NEWS is not governed by what happens. News is what happens where journalists are. It is now almost a year since the United Nations first warned that the world’s worst humanitarian crisis was unfolding in war-torn Yemen. But there are few news camera crews in that inhospitable and dangerous country; so the world has largely forgotten the plight of the 24 million people facing famine in a land where four out of five people now depend on food aid to survive (News, 20 November 2020).
The BBC’s courageous foreign correspondent Orla Guerin, and the equally brave cameramen and producer, gave us a stark reminder of all that this week with a shocking report about how primary-school children are being targeted by snipers in the latest sickening development in the six-year conflict. Despite that, there is now some small hope for change.
The war began in 2014 when the Iranian-backed Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and the north of the country, and ousted the government, which was an ally of Saudi Arabia. Yemen became the battleground for a proxy war between the Middle East’s two great powers, Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudis. More than 130,000 people have been killed. Yemen’s economy, roads, hospitals, water, and electricity systems have been devastated. Cholera has broken out. Widespread famine looms.
The UK and the United States have been guilty of fuelling the conflict. Most of the weapons with which the Saudis have bombarded Yemen have been provided by us. During the course of the war, Saudi Arabia became the world’s largest arms importer — with three-quarters coming from the US and 13 per cent from here. The Americans also provided Saudi with intelligence and refuelled its aircraft.
The policy was one of the biggest blunders of the Obama administration. President Obama backed the Saudis in a cynical attempt to appease them after he signed the deal with Iran to lift sanctions if it curbed its nuclear programme. Obama aides now privately admit that this quid pro quo was a big mistake. Indeed, Mr Obama’s Vice-President, Joe Biden, announced in one election debate with Donald Trump that, under a Biden administration, Saudi Arabia would be treated like a “pariah”.
True to his word, President Biden has announced an end to all American support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”. He has appointed a special envoy to Yemen, charged with reviving long-dormant peace talks. And he paused a Trump-authorised $478-million deal for 7500 guided missiles authorised.
But there was a setback to all this last week. Behind the scenes, the US State Department and its National Security Council have begun to wrangle over which parts of US support for Saudi can be described as “offensive” or “defensive”. Saudi Arabia, the hawks remind the doves, remains a big oil-producer and a useful intelligence partner. Things have not been made easier by recent Houthi drone attacks on Saudi planes parked on the tarmac in a Saudi airport.
It is crucial now that President Biden assert his moral authority to come down on the side of millions of defenceless Yemenis. And it is important that Britain, as the junior partner in the supply of arms to the conflict, bolster him in that purpose.