[1] The Saudi coalition is comprised, along with Saudi Arabia, of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Senegal, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain; formerly, Morocco, Qatar, and Sudan took part.

[2] The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the security and economic alliance between the oil-rich Gulf Arab states. The members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.


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