Acts of Empire: Yemen’s Hell on Earth- Made in the USA

Destroyed house in the south of Sana’a, December 2015

In May 2020, UNICEF reported: “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children. Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the country has become a living hell for the country’s children.” This hell on earth has been caused by a deadly and devastating bombing campaign and the resulting destruction of civilian infrastructure. The political and military leadership of this heinous war has come from Saudi Arabia, but the war on Yemen would not be possible without arms and political support from the United States.

Yemen is a country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula with a history of human habitation going as far back as 5000 BCE. Yemen was divided into a northern and southern region by various colonial powers, including the Ottoman and British empires, and emerged from colonialism as two sovereign states until their unification in 1990. Yemen was an early target of the so-called war on terror: US special forces landed in Yemen in 2002, and since then the US has carried out at least 336 drone strikes in Yemen. In 2011, the Obama administration authorized a drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen. His 16-year-old son was killed the next month in a drone strike while seeking out information on his father.

The Saudi-US war on Yemen began in 2015, after northern Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis seized the capital city of Sana’a. While the internal and external power relations within Yemen are complicated, it’s clear that from day one that the Saudi war had nothing to do with ensuring democracy in Yemen or the interests of the Yemeni people. Instead, the devastation unleashed on Yemen is about ensuring that the Saudi monarchy (a leading US ally and exporter of oil) can maintain its hegemonic role in the region against perceived threats from Iran. For the US empire, the war on Yemen is crucial to preserving the hegemony of the Saudi regime and maintaining access to the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait (where 6.2 million barrels of oil pass through each day), particularly as China built its first overseas military base across the strait in Djibouti in 2016. 

Since 2015, Yemen has been blockaded by air, water, and land. The blockade, in conjunction with the aerial bombardment, is responsible for the humanitarian disaster unleashed on the Yemeni people. The raw number of deaths in Yemen is staggering: over 100,000 people have been killed in the bombings themselves. At least another 100,000 people have starved to death. The destruction of infrastructure has been so complete that Yemen suffers from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times (cholera is caused by human feces contaminating drinking water). In addition to cholera, the people of Yemen suffer from polio, H1N1, and dengue fever, and are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the lack of sanitation and medical facilities.

Before the blockade and bombing, Yemen was considered the poorest country in the region. It is now on track to become the poorest country in the whole world by 2022. The war has been particularly cruel to the children of Yemen: 2 million children under 5 are malnourished, and an estimated 12 million are in need of humanitarian relief. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the stunning brutality towards the children of Yemen than the August 9, 2018 school bus bombing: 40 boys between the ages of 6 and 11 were massacred when a Saudi warplane dropped a US-made bomb on their school bus. 

While ostensibly carried out by a coalition headed by the Saudi monarchy, the devastation and destruction of Yemen, the slaughter of children, and the return of long-eradicated diseases would not be possible without the political and military support of the United States. After carrying out hundreds of drone strikes in Yemen, the Obama administration politically and militarily supported the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade from its initiation in 2015 all the way through the end of Obama’s tenure (without ever seeking authorization from the US Congress), even as it became clear that the intervention was a murderous disaster. A full year and half into the war, Obama facilitated a $115 billion dollar arms and training deal to Saudi Arabia.

2018 protest against the war on Yemen. The Lockheed Martin bomb to was used in the bombing of the school bus.

From 2015 until 2018, the US went so far as to refuel Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) planes in mid-air, directly facilitating the criminal bombing campaign. The Trump government did not end that program until they were forced to make some cosmetic changes in the wake of the brutal murder and dismemberment of Jamel Kashoogi by Saudi assassins (and after Saudi Arabia developed mid-air refueling technology on its own). Trump himself, while occasionally claiming to oppose permanent war, facilitated and boasted about his own $110 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and vetoed a 2019 War Powers Act resolution to end US support for the war on Yemen. For all the personality differences between Obama and Trump, they have both steadfastly participated in the devastation in Yemen and in ensuring the steady flow of arms to the Saudi monarchy that uses them to dismember children. 

A Yemeni child standing in the rubble of destroyed buildings in the southwestern city of Lahj, 2018.

For decades, the US empire has staked a claim to the Middle East and North Africa, maintaining its global dominance through control of the strategically crucial trade routes and oil production. In the wake of the devastation and strategic failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the US has turned to a strategy of militarily supporting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel in a desperate attempt to remain hegemonic in the Middle East and prevent Russia and Iran from gaining more influence. The simple fact is, whatever policy divergences the US and the Saudi-led coalition might have, they are waging this murderous war together, in service of continued US dominance of the region. While the Saudis are carrying out the slaughter, the US is training and equipping their troops, assisting with targeting, maintaining the aircraft, and even assisting the ground war with special forces on the border. In its desperate attempt to maintain global hegemony and keep control of a strategically important region, the US empire has created a living hell for the people of Yemen. 

During two radically different presidential administrations, the US empire has made everyone who lives in the United States complicit with the towering crimes committed in Yemen: from the devastation of a cholera outbreak; to the bombing of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, school buses, and coronavirus quarantine sites; to the mass displacement of millions of people; to the starvation of hundreds of thousands. These outrageous atrocities will continue to be perpetrated on the people of Yemen, and on people all around the world, until people in the US refuse to be complicit with, resist, and stop the US war machine. 

Sources: Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2013); Shireen Al-Adeimi:; United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); World Health Organization (WHO); Al Jazeera; In These Times; Reuters; The Bureau of Investigative Journalists; The Guardian; The Intercept.

In Yemen with a population of 30 million:

  • 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line
  • 20 million people are food insecure
  • 10 million people are on the verge of starvation 
  • 17.8 million lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation 
  • 3.65 million people have been displaced
  • 70 hospitals and health facilities have been bombed 
  • 1,500 schools have been damaged or destroyed 

(Statistics current as of September, 2020)