The poorest country in the Arab World is in the midst of what has regularly been described as the worst humanitarian crisis of our times. Since 2015, Yemen has been engulfed in a brutal war that has torn the country apart and crippled its population. A coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council have directed their full military might against Yemen, claiming to defend the “internationally recognised” government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Houthi “rebels”, who they allege are Iranian proxy fighters.
The scale of the Yemeni people’s suffering is incomprehensible to us in the West. Currently, 23 million people are in dire need of aid and assistance. Every ten minutes, a toddler under the age of five dies of preventable causes. Food is perpetually insecure and clean water is a luxury for a select few, meaning that thousands are killed by the devastating cholera outbreaks that erupt regularly.
Considering the intensity of the humanitarian disaster alone, you would imagine Yemen would be the subject of daily news stories, global headlines, round-the-clock coverage. But this isn’t the case. What little we hear about Yemen is often crouched in vague platitudes that evoke our empathy for a few seconds, before shifting on to other issues.
In the few instances where the underlying dynamics of the conflict are discussed, it is framed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran— nothing more than the natural result of regional powers vying for influence. In many cases, the proxy war angle receives a sectarian spin—the conflict becomes a religious battle between the Zaydi Ansar Allah movement (also known as the Houthis) as agents of Iranian Shi’ites against the Sunni Gulf Monarchies. In other cases, the conflict is presented as an internal Yemeni struggle between competing factions, with only the “internationally recognised government” having a legitimate claim over the Yemeni state. Drawing on Orientalist discourses, media pundits paint Yemen as just another case of Middle Eastern instability, another case of the Arabs’ incapacity for discipline, unity and peace—what Edward Said termed “the Arab Mind”. All these media narratives obfuscate the geopolitical and material realities that drive the conflict and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Notions of proxy wars, civil wars and sectarian strife imply a sense of parity between the two sides, leading us to believe that both are equally culpable for the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
But the facts on the ground suggest a narrative entirely different to catchlines repeated in the media. This conflict encompasses a coalition of the most reactionary actors in the region seeking to undermine the democratic will of the Yemeni people. More importantly, our own government and universities (including the University of Sydney) have been complicit in both the subversion of Yemeni political will, and the genocidal war of aggression waged against the population.
Arguably, Saudi aggression is just the latest iteration of Western imperial attempts to dominate Yemen. Indeed, maintaining influence in Yemen is vital for US imperialism, and its subcontractors in the Gulf. This is because the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, off the coast of Yemen, is one of the most important shipping routes in the world— known as the Southern Entrance to the Red Sea. Control of this passage has important geopolitical implications, as it forms a vital link between the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and Asia. More importantly, it is estimated that around 5 million barrels of oil pass through the strait every day. Thus, an independent Yemen would put a limit on the West’s ability to dominate the Strait, endangering the value of the US dollar and vital oil supplies. That is why the Saudis and their Western benefactors have unleashed such extraordinary brutality on the people of Yemen: it’s punishment for the Yemenis’ rejection of foreign incursions on their sovereignty. When the Yemeni people threw in their lot with the Ansarullah insurgency in 2014, rising up against the Saudi puppet government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, they inadvertently signed their own death warrant.
The Government of National Salvation they aligned themselves with, while often painted as nothing more than “Houthi rebels”, is comprised of not only Ansarullah, but a broad coalition of nationalists and communists. To paint the Houthis as Iranian proxies ignores the fact that they have the support of the bulk of the Yemeni state, Yemeni political parties and the mass of the population.
Only last week did international media attention once again acknowledge the severity of Saudi war crimes in Yemen, when a coalition airstrike hit a school bus full of children, killing dozens. The munition used to murder these children was an MK82 Paveway, sold to the Saudi air force by Lockheed Martin. USyd, in collaboration with the Australian Research Council, has provided Lockheed Martin with millions of dollars’ worth of research in the field of fibre optics—technology which was used in the MK82.
Unlawful airstrikes rain down daily, indiscriminately destroying weddings, hospitals and markets, as well as the medical and sanitation infrastructure of the country, including water treatment plants, something that has led directly to the cholera epidemic.
These bombs are being supplied by not only Lockheed Martin, but other USyd-affiliated weapons manufacturers such as BAE Systems and Thales, whose Australian Chairperson is USyd’s Chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson.
Augmenting this hellish air offensive has been the imposition of a cruel naval blockade across the country, under the guise of preventing arms shipments to the Houthis. Instead, everything from medicine to sanitary products have been restricted. In a country that imports 90 per cent of its food supply, the naval blockade has restricted access to even the most basic necessities. The coalition offensive in June of this year against the port city of Hodeidah threatened famine on millions of Yemeni citizens, cutting off the channel through which almost all aid supplies get into the country. The Australian navy, it was revealed, participates in training exercises with Saudi Arabia that guide them in how to more effectively impose blockades such as these.
Far from a factional tussle for control, the conflict in Yemen has, from the very beginning, been an existential struggle for Yemeni sovereignty against a disproportionately larger coalition of self-interested parties. The product of this struggle has been a horrific humanitarian catastrophe, of which the Australian government and institutions like USyd are directly complicit in.