OP-ED: On Yemen, Biden’s policies are no different from Trump

OP-ED: On Yemen, Bidens policies are no different from Trump

Indraneel Pai, Contributor

Image credit: Hedinn Halldorsson via UNICEF USA

Four years ago, VPR writer Sahil Soni wrote about the US’ complicity in the Yemen genocide, a disaster which he–echoing an earlier statement by the UN–dubbed the worst humanitarian crisis since World War 2, before going on to urge then-President Trump to immediately withdraw support for the Saudi Arabia led blockade behind it all. Now, with a new administration underway, it appears that, despite indicating otherwise on the campaign trail, President Biden’s stance on Yemen will be eerily similar to his predecessors.

Yemen, which was already the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula prior to 2015, is now suffering a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The blockade and incursion have resulted in the deaths of over 230,000 civilians, the displacement of another 4 million, and food insecurity for a staggering 50% of the country’s 40 million people.

Like many other countries in the region, Yemen’s government was thrown into disarray in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring protests. Longtime president Ali Abdallah Saleh resigned and was replaced by deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi amidst demonstrations against corruption and poverty by Yemeni citizens. Tensions persisted, however, leading to the rise of the insurgent religious-political Houthi movement in Northern Yemen. The Houthi, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. 

This shift in power was cause for alarm for Yemen’s Sunni-majority neighbors, who quickly coalesced to launch a coordinated aerial bombing campaign and blockade in an effort to restore the Hadi government. Soon after, the Obama administration, under which Joe Biden was vice president, threw its full support behind the Saudi intervention, which officials claimed would last no more than a few weeks. Over 6 years later, the inhumane Saudi incursion and consequent economic strangulation has become an unquestioned fact of life in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

International human rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have dubbed the conflict in Yemen an effective genocide, prompting a number of countries to stop funding arms dealings with Saudi Arabia in protest. However, key international actors, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, have continued supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons. Over 60% of Saudi Arabia’s weapons come from the United States.

Soon after his inauguration, President Biden committed to ending “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” Biden’s actions, however, remain frustratingly stagnant, with the new administration having green-lit the sale of billions of dollars worth of arms negotiated during the Trump era and continuing to provide logistical support to the military coalition in Yemen. Biden’s rhetoric of ending offensive strikes did not specify what military actions qualified as offensive versus defensive, nor has it precluded the US from directly facilitating ongoing strikes in Yemen. Thus far, the administration has yet to provide any evidence on what Biden has done to make good on his promise.

The tacit endorsement of the destruction of Yemen by the most powerful military in the world has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it has emboldened the Saudis to commit horrific acts of direct and indirect violence against Yemeni civilians. Air raids routinely destroy schools and hospitals, and access to steady income or basic services such as clean water, sanitation, or adequate healthcare is almost nonexistent. The blockades–which Saudi officials have erroneously and brazenly claimed do not exist–have only exacerbated the atrocious conditions within Yemen’s borders. Food, oil, and medical supplies are all restricted from entering, despite the fact that Yemen relies mostly on imports for these supplies. As a result, 2.3 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. If the war continues through 2022, it is expected that 80% of the country will be below the poverty line.

The scale of cruelty is unimaginable. Left unchecked, this conflict, directly funded in part by American taxpayers, will invariably lead to the complete eradication of Yemen.

Despite the magnitude of the crisis in Yemen, the global response to the situation remains woefully inadequate. Only a collective 4 billion dollars has been raised toward relief efforts, nowhere near the amount necessary to even begin a semblance of reconstruction, and the paltry amounts that have been raised are stifled by the blockade from reaching afflicted civilians anyway. The UN’s repeated attempts to call for ceasefire have been ignored by the Saudis and Americans alike, rendering the global community effete.

A more hardline stance from the US against the indefinite war in Yemen and refusal to provide military assistance would go a long way in stopping the Saudis from flagrantly violating international law. And within the US, there has been growing chatter about the Yemen genocide among Democratic congresspeople and activists alike, the latter of which have launched hunger strikes in response to Biden’s inaction. Nevertheless, Biden has shown no sign of jeopardizing economic relations with his Saudi allies to assist Yemeni civilians and stabilize the region. 

Unconditional support for Saudi Arabia seems to be a common theme for Biden. In late February, the Biden administration released a report confirming that the Saudi Arabian government was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was a US based Saudi journalist, writer for the Washington Post, and outspoken critic of the Saudi Arabian government who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. In spite of international calls for the Biden administration to hold Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammed Bin Salman accountable, Biden did nothing. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain argued that Washington must “maintain diplomatic relations” and “work with the Saudis to solve problems.” The idea that the Saudis are the problem appears not to have crossed his mind.

Biden’s inaction has made it clear that, Democrat or Republican in office, US foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen will remain largely unchanged. Until the preservation of human rights in the Middle East is valued above financial and geopolitical interests, the US military apparatus–backed by taxpayer dollars–will continue to broadcast on the world stage our unwavering endorsement of the illegal and immoral sins of the Saudi government.