[Conversation] So Goes Hodeida, So Goes Yemen | Harper's Magazine

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The Saudi-led coalition continues its brutal holding pattern of airstrikes, even in the face of the worst famine in one hundred years

As the world’s media is consumed with the unfolding saga of the brutal torture and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi regime, that same regime doggedly pursues a criminal enterprise infinitely crueler in scale. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf allies, has been raining destruction on Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, using weaponry provided by the United States and other western allies. Now, in the latest of a series of apocalyptic warnings, the United Nations reports that fourteen million Yemenis—half the population—are at imminent risk of starvation. This holocaust, it must be emphasized, will not be merely a regrettable byproduct of the Gulf coalition’s war against the Houthi faction that displaced the internationally recognized government, but a deliberate and diligently implemented strategy. A recent report issued by the World Peace Foundation in conjunction with the Fletcher School at Tufts University details evidence that mass starvation has been a priority since early in the war. Farms, flocks, dams, and wells have been relentlessly targeted, which, as the report drily notes, “requires a certain precision in aiming.” Meanwhile, the Yemeni fishing industry has been largely destroyed. Last month, for example, as detailed in the report, an Emirati naval vessel stopped a Yemeni fishing boat in the Red Sea, interrogated the eighteen fishermen on board, and then released them. As the boat sailed away, the gunboat fired a single missile, sinking the boat and killing all but one of the crew.

Yemen now depends on imports through the Red Sea port of Hodeida, controlled by the Houthis since the beginning of the war, for the bulk of its food. Even before coalition ground forces began closing in on the port in June, this vital lifeline had already been attacked—not just by the Saudi bombers that destroyed the port’s cranes, but by a naval blockade endorsed by Western powers which has severely impacted food-bearing ships. As the WPF report’s author, Professor Martha Mundy, bitterly comments, “Were that [Western] support acknowledged … perhaps it would render appeals to these powers for humanitarian aid ring hollow [sic].”

In recent days the assault on Hodeida, which went into a lull over the summer months, has been renewed, such as the twenty-one farmers killed by a Saudi airstrike in an October 24 strike on a vegetable market. Half a million people have fled the fighting, and it seems likely that the Houthis will lose control in the near future. But will this bring an end to the war? For answers that go beyond the (horrifying) headlines, I turned to Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, scion of a distinguished Yemeni family (his uncle was prime minister, and his brother was a cabinet minister until 2011) which has, through several generations, consistently argued for democratic reforms in Yemeni politics. When I last talked to him, in the first year of the war, he had recently been rendered homeless thanks to Saudi bombs which wrecked his home in Sanaa. In that conversation, he explained the war’s background: how the Houthis, in reaction to aggressive Saudi moves against them in their North Yemen heartland, had turned to armed rebellion with increasing success, culminating in their takeover of Sanaa, the capital, and the expulsion of the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. He also discussed the marginal role Iran has played in the conflict, supplying very little material help to the rebels, despite the customary description of the Houthis as “Iranian-backed.” Currently in exile elsewhere in the Middle East, he follows the shifting politics of his homeland with well-informed attention and perceptive analysis. We talked a few days ago when he briefly visited Washington to talk informally with US officials.

We talked early in the war, about the origin of the Houthis’ confrontation with the Saudis. They have been in control of Sanaa and much of Yemen since then. How well have they governed, and what do they hope to gain from the war?

When the Houthis took over the capital, they inherited the institutions of the Yemeni state. Actually, they managed to maintain a higher level of security and state presence in areas under their control than existed in areas nominally under the control of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, which made them popular for a while. However, their leadership, who are essentially feudal chieftains, squandered that political capital by focusing on restoring the aristocratic privileges of their caste, which had been abolished by the republican revolution in 1962. Therefore, they alienated the rest of society and deeply fractured the Yemeni state.

The news from Yemen, when the media bothers to report it, is of course about the atrocities inflicted on ordinary Yemenis. We hear very little of the politics of the war, what each of the parties are trying to achieve.

When the war started, the Saudis wanted to have a flashy military victory to help Mohammed bin Salman in his effort to get to the throne. When that didn’t work out, bin Salman lost interest, and so did any Saudi interest in bringing this war to an end. For a time, they used the conflict in Yemen to mobilize international pressure on Iran, but they didn’t really put much effort into it. Because of the way the Saudi system is so centralized, only bin Salman could give the order to stop it, and since he had lost interest in Yemen, the war just kept going on by itself.

So, what took over from the political leadership was the war economy. Arms dealers on both sides are making money. On the Houthi side, there is Fares Mana’a, one of the biggest arms dealers in the Middle East. He was a partner, as it happens, of the famous arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and inherited his network. He has supplied many conflicts, and now he is a senior member of the Houthi government.

On the Yemeni side, the war economy goes all the way to the top. Not so on the Saudi side, where profits from the war economy do not go all the way; those at the top are not interested, because the Yemen war is small-fry in the scheme of the Saudi armament program. The weapons they use in Yemen are old ordinance, which they would have destroyed anyway. The smart bombs that they use in Yemen cost a couple billion dollars. Most of the cost of the war is incurred at the operational level, so it does not feed to the top. That is why breaking the vicious cycle of the war economy will have to come from the Saudi leadership, since they have no personal financial interest in the war.

Would you say that, for the Saudis, the war is in kind of a holding pattern?

Basically, they don’t want it to stop, at least not until they have achieved their aims. And that brings us to the specific objective that the Saudis have entertained for many decades, of having access to the open sea, to ship oil directly to the Indian Ocean and avoid having to use the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, where they feel threatened by Iran. It’s just something they have tried over and over again in past decades. They negotiated that with [former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh, off and on in the ’90s and early 2000s. They wanted a corridor to the sea, but they insisted on sovereignty over the area of the corridor. Saleh, of course, couldn’t grant them that—Yemeni politics and Yemen’s constitution did not permit it. To get that access on their own terms, the Saudis will need to change international borders. You can change international borders when a country is in a state of flux and instability, but once there is an international agreement to bring an end to the war, the borders will become unchangeable again.

Meanwhile, the Emiratis are impatient to bring this war to an end. They are opposed to this Saudi scheme. So, their objective is very clear: either to restore Yemen as one unified country and protect it from disintegrating, or, if that should fail, to restore an independent state in South Yemen and maintain its territorial integrity. In particular, they don’t want the Saudis to have the corridor. And, of course, Americans don’t want them to have the corridor.

Why not?

So long as the Saudis have to ship their oil through the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, they need the protection, the security guarantee, of the Americans. But if they can send their oil through pipelines across Yemen directly into the Indian Ocean, far from any danger of Iranian interference, they won’t need the United States, so US influence on the Saudis will be weaker, which the Americans obviously don’t want. Loss of American influence on the Saudis makes the Gulf states nervous that an uncontrolled Saudi Arabia might be too hegemonic, seeking to dominate them.

So, the Emiratis are trying to bring this conflict to an end, and the United States is in support of that. In the coalition’s division of labor as regards the ground fighting in Yemen, the Emiratis take care of the South and Saudi Arabia takes care of the North. In the past two years, there has been very little advance in the Northern front because, as I said, the Saudis have decided to keep the conflict in a holding pattern. Meanwhile, this year the Emiratis decided to start moving forward on the west coast of Yemen, using their own forces and those of their Yemeni allies. So, while the Saudi forces have not advanced more than fifteen kilometers down the west coast from the Saudi border in three and a half years, the forces supported by the Emirates have moved three-hundred-plus kilometers.

In June, they got to the southern outskirts of Hodeida. Then, they called a halt because of the risk of a humanitarian disaster. There was pressure, including from the United States, to slow down and see if the Saudis could reach an agreement to spare the city of Hodeida and its port. Seeing as no agreement was reached, I think that the Emiratis, with the Americans behind them, have now chosen to go for the nuclear option.

Which is?

Which is to go to Hodeida, despite the fact that it will cost tens of thousands of lives. It will close the port, which provides seventy percent of the food supply for the people of Yemen. And the Emiratis believe it will have the same effect as the Hiroshima bomb: it will kill a lot of people, but it will bring a quicker end to the war. This massive humanitarian disaster will bring international pressure to bear on Saudi Arabia to end the war, which would require them giving some concessions to Houthis. Now, what is sad about this is that tens of thousands of people will die and hundreds of thousands will starve, when in fact it would be just as easy to have talks about ending this conflict.

So, how is the situation now in Hodeida? Is the port functioning? Is food getting through now?

Yeah, the port is still functioning. But when the fighting heats up, it will quite certainly be shut down. Already, the situation there is very bad. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the city and are starving in the countryside. A hundred starving and emaciated children are being brought to Al Salakhana hospital each day. If the attack goes on, tens of thousands of people will die. The argument everyone makes is that, if the Houthis lose Hodeida, this will bring them to the table. This is far from the truth. They will lose Hodeida. They will no longer be operating the port and getting revenue from it. But they will continue fighting, so that the other side will not take Hodeida. Once the port of Hodeida closes, it will remain closed until the end of the war. The Houthis have been indicating that they are looking forward to Hodeida being closed, because it will make it impossible for the war to continue afterwards.

How so?

They think the humanitarian disaster that will come with closing Hodeida will force the Saudis to make peace, because there will be international pressure on them to bring this war to an end, to compromise by giving some concessions to the Houthis. So the Houthis feel that the best time to negotiate would be after Hodeida, and they are not concerned. They do not consider the loss of Hodeida to be a loss to them. To the contrary, it strengthens their negotiating position. The loss of revenue will be insignificant. Furthermore, as people starve, it could be much easier for them to recruit soldiers among the poor tribal youth.

Do you think their assumption is correct, that it would improve their negotiating position?

Actually, I think it would. I think that Emiratis know this as well. The Emiratis have claimed repeatedly that the attack on Hodeida is going to be a surgical operation, and civilians will not be harmed, that the port will open two weeks after the fighting ends, and that they have secured the port. They know that in reality, all of this is nonsense. The status quo will not be broken in favor of the Saudi coalition. It will change in favor of the Houthis. The Emiratis think it’s a worthwhile risk because it brings this conflict to an end. I think the Americans are also in support of that. Everyone knows that the humanitarian costs will be massive, and all of them are willing to accept that cost. So the status quo will change in favor of the Houthis, rather than in favor of the coalition.

It seems that the Emiratis have a lot of differences with the Saudis. For example, it has recently been reported that the Emiratis were paying American mercenaries to murder members of the Saudi-backed Islah party. What does this signify to you?

War by proxy between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates keeps erupting in Yemen every now and then. If this pattern continues, the countries will eventually clash directly.

We hear a lot about the Iranians supporting the Houthis. How significant is that?

It has been exaggerated. They train some Houthi young men in Iran, or send them to southern Lebanon to be trained by Hezbollah. But most importantly, they donate petroleum products to the Houthis. These supplies are shipped from Sharjah, in the Gulf. The Houthis then sell this fuel inside Yemen and use the money to buy weapons. They don’t get the weapons from Iran, but buy them on the international marketplace.

How can anyone afford to buy the fuel in Yemen?

Oh, there’s a lot of money in the hands of war merchants, commanders, politicians, and Houthi commanders. On the Houthi side, most of the state revenues are directed to the war effort, enriching a Houthi aristocracy. They don’t bother to pay salaries of teachers, doctors, and other government workers, or to supply the hospitals. On the side of the internationally recognized government, the Saudis are financing both the war effort and a corrupt elite.

How do you think the Jamal Khashoggi scandal will affect things in Yemen?

Actually, this could have a very positive effect. Mohammed bin Salman could offer some concessions to the Houthis that would end the war. If he were to do this, he could earn enough kudos to get out of the jam he’s in. Maybe he will have the sense to seize the opportunity.

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