“AS A LEADER, I must always be optimistic every day,” professed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes late last September, referring to the necessity for a negotiated end to the catastrophic war in Yemen. “If I’m a pessimist,” he added, “I should leave my post and work somewhere else.”
A few days earlier, near the entrance of the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Riyadh showcased the “Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen” across a multi-panel display that oozed optimism. A medical facility, immaculate inside and out, sat under the banner of “Health Sector,” which “aims to improve healthcare across all Yemeni provinces.” A blissful trio of young men posed inside a lush greenhouse under the banner of “Agriculture and Fisheries Sector,” upon which “70% of the Yemeni population’s income relies.” A pipe gushed crystal clear water under the banner of “Water and Dams Sector” and against the backdrop of tanker trucks presumably destined for Yemen’s “water-deprived areas.” And a drone’s-eye view showed scores of schoolchildren wide-eyed and beaming under the banner of “Education Sector,” which is “a key pillar of the developmental process in Yemen.”
But, of course, that display was one of morbid contradictions. Along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia is among the top donors to the UN’s “Humanitarian Response Plan” for Yemen, where together the all-powerful Gulf monarchies have been leading a coalition of Arab states in a Western-backed campaign against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels since March 2015 (with the support of then–US President Barack Obama). The Saudi kingdom is also the world’s top weapons importer and the best client of both the United States and United Kingdom, who were the largest donors to the said response plan last year, and whose exports are paradoxically drenched in the blood of thousands of Yemeni civilians now dead from coalition airstrikes on — for instance — the health, agriculture, and education sectors.
The war, in which both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis stand accused by the UN of committing crimes and violations under international law, has triggered, in the words of the Vatican’s Holy See delegation to the 72nd UN General Assembly, “a humanitarian catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions.” Right now, an estimated 24 million Yemenis — about 80 percent of the population — are in dire need of essential aid such as access to food, safe drinking water, and health-care services (an increase of 84 percent since 2015). Some 85,000 children under the age of five have already died from extreme hunger or disease, and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history rages on. This year, just like the last, Yemen has topped the International Rescue Committee’s “Emergency Watchlist,” as well as the International Crisis Group’s “10 Conflicts to Watch” and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s “10 Conflicts to Worry About.” (At least the crown prince can be an “eternal optimist?”)
And so, the “Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen” in fact represents a sort of political gaslighting, a benevolent warmongering, a kingdom of morbid contradictions. As if war is peace in Yemen. As if, in August 2018, a 227-kilogram laser-guided bomb manufactured by top US defense contractor Lockheed Martin and sold to top client state Saudi Arabia, never hit a busload of schoolboys who were passing through a bustling market during a field trip in Yemen’s war- and crisis-ravaged north. As if 54 people weren’t killed in that attack, of whom 44 were children — their scattered bodies bloodied, charred, mangled. As if rights groups never deemed the massacre an “apparent war crime,” with concerned world powers like the US and UK perpetuating lucrative arms sales and military assistance as usual to the regretful Saudi-led coalition, which emptily pledged to investigate its “mistake.”
While Yemen’s death toll exceeds 100,000 (not accounting for indirect deaths), and while US- and UK-made bombs continue to fall, the war-crime-riddled tragedy of the school bus massacre constitutes a cautionary tale of collective punishment. Yemenis young and old, particularly in the Houthi-held north, are being effectively treated as so-called “legitimate military targets,” which in turn renders the “Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen” utterly suspect given that the majority of reported civilian fatalities and injuries — more than 12,000 killed in direct attacks since 2015 — are due to Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.
“I wish I could meet those who legitimize [Yemeni civilians as military targets],” reflects Sana’a-based writer Elham Hassan in her follow-up open letter to our April piece for the Guardian, entitled “Why should we Yemenis stop having babies and surrender to war?”
“If I were present in the command and control centers or the halls of power,” Hassan continues, “I’d likely observe how unconfirmed intelligence on the location of Houthi leaders and fighters leads to an easy massacre of us.” Bomb hospitals, schools, farms, markets, mosques, residential areas, refugee camps, detention facilities, weddings, and even funerals. Burn civilians alive in places or at events known for being crowded with them. And burn critical civilian infrastructure to the ground, too, including bridges, roads, factories, power plants, pipelines, and water treatment facilities. Instrumentalize hunger, disease, and displacement as weapons of war while year after year the international community watches the “severity of needs deepening” in a country that was already the poorest in the Middle East before the Saudi-led coalition unleashed its scorched earth campaign made possible by its Western allies.
Alas, reports of Yemeni carnage and suffering no longer grip the global 24/7 news cycle as they had last year in the aftermath of the grisly murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law,” according to a recent UN report. The harrowing portrait of the emaciated seven-year-old Yemeni girl Amal Hussain, which first appeared on the front page of The New York Times a few weeks after Khashoggi’s assassination, and was later named “one of the most important photos of 2018” by Time, once gripped headlines, too. For a few months, the young girl’s death by starvation had led to an international outcry so loud that the unfeigned optimists among us pictured a day when the warring parties would be forced into an immediate stillness and thus their weapons an assured silence.
Since last spring, though, Yemen has become a largely “forgotten war” once again — the rising death toll and wholesale devastation overshadowed by arms deals, strategic relationships, diplomatic cover, and vetoed abatement. All of the aforementioned deaths combined — the schoolboys, Jamal Khashoggi, Amal Hussain, tens of thousands more Yemenis young and old — couldn’t outweigh Donald Trump’s veto power, which he issued last May to block Congress’s historic bipartisan resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Following that, the commander-in-chief unblocked the sale of billions of dollars' worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, America's “bulwark [allies] against the malign activities of Iran and its proxies in the region.” The coalition had already deployed such US-made weapons against Yemeni civilians including on the said schoolboys in August 2018, as well as on a wedding in a remote village in northern Yemen just a few months earlier that killed the bride and at least 32 attendees.
“How could you do it again and again?” our colleague Elham Hassan asks, referring to the civilian blood on the hands of those inside the command and control centers and the halls of power, where the deadly decisions and deals are being made. The UK Court of Appeal addressed that very question last June when it declared British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, citing how top ministers — including then–Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — “illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.” While billions of dollars' worth of deals are now (still) under governmental review, “inadvertent breaches” were revealed in September after the issuing of new licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Hassan’s following open letter, entitled “Weddings Become Funerals,” reminds us that the crown prince’s optimism, just like the “Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen,” is but a lethal duplicity born of entrenched impunity.
So, Yemeni civilians are “legitimate military targets”? I wish I could meet those who legitimize us as such. If I were present in the command and control centers or the halls of power, I’d likely observe how unconfirmed intelligence on the location of Houthi leaders and fighters leads to an easy massacre of us.
We, Yemeni civilians, wonder if a “successful strike” is one that spills the most blood — of enemies, of innocents, but does it even matter who is who? We wonder if a strike is already successful when the bomb is sold, when the buyers and sellers [the Saudi-led coalition and their Western allies] strengthen their strategic relationships and interests regardless of the foreseeable massacres.
If I were present in the command and control centers or the halls of power, I’d ask, “How could you do it again and again?” But I can’t ask them, and maybe I wouldn’t even bother. In northern Yemen, where I live, civilians know that the Saudi-led coalition has been filling the mouths of world powers with enough money to ensure that they’ll think twice about opening their lips against the kingdom’s ongoing atrocities. Condemn the attack, pledge an investigation, and then you’ll hear little else of it … Until the next massacre, that is. You’ll hear even less about a young girl whose mother was murdered by a coalition airstrike. All the riches of the Saudi and Emirati royalty aren’t worth a day that she had to live without her.
Last Eid, my own daughter asked me if we could go celebrate in a public park one day. I hesitated, finding myself gripped by an internal conflict. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” I thought. “I guess I’ll base my decision on the calmness of the atmosphere that day. And should I factor in the possibility of this public gathering being seen as a ‘legitimate military target,’ too?” War is a series of life-and-death decisions. Most often, though, it’s the warring parties deciding who lives and who dies — not civilians, not us. This Eid, or that school field trip, that wedding reception, even that funeral ceremony, could be your last.
Mohammed bin Salman tells the mainstream American media that he “must always be optimistic every day.” Why be pessimistic when you’re the crown prince and de facto leader of an oil-rich dictatorship that regularly buys the complicity of war-profiteering democracies while you come up with more creative ways to make the lives of Yemeni civilians more miserable? After nearly five years of war, we, Yemeni civilians, are not optimistic at all. We don’t believe in a better tomorrow. Why be optimistic when you’re the everyday sacrifice for the strengthening of strategic relationships and interests?
So, this is our story of the war in Yemen: happiness becomes sadness, smiles become tears, and weddings become funerals as world powers dance in neglect.
Amira Al-Sharif is a Yemeni photographer based in Paris.
Elle Kurancid is a Canadian writer based between Athens and Cairo.
Elham Hassan is a Yemeni writer based in Sana’a.