Current Affairs

Shireen Al-Adeimi on the U.S.-Backed War in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen is complex, but some things are clearer than you’d think.

The U.S.-backed war in Yemen has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—yet most people in the West know nothing about it. How did the war start? Who is involved? What are they fighting over, and what is the human cost? On the Current Affairs podcast, contributing editor Eli Massey interviewed Yemeni-born Professor Shireen Al-Adeimi to find out. This transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Eli Massey 

Hello, Current Affairs listeners. This is contributing editor Eli Massy and we have a very special guest today. We are joined by Shireen Al-Adeimi. Hello Shireen. 

Shireen Al-Adeimi

Hi. 

EM 

Shireen is an assistant professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Teacher Education, and since 2015 she has been active in working to raise awareness about the war in Yemen and bringing an end to U.S. involvement. Thank you so much for joining us. 

SA 

Thanks for having me, Eli. 

EM 

Of course. So, I just first want to start by finding out how you first got involved in advocacy around the war in Yemen. You were actually born in Yemen, do I have that right? 

SA

Yes, I was born in Yemen and moved out of Yemen when I was 12. My family moved to Canada. When the war started in 2015, I was a doctoral student and I wasn’t politically involved before then. But I guess when the war started I felt like there weren’t that many people who were, first of all, speaking out against the war. It was still something that was very rarely discussed. Additionally, there weren’t a lot of people who were highlighting the role of the United States, and even though I wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time, I was living here in the U.S. I had been living here for many years and I felt like it was really up to us to shed light on this issue if people weren’t going to be speaking about this or even know that the U.S. was involved. It didn’t register as a U.S. war in Yemen. So, I created a Twitter account the day that the war began just to learn more. I remember a cousin once telling me that if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, join Twitter. So, I created an account that day and then I was just kind of learning, familiarizing myself with the conflict in Yemen. I had kind of been disconnected from Yemeni politics for a while. Then, once I found like I could begin advocating I started a petition and that’s how it started. 

EM 

Do you still have family in Yemen or everyone has left? 

SA 

No, I still have my extended family. Many of them are still in Yemen: uncles, aunts, cousins. 

EM 

I hope they are staying safe. Where in Yemen is your family from?

SA

Originally we’re from Taiz, which is a frontline of the war. But I was born and raised in the southern city of Aden, and I have family members in Taiz, Aden, as well as the capital Sana’a and Hudaida. 

EM 

OK, and the last time you traveled to Yemen—when was that?

SA 

This time in the end of 2003 and beginning of 2004. I was there for a cousin’s wedding and never managed to come back. 

EM 

OK. Well, thank you for sharing all of that. I think for most Americans—if they know anything about Yemen—it’s a war zone in their mind. So I wanted to take a second and talk a bit about the country, and please feel free to correct or supplement anything I am saying. Yemen is a country of about 30 million people, relatively mountainous. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East. Delicious food. I’ve never been to Yemen, but I lived in Cairo for a bit and I went to a Yemeni restaurant with some Yemeni friends and it was wonderful. I remember particularly enjoying this dessert, which I’ve heard go by a couple of different names, whether it’s malikia or masoob, which is like banana and honey and cheese and dates and bread. It’s delicious, anyway. Before we delve into the history and politics and more recent events, what should people know about Yemen?

SA

That’s an interesting question. For me, it’s home, right? I’ve lived in many places. I spent my childhood between Yemen and India. Relatively speaking, I didn’t spend too much time in Yemen, but it still feels like the closest place to my heart. The best feature of Yemen, I would say, are the Yemenis themselves. If you’ve ever had Yemeni friends or if you come across Yemenis in Yemen, the hospitality is remarkable, the people are very generous and hospitable. The food, of course, is great and quite unique. It’s not like other Arab food. People say, “Oh, you know you must be used to hummus and shwarma.” I’m like, “No, that’s new to me.” That’s not Yemeni food at all. I didn’t have that until I moved to Canada. But Yemeni food is also influenced by East African cuisine because of Yemen’s location, and Indian cuisine. You have a lot of people of Indian heritage and East African heritage in Yemen. So, it’s very unique. Also, each region is different. Northern Yemeni food—I find it fascinating I don’t know how to cook northern Yemini food. Southern Yemini food is totally different. Also, for people who like coffee, including myself, people should know that we were the first to brew a cup of coffee. 

EM 

Yeah, terrific coffee. 

SA 

Mocha is a place in Yemen where coffee [is] exported from. 

EM 

That’s a good fun fact. OK, so, you just hinted at this a little bit, but I wanted to contextualize the war a bit. Then we can dive into how it began. But until 1990, North and South Yemen were two separate countries. The south was socialist, and there was a civil war in 1994. So, I want to start there. How much of the present-day grievances do you think can be traced back to the 1994 civil war?

SA

The 1994 civil war, I think, was a defining war. Some of what’s happening right now is related to that. [There] is currently a group in South Yemen called the STC [Southern Transitional Council]…. and they seem to have formed some kind of unity government with the recognized government of Yemen, but we can get into that. This [alliance] is brand new news for today. But there is a group that is trying to secede from the North, and the grievances began in the 1990s. So some of what’s happening today is related to that. But yes, Yemen was two separate countries. 

Historically [there] was one larger Yemen, and then of course the British and the Ottomans came along. [The] Ottomans occupied part of North Yemen and the British occupied Southern Yemen for 129 years. So, when the South gained independence from the British in the 1960s, the Northerners also had staged revolutions against their king and became a republic. And then talk of forming a united Yemen began. 

People in my parents’ generation talk about the interest in having the two parts of the country united, [which] was always something that the people of Yemen had hoped for. But by [the time reunification was possible], a lot had changed. The culture was influenced in very different ways. The South was a very different place than the North. [After] the British left the South, like you said, the South became a Marxist government. [The] systems were completely different. So, uniting those two countries happened a little too prematurely, I would say. 

Talks began in 1989 as the Soviet Union—which was the biggest backer of the South—was collapsing. The South felt like they could unite with the North to gain some influence and be stronger, but it wasn’t well thought out. Within just four years the South decided that it wanted to secede from the North and they declared independence. I remember this very clearly because I was living through it. I was 10 years old at the time, and then all of a sudden, we had war. 

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was the president of North Yemen and [later] became the president of a [united] Yemen, declared war on the South when they declared independence from the North. It was a summer war, very bloody but very decisively [it] kind of forced the South back into unity with the North. So, many people in the South still feel [a] grievance about that and still feel like they want a divided Yemen. 

EM 

OK, you mentioned President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and I wanted to talk about the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Yesterday was the 10-year anniversary of the event that set off these uprisings across the Middle East. A fruit seller in Tunisia set himself on fire after being harassed by police and bureaucrats while trying to sell fruit. What happened in Yemen? 

SA 

Wow, it’s been 10 years already. So, January of 2011 is when the protests in Yemen started and many people including myself never really saw Saleh ever leaving his office. You mentioned Yemen was the poorest country and still the poorest country in the Middle East and is now among the poorest in the world. But Saleh was a very wealthy man, and there is no hiding [and] no denying his corruption. So, as Yemenis were starving and struggling on $2 a day, this man was building wealth for himself and his family and his allies. 

[Every] few years he gave people the impression of democracy, and so there were elections that he would win with 99 percent of the vote. [But] Yemen is unique in that sense that it’s not like its Gulf neighbors. It’s not a monarchy. It’s not a sultanate. It’s not an emirate. [There’s] this spirit of revolution and democracy. And so, people began to demand [democracy] when they saw that [protests] seemed to be successful in Tunisia and in Egypt. People went out in the streets in Sana’a and many parts of Yemen and began demanding [the removal of] not just Saleh but the entire kind of system, and that we have fair and free elections. This was a peaceful protest when it was the people’s protest, and then unfortunately that didn’t last very long. 

By May, Saleh was defeated. [Enter] another group, the party called Islah. Islah is the Islamist party in Yemen closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They had been Saleh allies. They were part of this system that people were revolting against. But all of a sudden, they saw this opportunity to separate themselves from Saleh and it turned into an armed conflict when they posed as the opposition to Saleh. By May there were clashes between the Islah party and the Saleh’s party. There was an assassination attempt on Saleh. He survived, but then after recovering in Saudi Arabia late in November 2011, he ended up accepting a deal that removed him from office but also kept him free from any obligations or any charges that were to come. He basically had immunity. He remained the most powerful man in Yemen. He remained in command of much of the Yemeni army but was no longer president of Yemen. 

EM 

OK, so eventually Ali Abdullah Saleh is forced to step down and his vice president Mansur Hadi takes over and eventually wins an election where he is the only candidate running. Can you talk a little bit about Mansur Hadi and who he is?

SA

Yes, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. He was a southerner. So, this is important for Saleh symbolically. Mansur Hadi was a southerner and he fled the South after some events in 1986 and kind of gained some traction in the [North] as part of the North Yemen military. He was the defense minister at the time of the 1994 war. It was important for Saleh to send a southerner to win that war against the south. Mansur Hadi was his man. 

So, when [Hadi] won that war, as a reward, he was appointed in 1994 as Saleh’s vice president and remained Saleh’s vice president until 2011. What happened in late 2011 was a symbolic transfer of power. Hadi was just seen as kind of a placeholder. I know people say it was a one-man election, but one-man elections don’t exist. It’s not a democratic election. 

Hadi was just kind of appointed in this role for two years. In those two years, he had his work cut out for him. He was meant to redraft a constitution. He was meant to bring together all the different parties in Yemen, whether the southerners or the Houthis or a different faction Islah. [The goal was to form] some kind of unity government that would move the country forward and meet people’s demands. So, that’s who Hadi was and he took over in late 2011.

EM 

OK. So, you mention the Houthis and it feels like a good time for you to explain who the Houthis are and how the current war in Yemen began. 

SA 

So, let’s back up to the early 2000s. The Houthis’ movement is called Ansar Allah. The [term] “Houthi” is in reference to the family name of the leader of the [movement] who initially started preaching in mosques. They were a family of preachers. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they began preaching against Saleh’s corruption. Now they are from the northern province of Saada which borders Saudi Arabia. Very impoverished province. They were complaining of things like, “We don’t really have electricity here and yet we see Saleh with his wealth just kind of flaunting it.”  They were also bitter about the religious influence of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Yemen has a long history of having two dominant sects of Islam. [These are] the Shia Zaydi sect—which about 40 percent of the population practices—and then the Sunni Shafi sect. These two sects were living in harmony, so there was no issue really. But Saudi Arabia, as many people know, has this extreme puritanical form of Islam called Wahhabism or Salafism. [Just] as they had influenced Islam in different parts of the Arab world and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they were also influencing the Yemeni educational system through their teachings and their text books and whatnot. 

So, the Houthis were upset about that influence and upset about Saleh’s corruption and began preaching against it. [Saleh] responded in the same way he responded to the southerners when they demanded secession from the North, which was war. So, in the early 2000s—between 2002 and 2006 or 2008—I think there were six wars that were fought between the Houthis and Saleh. He enlisted the Saudi Arabians’ help because he figured the Houthis are at the Saudis’ border. They’re a problem for them as much as they are for Saleh. [The Saudis] managed to kill [the Houthis’] leader but were unsuccessful in driving out the movement. In fact, it continued to grow in Yemen. 

EM

What happened in 2014-2015? If you could talk about the Houthis taking over Sana’a and dissolving parliament and taking over the government. 

SA

Hadi’s term expired in 2013, and then parliament gave him another year’s extension. He was still not moving things along and nothing really was happening. So the Houthis [were frustrated]. They were part of that initial unity government, but they ended up staging what looked like a coup in September of 2014. 

With surprising ease, [the Houthis] took over the capital Sana’a and placed Hadi on house arrest. [They were] kind of trying to force him to move things along. Even so, they were still held back then because Hadi [signed] a deal after all of these event, a unity government deal that included the Houthis, included the Islah party, included many different people. But then I guess he got tired of being bullied and felt like his authority was undermined, rightfully so and— 

EM 

Mansur Hadi?

SA 

Yes, Mansur Hadi, [who] fled his palace. He was on house arrest by the Houthis and fled the palace in disguise and came to Aden where the Houthis followed him. [People were] surprised that the Houthis were able to take over Sana’a with no resistance. This is when people started to speculate that maybe Saleh was telling the Yemeni army to stand down and not pose any resistance to them. Which was really surprising, because Saleh and the Houthis, like I said, had fought all these wars and yet there seemed to be this quiet alliance between them. 

EM 

That was something I wanted to ask about, actually, and was hoping you might be able to explain this to me. Maybe this is too “inside baseball” and we’ll end up cutting this question—but so, as you say, the Houthis emerged initially as an opposition to Ali Abdullah Saleh, right? Then you have this period where Saleh and his supporters were fighting on the same side as the Houthis in the conflict against Mansur Hadi. 

Then in 2017, they had a sort of falling out and Saleh was assassinated. Was it just a political calculation that Saleh and his supporters made to take power back away from Mansur Hadi, or had Saleh and his supporters and the Houthis genuinely reconciled? And just to clarify, right now Saleh supporters are backing Mansur Hadi? Or where have they gone?  

SA

Yeah, these are really great questions. What your questions are getting at are the complexities of Yemeni politics and the fact that there are no lasting alliances. The alliances shift and move constantly among Yemenis themselves. So, when Saleh saw the Houthis starting to take over Sana’a, I think he maybe figured, “Let’s see what’s going to happen.” He remained the most powerful man in Yemen, president or not. He remained [in] control of much of the Yemeni army. So, he was this master manipulator who had ruled Yemen against all odds for a very long time. 

Yemen is a deeply tribal society and Saleh managed to win a lot of favor with the tribes and managed to have a lot of influence still. Initially, I think he was kind of waiting to see what was going to happen. But then when the Saudis began bombing in 2015, supposedly on behalf of Hadi, that’s when Saleh I think saw an opportunity to have a second coming and join the Houthis. [He] was able to dispatch the military to support the Houthis and kind of saw himself maybe as fighting for Yemeni sovereignty in those first couple of years. Then in late 2017, reports [suggested] that Saleh was influenced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

His son was largely seen before all of this upheaval as being groomed for the presidency, much like a king would groom his son [to be] crown prince—he was based in the UAE. [Reports] were that Saleh was being influenced by UAE leadership, who were seeing this kind of stalemate [after] two years of war and no progress by the Saudis and the UAE. [They were] not able to take over Sana’a or much of northern Yemen, and maybe they saw an opportunity with Saleh. 

So, [Saleh] started to turn against the Houthis and began to…. tell his followers to attack the Houthis. And the Houthis [responded] in these public forums to say, “We’re working together here. We want you to reconsider.” And within days, there were armed clashes in the city. But I think this was a major miscalculation on Saleh’s behalf because it is easy to fight the Houthis when they’re in their northern province. It is not easy to fight the Houthis when they are entrenched in Sana’a and they have a lot of control in the capital. 

[Later Saleh] died in a gunfight, fighting the Houthis. [Within] days that was over and some members of his family and his supporters joined the UAE to support their cause, now against the Houthis. 

EM 

[I want to] underscore a point you made about who the Houthis are, just for our listeners who are maybe feeling like they are swimming in all these new names and trying to keep them straight. 

The Houthis, there’s sort of a tribal familial element. [You] talked about the Al-Houthi family. There is also a religious element, the Zaidi Shia component. And there’s also the geographic affiliation, which you mentioned, in the North. But also, there’s the political piece…. Right now, who controls the country? 

SA 

Good question. [Editor’s notes: The following paragraph was added after the interview was recorded to more fully answer the question posed.] The Hadi government/coalition forces control much of the former South Yemen, while the Houthis control much of former North Yemen (the country was previously partitioned by colonial rule and reunited in 1990). The exception to this is Taiz, which is split between Hadi and Houthi forces, as well as Ma’rib, an oil-rich northern governorate that remains a battle ground. Note that though southern Yemen is larger, most Yemenis—about 80 percent—live in northern areas. Also, the coalition/Hadi government share control of the South with the UAE-funded separatist political group, the STC (who recently agreed to a power-sharing deal with the Hadi government), as well as terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

One thing to add about the Houthis, too, is that Saleh was also a Zaidi Shia himself. 

EM 

That totally complicates things. Yeah. 

SA

Exactly, so this is not like a sectarian kind of issue. This is very much a political issue and 40 percent of the population is also Zaidi. So, they’re not a minority by any means. 

EM 

So, if you’re Zaidi, you don’t necessarily support the Houthi rebels?  

SA 

No, not necessarily. Also, you don’t have to be Zaidi. You could be a Sunni Yemeni and support the Houthi rebels. 

EM 

OK. 

SA

So, it’s much more of an ideology at this point.

EM 

How would you characterize that ideology? 

SA 

I think the most important aspect—the defining feature, I would say—is sovereignty. They reject U.S. intervention. They have been very clear about [their anger that] the U.S. has used Yemen as [its] backyard, with the drone fights and whatnot, which are “constitutional” but extremely harmful towards civilians over there. So, part of their complaints were about sovereignty, about U.S. interventions, about Saudi interventions in Yemen, and Saudi influence in Yemen. So, I would say that that’s their most defining characteristic, and this fight for them is a fight for sovereignty. 

EM 

So, it’s about getting Saudi Arabia, getting the UAE, and the United States out of Yemen. 

SA

Out of Yemen. And the Houthis willing to negotiate with Yemenis themselves, but they’re not willing to include any foreign influence in that matter, including Iran by the way. So, I know Iranians get—

EM 

We will get to that, because I do want to pick that apart a little bit. So, also in South Yemen, there’s a sort of secessionist movement which is very much concerned with sovereignty, but ideologically they’re different than the Houthis, yes?  

SA 

I mean, that is not a sovereignty claim. In South Yemen, [that movement wants] a secession from the north, but they’re willing to have that secession with the support of the UAE. 

EM 

Interesting. 

SA

So, the southern secession movement is financed and backed by the UAE. In their minds, they don’t mind having alliances with this foreign country, the UAE, but not with northern Yemen. Their issue is northern Yemen. 

EM 

But their goal is sovereignty of the south, right? I get that they’re willing to [accept] support from the UAE, but they are concerned with political sovereignty for themselves, right? 

SA 

Yes, they want to be a separate entity from northern Yemen. 

EM 

OK. 

SA

[As] a southerner, I have a lot of sympathy for the secessionist movement and I actually think that if most southerners want secession, they should secede from the union, especially because we feel like we are being forced into this unity. For me the claim got undermined when [the southern secessionists] accepted backing from the UAE, when they accepted what looks like occupation from the UAE. 

EM 

OK, that’s very interesting. [So now] we will get into a little bit more in depth [about] what the Saudi Arabian and United States and UAE involvement in Yemen looks like. Let’s start with why Saudi Arabia and the United States are in Yemen—and just to be clear, the United States and Saudi Arabia support Mansur Hadi, right?  

SA 

Yes. 

EM 

OK. So, why are they in Yemen?  

SA

OK, so one thing we didn’t talk about was Yemen’s strategic location. I mentioned it’s close to East Africa, next to the Indian Ocean. Yemen controls Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, [which] is important in that 6.2 million barrels of oil and oil products travel per day to Europe and to Asia from that strait. So, because of this strategic location, it’s always been of importance to Saudi Arabia, since it’s largely their oil that’s traveling back and forth, and by extension the United States. 

So, this isn’t the first intervention that Yemenis have seen by the Saudis. In the 1960s, when North Yemen was trying to rid itself of the northern leaders who were a monarchy, the Saudis supported the monarchists against the revolutionists. In the 1994 war, the Saudis supported the southern secessionists against northern Yemen. Then here we are in 2015 and the Saudis are saying that they want to support Hadi because they are so concerned about democracy in Yemen. This just happens to be their most overt and miscalculated intervention. 

Yemen has this long history of being used, essentially. This poor Middle Eastern country, that’s been used by people in power who feel like they need to control it, because there’s this racist [argument] that they can’t control themselves. And it comes back to resources and influence and all of that. The U.S. supported the Saudis the day that the Saudis began bombing. They began bombing on March 26, 2015 and they made the announcement that they were bombing in English, not in Arabic. From D.C., not from Riyadh, by the [Saudi] foreign minister. And the Obama White House released a statement that same day saying that they were supporting the coalition fully, that they were backing the legitimacy of President Hadi, and that they were providing the logistical support—the military support and all sorts of support—even though all of this was unconstitutional. The President can’t go to war without congressional approval. 

EM 

OK, now you mentioned geography a little bit and one relevant factor is that Saudi Arabia, of course, borders Yemen. So, they have security concerns. One Saudi justification that I’ve heard is that Iran or Iranian proxies are in Yemen. Is there any legitimacy to this claim? 

SA 

I mean that’s what they use to justify their crimes in Yemen. The Houthis are not Iranian proxies. They’re close with Iran, but they’re not Iranian proxies. They posed no security threat to Saudi Arabia until Saudi Arabia began bombing and the Houthis figured that, while they can’t respond in kind, there’s no Saudi military ground troops in Yemen because they hire mercenaries. 

So, the Houthis took their war across the border and you see these skirmishes across in Saudi Arabia. [The] concern was that Saudi Arabia has always had their men in Yemen. They’ve always had a president who was willing to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding and so did the United States. Saleh was a U.S. man.  He was a strong U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. 

EM 

It’s complicated though, of course. 

SA

Yes, but the key factor here is that it’s always been of Saudis’ interest and they’ve always had this [influence] in Yemen in the last several decades. They’ve always had someone in Yemen willing to do their bidding. Saleh was a very close Saudi ally. [When] he suffered burns after the assassination attempt, he was treated in Saudi Arabia and recovered in Saudi Arabia and then came back to Yemen. With the rise of the Houthis, the Saudis realized that they were going to lose that control. They were going to lose Yemen because if you have a group who detests Wahhabism, who detests foreign intervention, then Saudis are going to lose control over Bab-al-Mandeb. They’re going to lose control over this unpredictable southern neighbor, essentially, as they see it. 

EM 

Could I just have you respond to two things? One is the sort of sectarian framing that, because Houthis are largely Zaidi Shia, there’s this sort of Sunni-Shia clash, right? 

SA 

Yeah. So, the Saudis weren’t concerned about the Sunni-Shia clash when they were supporting an eight-year war by the monarchists in Northern Yemen who were Zaidi. They were Zaidi imams who were leading Yemen, and they were deposed by revolutionaries in the north. Saudi Arabia supported their fight for eight entire years because they were monarchists and they didn’t care that they were Zaidis.

EM 

As you mentioned, Saleh was Zaidi Shia as well. 

SA

Saleh was Zaidi Shia himself. By the way, even the Zaidis—I don’t know, this might be getting into the weeds but just to be clear—the Iranian type of Shia is very different than the Zaidi type of Shia. [Theologically, the Zaidis] are much closer to Sunni Muslims than they are to Shia Muslims. So, they kind of see themselves as their own thing. They don’t see themselves as necessarily connected to Twelver Shias, as Iranians are or Shias around the world. 

EM 

OK, here’s something that I want to ask about: Hezbollah has been in Yemen, correct?  

SA 

That’s debatable. 

EM 

OK, it is. This is one assertion that I heard made. To the extent that you can describe Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy,  what do you think of that claim? 

SA

I can’t assess that claim. But as far as I know, Hezbollah was funded initially by Iran. But I don’t know if you can classify them as proxies. Again, I’m not saying that the Houthis don’t have a relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. They do. They find themselves in this war going on six years, completely blockaded and bombarded by their neighbors and starved out, and the only people willing to support them somehow are Hezbollah and Iran. [And the Houthis] will take that support, except that it is very minimal. 

So, it doesn’t [add] up to the status of proxy. The Houthis have publicly rejected Iranian advice—for example, Iranians were very unhappy about them taking over Sana’a. The Houthis are like, “It’s not up to you.” Iranians said at some point in 2016, “Oh, we’ll send some advisors.” And the Houthis were very upset about that and said, “We didn’t ask for advisors.” And so, this isn’t…. a proxy relationship as it has been described. 

EM 

OK. We delved into the Saudi justification for intervention in Yemen. In the United States, we’re told about the presence of Al Qaeda. We’re told about the presence of the Islamic State. We’re told about Hezbollah and American involvement, the argument goes, is essentially counterterrorism. General David Petraeus declared Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad” in testimony before Congress in 2011. How significant is the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen?  

SA 

The Islamic State [is] not as prevalent, although it does exist. 

EM 

These days, right?

SA

Yes. But AQAP is definitely a problem in Yemen. In 2011 Petraeus was saying they were the most dangerous branch of AQAP, and in 2016 there’s footage of AQAP working alongside UAE and Saudi forces, which the United States is supporting in order to drive out the Houthis. 

EM 

Right. Excellent point. 

SA 

So by contrast, there is no AQAP in northern Yemen where the Houthis control things, because they have been very successful at driving them out by targeting the ideology. Wahhabism is where AQAP or terrorist ideology—

EM 

Sorry, just for our listeners, AQAP stands for “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” It’s slightly different from Al Qaeda, it’s a sort of affiliate. But anyway, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. 

SA

Yeah, so, all I’m saying is that the largest victims of AQAP have been Yemeni civilians. For Yemenis, it’s been of the utmost importance to rid the country of AQAP.

Saleh, like I said, was working with the United States and the U.S. is involved in Yemen doing counterterrorism under the AUMF [the Congressional authorization for use of military force legislation passed in the wake of 9/11], where they come and they drone. Sometimes they kill civilians and sometimes they kill AQAP members, but then they turn around and work with this coalition…. [so the U.S. is] essentially part of this coalition that has been working with AQAP. There are members of Hadi’s government who are on the [U.S. list of] terrorists, and yet the U.S. supports this Hadi government. 

EM 

[You] say that Saudi Arabia is working with AQAP. Can you say specifically how they are working together?

SA 

I mean the Saudis just hired AQAP as ground troops. Again, Saudi Arabia doesn’t hire Saudis to fight on the ground. Neither does the UAE. The UAE had some forces until 2019 then they pulled their forces, but their forces were largely doing security work. Saudi ground fighters have been mercenaries—mostly Yemeni mercenaries, but also they hire people from Academi, which was the Erik Prince mercenary group

EM 

Renamed from Blackwater.

SA

Exactly, Blackwater. Or [the Saudis] hire Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They will hire whoever will work for them. Whoever will take money to fight the Houthis. This is how the Saudis have been cooperating with AQAP. There’s been documented evidence where the Saudi-led coalition will come and say, “We really need to show that we’re fighting terrorism here, so here’s a bunch of cash, get out of this area.” The AQAP gets out of that area. The UAE comes in and says, “Look, we’ve controlled this area. We don’t have AQAP anymore.”

EM 

OK. Now we’re going to get into the U.S. role. But first, let’s actually talk about the Saudi role—the naval and air blockade. Human rights organizations have documented widespread war crimes, including the intentional targeting of civilians, the bombing. Can you talk a little bit about that and the Saudis’ role?

SA 

Right. [In] the first 48 hours of the war…. the Saudi-led coalition came in and announced that they [had] formed a coalition…. [of] mostly Arab countries and began bombing. In the 48 hours, [the coalition] disabled the Yemeni air force. So, anytime there’s any air attack in Yemen, it’s not the Houthis—it’s the Saudi-led coalition, because they’re the only ones with helicopters and the only ones with any kind of air force. 

Then after the first 48 hours, they began systematically targeting civilian infrastructure, roads, bridges, factories, water desalination plants, food production plants, agriculture and then they moved on to hospitals, to schools, to moving vehicles, to funerals, weddings, to any kind of public gatherings, markets and so on. So, like you said, there was a 2016 U.N. report that said that [the coalition’s strategy of] targeting civilians has been widespread and systematic. It has been the case since 2015. 

EM 

OK, now I want to turn to U.S. involvement. I just want to start by noting that the United States has a long history of intervening in Yemen. We were bombing the country well before 2015 and a notable example is the murder of Yemeni-American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. He was an extremist imam who was killed by Obama in 2011. No evidence has been made public demonstrating his involvement in any terrorist attack. He received no trial. I think something like two weeks later, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed. And Robert Gibbs—who was Obama’s press secretary at that time—he was asked about it and he said, “I suggest that you should have had a far more responsible father.” Later al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter, Nawar, was killed by the Trump administration in January 2017. So, we see this real bipartisan support for murder. I think there’s no other way of describing it. 

SA

Yeah, and yet all of this remains perfectly legal under U.S. law, under the AUMF which was passed shortly after 9/11 with—

EM 

I think it’s completely debatable whether it’s legal, right?  

SA 

I mean, that’s what they’ve used. Yes, I think our best chance is to revoke the AUMF. But a congresswoman named Barbara—

EM 

Barbara Lee. 

SA 

Barbara Lee, who was the sole opposer of the AUMF, has been trying to revoke it. But that’s what’s been used to justify these drone warfares. You come in and you have these signature strikes. Essentially you’re targeting people, children. The Al-Awlaki family gets highlighted because they were American citizens and so by our own laws they should have been tried, right? Anwar should have been tried. But Yemeni civilians also continue to die. 

EM 

And of course, their lives matter no less, right? 

SA 

Right.  

EM 

There’s something a little bit messed up, I would say, about the highlighting of Anwar Al-Awlaki merely because he is an American citizen. It’s true that we should respect the value of a human life regardless of their citizenship, you know.  

SA

But that’s what happened with [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s] murder, [which] kind of put the spotlight on the [Saudi] Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman], because [Khashoggi] was an American resident affiliated with the Washington Post, [who] had a lot of friends in D.C. People [knew Khashoggi] but you know, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 Yemenis being killed by the same man every single day with our explicit support in the United States, that doesn’t seem to cause a lot of issues. 

EM 

So, let’s delve a little bit more into American involvement. We talked about the air strikes and the drone bombing. What else has the United States been doing in the war in Yemen? We’ll start with Obama and then we can move on to Trump.  

SA 

So, Trump inherited this war from Obama. [Everything] Obama did, Trump kind of just took on and then escalated even some more, even if that’s hard to imagine. The United States is basically driving this war, fueling it in every way. During the Obama administration, the Saudis were getting training from the United States. Their pilots were being trained by U.S. pilots. Their vehicles and aircraft were being serviced, repaired, updated—all of that through the United States’ contracts with the [Saudi army]. The Saudis don’t manufacture their own weapons, and so they rely on two-thirds of their weapons from the United States. The rest are from countries like the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and so on. The U.S. generals [are] in the targeting command room. When the Saudis are choosing targets, you have U.K. and U.S. advisors helping them with that. 

Up until 2018—so throughout the Obama administration and into the Trump administration— the U.S. was providing mid-air refueling to the Saudi and UAE jets. The UAE didn’t want to stop in Saudi Arabia to refuel, so they would have to fly over the empty quarter and U.S. jets would provide the fueling mid-air to keep them in the air longer. Every step of the way— choosing the targets, training the pilots, all of the equipment, most of the weapons, intelligence, logistical support—all of that was provided by the United States. Without the United States, there is no six year war in Yemen, because what are the Saudis supposed to do with no weapons and no training and no support from the United States?  

EM 

So [in terms of the U.S. involvement in Yemen] we have: selling of arms and aircraft, sharing of intelligence, the refueling mid-air, the bombing and drone strikes we mentioned. We all have blood on our hands. So, now to turn to Trump. I like to say that Obama began the war but it became Trump’s war when he vetoed a bipartisan resolution in April 2019 that would have forced an end to America’s military involvement in Yemen, and this was only the second time that Trump used the veto during his presidency.  

SA 

Yeah, and this was the first War Powers bill that ever passed through Congress. So, the War Powers Act became law in 1973, but no Congress ever challenged a president on going to war unconstitutionally until the war in Yemen. It took several years to push this through and we finally did—and then you had Trump’s veto. Basically, this shouldn’t even exist. This loophole shouldn’t even exist because the War Powers Resolution is trying to get the president to act in accordance with the Constitution. He shouldn’t have the power [to commit the U.S. to armed conflict without Congressional approval]. This shouldn’t be like other bills. He shouldn’t have the power to veto something like this, and so essentially [Trump acted in] open defiance of the Constitution in 2019.

EM 

Were there other ways that the Trump administration ramped up the war in Yemen?

SA 

Yeah, so the one thing that apparently Obama was not willing to greenlight was the attack on the port of Hodeidah. This is a city on the western coast of Yemen. The port of Hodeidah feeds 70 percent of Yemenis. Now before the war, Yemenis imported 90 percent of their food. Again, this is an impoverished country—90 percent of their food was imported. After the war, trade was completely stopped because of this blockade.

This naval blockade was also a land and air blockade that the Saudis imposed along with the UAE, and most likely with support from the United States Navy. They imposed this total ban on trade. 80 percent of Yemen is reliant on aid, but the Saudis have full control over what aid comes in and what aid does not come in. In the summer of 2018, the UAE announced that they were going to attack the port of Hodeidah to try to force the Houthis into starvation, essentially. Their idea was, “We’re going to starve the rest of Yemen.” They wanted to fully bring about famine so that the Houthis would surrender. 

Apparently, Obama was not willing to do this and didn’t greenlight this, but Trump had no qualms greenlighting it. [They] did in fact attack the port of Hodeidah and cause a lot of misery to a lot of Yemenis, but weren’t successful at taking over the city of Hodeidah. 

EM 

The humanitarian situation in Yemen is really pretty dire. It’s been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Almost a quarter of a million people are dead, according to the U.N. Humanitarian Office. The health situation is dire, people are dying of cholera and preventable disease. As you suggested, Yemen is heavily dependent on imported food, fuel, and medicine which makes the blockade extremely cruel and debilitating for the country. [There’s] famine, starvation, people of dying of malnourishment—is there anything else you want to add so people get a sense of the humanitarian situation?

SA 

Yeah, imagine a country that used to import 90 percent of its food. Now it can’t. A country that was already water-stressed before the war. [There was] barely any drinking water in the country. They used to even import water. I remember being in Yemen and the water bottle said, “made in Saudi Arabia.” So, a country that can’t grow a lot agriculturally, for various reasons, decades of mismanagement…. Now these people, they can’t import medicine either because of the blockade. So, you have a sanitation system that’s falling apart. You have water production facilities that are being bombed. You have fuel that’s being blockaded. These fuel ships are not allowed to enter the country, or [at least] not as many of them are allowed to enter the country. [Things] like water pumps or generators—all of that are not functioning. 

[It] created this incredibly devastating health crisis where people don’t have medicine and they don’t have functioning hospitals. Half of the hospitals were bombed. The other half are functioning at 10 percent capacity. Then you have the sanitation issues that cause cholera, diphtheria (which hadn’t been in Yemen since the early 90s), H1N1 outbreak, dengue fever outbreak. Even a simple cold could kill a child, without the proper medicine, without Tylenol or Advil. So, you have a system that’s completely collapsed and now you add coronavirus to it and we have mortality rates of 30 percent, which is the highest in the world. [Yemen] isn’t able to function anymore because of this ongoing blockade and the war. 

EM 

Turning now to the incoming Biden administration—during the presidential campaign, Biden’s spokesman Andrew Bates said, “Vice President Biden believes it is past time to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and cancel the blank check that the Trump Administration has given Saudi Arabia for its conduct of that war.” Will the Biden administration end U.S. involvement in Yemen, if not the war itself?

SA 

They should. They are responsible for this war as much as Trump is because they greenlit this war. We wouldn’t be talking about this war if not for the Obama-Biden administration in 2016 so readily jumping to appease Saudi Arabia. By the way, this came shortly after the Iran [nuclear power] deals, so you can imagine why they felt the need to appease Saudi Arabia, who was pretty upset about not being included in that process and having the Iran deal go through. 

The Biden administration—it’s his responsibility [to end the U.S. involvement in Yemen]. This war is immoral. It’s unethical. It’s unconstitutional. It’s illegal. So, the least he can do is end all forms of support…. Biden’s senior policy advisors say they want to end the war. Do you just mean weapon sales? Do you just mean logistical support? What do you mean, exactly? And they’ve said that they plan to end all forms of support for the war.  

EM 

Well, I wanted to ask you about this because personally I’m very skeptical. I mean, ending weapons and arms and aircraft sales to Saudi Arabia entirely… I don’t have great faith in the Biden Administration when Biden’s secretary of defense pick, Lloyd Austin, sits on the board of Raytheon—which is one of the Pentagon’s largest contractors and of course sells bombs which are used to kill people in Yemen. 

SA 

To kill people in Yemen. Yes.  

EM 

Then you have Tony Blinken, who’s Biden’s secretary of state pick and he cofounded a consulting firm whose clients include military contractors. So, I don’t think that I’m being unreasonably cynical in thinking that they would be reluctant to end the sale of weapons and arms to Saudi Arabia. 

SA 

I agree with you. We’re talking about the arsonist pretending to be firefighters and it’s deeply insulting. I mean, to be honest, Biden and people who start wars shouldn’t be rewarded with presidencies. They should be tried for murder. This is the murder of people we are talking about. This is destruction of an entire country that posed no threat to the United States. This is generations lost of Yemeni children who are starving as we speak. Yet all we can hold on to are these promises. I hate saying, “let’s hold them accountable,” but what more is there to do? He is the president here. We would’ve gotten Trump is— 

EM 

Certainly not going to end the war in Yemen. 

SA 

I mean Bernie Sanders was the only one who I would have trusted to end this war because he was actually the one in the Senate working as hard as he was alongside Ro Khanna in the [House of Representatives] to get the War Powers resolution through. Call me bitter, but I’m still bitter about the Bernie loss. All we have right now are promises. Lloyd Austin is on the board of Raytheon. This just doesn’t bode well. But then there was a piece in Foreign Policy yesterday, I believe saying that he in fact opposed the war in Yemen and doesn’t think it is a good idea. Again, these are just words [until] we see action in the first 100 days. 

Honestly, [ending the U.S. involvement in Yemen] can’t just happen through executive order, either. What I would want to see is Congress passing another War Powers bill and forcing Biden to sign it, and the War Powers bill should include everything. Logistical support, weapons, intelligence, everything. Force Biden to sign it so that another president can’t just come and reverse the executive order. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back several decades, if not a century. So, we can’t expect there to not be a relationship between these two countries. 

We need to make sure that there are no back door deals that, for example, partition Yemen or designate the Houthis as terrorists. The Trump administration has been talking about designating them as terrorists. Aid organizations have said that will essentially starve the country entirely. It is going to cause the biggest famine in modern history because people like me won’t be able to send money back home anymore. A lot of people are alive because of money that’s being sent from other countries, and because of aid organizations that won’t be able to operate in northern Yemen anymore. So, I want to see a Biden administration that signs a War Powers bill in the first 100 days and doesn’t make any kind of shady deals with the Saudis in order to appease them at the expense of the Yemeni civilians.  

EM 

Yeah, so ending U.S. involvement is step one. Another step that occurs to me, which I think is crucial, is providing humanitarian aid. We helped destroy this country. Now we bear significant responsibility for the state that’s it’s in and it’s our responsibility to help mitigate the suffering that’s going on there. 

SA 

Yet we’ve cut aid to the country in the middle of all of this. So, USAID and [the] World Food Organization and all of these organizations have cut aid to Northern Yemen.  

EM 

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe it as genocide. We know what’s going on, and we cut humanitarian aid. We cut medical aid. It’s just unconscionable. 

SA 

I mean, what else is it other than genocide, right? This is the starving of an entire people. This is punishing an entire people who have done nothing. They just exist and they happen to have neighbors who want to control them. People are starving and people are being killed and we are allowing that to happen. We are supporting that and asking for the U.S. to restore aid and to in fact increase aid is not unreasonable. This is the least they can do. In a just society, this is what reparations looks like. In the absence of a Criminal Court, because of course the U.S. is not a part of that, and will never be tried, and no U.S. president is going to be tried for war crimes in Yemen. 

EM 

Hopefully one day. 

SA 

Maybe, hopefully, one day. Hopefully in my lifetime, but you know, at the very least what does reparation look like? You destroyed this country, you killed all of these people. You can’t bring all of these people back, but this country needs to provide aid to restore and rebuild Yemen. 

EM 

I just wanted to go back to one point that may give some people some hope about the Biden administration on Yemen. There was a letter that was written by former Obama administration officials saying that they regret their role in the war. Now granted, as you say, these are only words, but it seems like there is some level of introspection. So, we’ll see if it pans out, but I just thought I’d enter that in the mix. 

SA 

Yes. Also, it’s a bit of a relief for me that Michele Flournoy, who was the initial pick of secretary of defense, seems to no longer be in the picture. And interestingly, she was not one of those people who signed that letter. Then you’ve got Samantha Power, who signed that letter but then wrote an entire book and neglected to mention Yemen once, even though she was basically providing cover for the Saudis and the UAE and for the U.S. at the expense of the Yemenis.  

EM 

So we don’t leave people on an overly bleak note—but also because I think it’s important for people to not feel disempowered—what can people do to help?  How can we go about pressuring Biden to end the war?

SA 

I think it’s really important that people don’t just breathe a sigh of relief that Biden is president and now we can go back to being ignorant and not holding our government accountable. I think as soon as Biden takes office, we need to see changes with regards to the policy in Yemen. So, I would urge people to call their congresspeople. Your congressperson isn’t going to do anything about Yemen if they’re not going to hear about Yemen from you. [You can] keep that issue alive, you [can] urge them to introduce or to sign legislation like the War Powers Resolution that we’re hoping to push through as soon as this next administration takes over…. That’s such a  low ask, right? 

There’s not much [else] we can do, other than to protest what’s happening in our name. Other than to demand that they restore aid to Yemen and to stop all support—all forms of support—to the Saudi led coalition. [Demand the U.S. not] sell these F-15s to the UAE like they’re trying to do right now, for example. To actually be aware of what our government is doing in places like Yemen. Also, there’s a day of action on January 25 that people are organizing, [so look] out for something like that. You know, to just keep this issue alive.  

EM 

I was just going to ask [if] you know where people can find out more information about [the day of action]. 

SA 

[People can] go to Massachusetts Peace Action and sign up. It’s called “World Says No to War in Yemen.” [It’s on] January 25, 2021. 

EM 

Is this nationwide or is this [only local]? 

SA 

Yes, this is an international kind of effort. So, people from the U.K., the U.S., and several organizations have already. I’ll send you the link.  

EM 

Terrific. 

SA 

You can post it. I hope people will join something like this and add their name to the organization. So far there are 187 people who have signed from across the world. [Just] kind of keep that in mind. 

EM 

Well, Shireen Al-Adeimi—thank you so much for speaking with us. Would you like to plug your social media and tell people where they can find your work and follow up?  

SA 

Sure. So, I’m at Shireen818 on Twitter, and I write for mostly In These Times magazine. 

EM 

I know you had an important article published at In These Times a month ago called “Biden Must End the War He Helped Start,” which we can link to. Thank you so much for joining us. It was a real pleasure speaking with you. 

SA   

Thanks so much for having me.

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