How much is a Yemeni child worth? Not much it seems: about $400 if one uses the Trump administration’s calculations. The U.K.-based charity Save the Children estimates that five million Yemeni children are at risk of starvation. That risk has increased markedly thanks to the Trump administration’s fear of endangering $2 billion worth of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia was a key factor behind Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to certify to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are taking effective measures to safeguard civilian lives, which allowed the U.S. to continue to provide both countries with mid-air refueling and other military support. This came after an American-made missile fired by either a Saudi or Emirati jet incinerated a bus full of schoolchildren last month.
The recertification comes at a critical time for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, both of which are backing a disparate mix of militias in a bid to capture the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah. The city of 600,000 is critical, since as much as 70 percent of Yemen’s food is imported through its port. The Saudi- and Emirati-led offensive on Hodeidah started two months ago, stalled, and has now started again. The forces battling the Houthis claim to be making progress, but the battle is expected to take weeks, if not months.
All the while, food shipments will slow or be suspended altogether. But then this appears to be Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s strategy to defeat the Houthis: starve them out, even if it means the slow deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions. Saudi Arabia has been targeting Yemen’s farms and best agricultural land—along with civilian infrastructure—since the war began in March 2015.
The loss of Hodeidah will be a significant strategic blow to the Houthis but it will do little to end the killing. In fact, it’s more likely to mark the beginning of a new and more deadly chapter in Yemen’s war, now in its fourth year.
Even if the militias backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia manage to take the port, it will not significantly impede the Houthis’ ability to fight. They retain control of Yemen’s mountainous northwest, terrain that is ideal for protracted guerrilla warfare. A mere 40 miles inland from Hodeidah, the mountains jut up from the coastal plain and form an almost impregnable wall. There are few roads and those that do exist are overlooked by a succession of easily defended high points.
It has taken Saudi- and Emirati-backed militias nearly two years to work their way up Yemen’s Red Sea coast, an area that is flat and easily supplied. How many months or years will it take for this same collection of—often competing and opposed—militias to make their way through Yemen’s mountains towards the capital of Sanaa? All the while, there will be even less food and aid making its way to Yemen’s highlands, where some Yemenis have already been reduced to eating leaves.
And the mountains may be the least of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s problems. The areas that they and their proxy forces nominally control are far from stable. Aden, another major port city, is convulsed by violence that includes almost weekly assassinations and bombings. Basic services to the city of 800,000 have not been restored and unemployment continues to spiral. Areas in the south where Saudi Arabia and the UAE predominate have also been roiled by protests against both nations. Many Yemenis resent what they see as a neo-colonial land and resource grab. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have carved out spheres of influence.
Saudi Arabia has laid claim to Yemen’s far eastern governorate of al-Mahrah where it plans on building a pipeline that will allow it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. There, residents are protesting and have so far blocked the construction of a Saudi military base. The UAE, because of the greater efficiency of its mercenary–heavy army, has been more aggressive in Yemen than its ally, building military bases outside the port city of al-Mukallah and on the Yemeni islands of Perim and Socotra—home to a once pristine ecosystem and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If the Saudis and Emiratis cannot stabilize the areas they already have nominal control over, how are they going to ensure that the factional proxy forces they support are going to govern Hodeidah?
A significant percentage of the forces fighting the Houthis for control of Hodeidah are separatists who have legitimate and long-standing grievances against what was north Yemen. Some of them want to create an independent south Yemen. Rather than continuing to fight the Houthis after they gain control of the port, it is more likely that they will fight amongst themselves.
Militant Salafis—many of whom sympathize with or are covertly allied with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—also make up a part of the forces opposing the Houthis. What will be done to prevent them from gaining influence in Hodeidah, just as they have—to some degree at least—in Aden and other parts of “coalition-controlled” Yemen?
For their part, the Houthis are sure to continue the fight. Though unpopular, corrupt, and increasingly oppressive in the areas that they control, the war against them affords them just enough legitimacy to maintain the alliances that allow them to maintain their authority in northwest Yemen.
This is almost certain to mean that far less food and aid will make it to those in Yemen who need it most. As the U.N. has warned, millions are at risk of starvation in what is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
All of this should force U.S. policymakers to ask: how does helping the UAE and Saudi Arabia continue this war aid Yemenis and how does it help advance regional stability or American national security interests? In short, it doesn’t. However, it does help American and foreign arms manufacturers.
On this issue, the Trump administration is finally in agreement with CNN host Wolf Blitzer. In a September 2016 interview with Senator Rand Paul, who has consistently questioned U.S. support for the war in Yemen, Wolf Blitzer said in response to Senator Paul’s criticism: “For you, this is a moral issue because you know there are a lot of jobs at stake, certainly, if these defense contractors stop selling warplanes, other sophisticated equipment to Saudi Arabia. There is going to be a significant loss of jobs, revenue here in the United States. That’s secondary from your standpoint?” Paul clearly puts the lives of millions of children ahead of arms sales. Why won’t the Trump administration and Congress do the same?
Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications including Intelligence Review, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, The National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor.