Just World Podcasts

SBS ep.11: Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, and U.S. involvement in it

May 03, 2019 Season 1 Episode 11
Just World Podcasts
SBS ep.11: Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, and U.S. involvement in it
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Just World Podcasts
SBS ep.11: Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, and U.S. involvement in it
May 03, 2019 Season 1 Episode 11
Helena Cobban
Show Notes Transcript

This timely episode focuses on Saudi Arabia's very destructive and now four-year-long war on Yemen, and the direct participation in it of some units of the U.S. military. In early April, the two houses of Congress enacted legislation to end this participation. Pres. Trump vetoed that legislation. Then yesterday, May 2, the Senate held a vote to try to over-ride the veto, and they failed.  

The weekly podcasts in this "Story-Backstory" project are all linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier… This week’s column ran May 1 on the Mondoweiss website, under the title “A crucial vote on Yemen, aka ‘Saudi Arabia’s Gaza’”.

In this episode, host Helena Cobban discussed Yemen and the Saudi and US roles in the war there with Dr. Sheila Carapico, a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Richmond who is one of the United States’ foremost experts on Yemen and its relationships with its neighbors. She is also the editor of a 2016 anthology of writings about Yemen and its Arabia-peninsula neighbors titled Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, which is available wherever fine books are sold.

Helena Cobban:
0:12
Today, on Just World Podcasts: “Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, and US involvement in it”
Helena Cobban:
0:41
Hi, I’m Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. This week’s podcast is the eleventh in our multi-week “Story/Backstory” project, which explores Washington’s current policies in the Middle East, and the Middle East itself, in a broader historical perspective. This week, we’re focusing on the fate of legislation that the U.S. Senate passed in early April that would end the direct participation of the US military in the now four-year-long, Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, that has brought widespread death, disease, and destruction to that country’s 28 million people… In mid-April, President Trump vetoed that legislation. Then yesterday, May 2nd, the Senate held a vote to try to over-ride that veto, and they failed. A tragic day for Yemen—but also for us here in America as our military continues its direct participation in Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault against Yemen.
Helena Cobban:
1:34
The weekly podcasts in this project are all linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier… This week’s column ran May 1st on the Mondoweiss website, under the title “A crucial vote on Yemen, aka ‘Saudi Arabia’s Gaza’”. It provided some general background to the vote and to the war in Yemen itself. But it also spelled out why I consider that in many ways Yemen is “Saudi Arabia’s very own Gaza”. But I urge you to go to Mondoweiss and read the whole article. This week on the podcast, I’ve been lucky to talk to Dr. Sheila Carapico, a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Richmond who is one of the United States’ foremost experts on Yemen and its relationships with its neighbors. Indeed, back in 2016, once it was clear that the Saudi-led war on Yemen was a serious thing, I was very proud that my publishing company, Just World Books, was able to publish a fantastic anthology Dr. Carapico edited of writings about Yemen and its Arabia-peninsula neighbors.
Helena Cobban:
3:01
It’s called “Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf”, and it’s available wherever fine books are sold. Rush out and get yourself a copy! In our discussion, Dr. Carapico and I explored the analogy between Yemen and Gaza and pushed it quite a bit further than I was able to in my article, in a very informative way. We discussed the many ways the United States has supported the Saudi-led war effort there in addition to the direct military help it has provided… Dr. Carapico discussed the differing strategies that Saudi Arabia and its chief ally in the war effort, the United Arab Emirates, UAE, have been pursuing inside Yemen. She noted the threat that the UAE’s occupation of the Yemeni island of Socotra poses to Socotra’s completely unique environmental riches… and she unpacked the matter of the extremely lucrative arms-sales relationship that has lain at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship for many decades now.
Helena Cobban:
4:19
Our conversation all ended on a very sobering note, but US citizens really need to understand these matters a lot better than most of us do, so do listen carefully—and share these materials with your friends as much as you can. Just before I switch to the interview itself, let me make my standard disclaimer that the opinions and analyses that I express in this “Story-Backstory” project are my own personal ones and do not represent the views of Just World Educational or any other body. But let me remind you that you can find a lot of great resources on our website, www-dot-justworldeducational-dot-org. On the homepage there, you’ll see a prominent button that will send you to all the content we’ve now produced in this “Story-Backstory” project”… Plus, we’ve been putting some great new posts onto our blog in the past few weeks, including a fascinating new post from Miko Peled.
Helena Cobban:
5:08
You’ll find a handy tab at the top of our homepage that will send you to the blog... And another handy tab that tells you how you can donate to support our work. Please, please consider doing so! I urge you to explore all the resources that we make available at no cost, online, through the website and through our lively Just World Ed accounts on Twitter and Facebook. So now, my conversation with Dr. Sheila Carapico…
Helena Cobban:
5:39
Well hello, Doctor Sheila Carapico, glad to have you on the line. This week on the podcast we're talking about Yemen, we're talking about Yemen's big and powerful neighbors. We gonna talk about US policy a little bit, but let's start with Yemen. And, I think you've probably read the article that I wrote in Mondoweiss earlier this week that sort of laid out the general dimensions as I see them of the Yemen issue, the Yemen tragedy, catastrophe, whatever you'd like to call it. I mean, it's almost too painful to talk about too much, but we have to. So, tell me what comments you have about some of the things that I was writing there. I really value your feedback so much.
Sheila Carapico:
6:31
Well, I mean, the thing that first and most caught my attention, in your column was the analogy with Gaza, on which I started a paper a couple of years ago actually. It went through a couple of iterations and has now been a little bit superseded both by events and by a recent UN DP report that, you know, Yemen's development has been set back something like 20 years. But you know, my own thoughts on the Gaza war based on the concept put forward by Sarah Roy in talking about Israeli warfare in Gaza. And as you point out in the article, Yemen is much bigger, population is close to 30 million compared with Gaza, of what like two million or something like that. But she used the concept of de-development, which to me really captured a lot of the Saudi led coalitions airstrikes inside of Yemen, which have included targets in-- This group called the Yemen Data Project, which is very good: They trace targets, they don't necessarily, they don't capture deaths, but they trace targets. And those targets clearly include all the major, um, transportation infrastructure, which started with the bombing of the runways at Sana'a Airport and also the other airports except for in the far south, which is a slightly different question, the naval blockade of Alhudeida and other Red Sea ports. And then it goes onto electricity stations, sanitation facilities, hospitals, which are presumably being targeted because they're Houthis there. But you know, that's not necessarily proven. Did I already say water? And then, factories, that's been very well documented both by the Yemen Data Project and also by Human Rights Watch. Gas stations is another big one, bridges. So in other words, putting out the-- oh and then farms, which the anthropologist Martha Mundy has looked at quite closely, and there's deliberate targeting of agricultural infrastructure and indeed agriculture itself.
Sheila Carapico:
9:04
And then of course, there's just, you know, bombing of homes and historic sites. I mean, just across the board destroying anything that might be considered a developmental infrastructure. And the concept that Sarah Roy used for Gaza was useful, I think, in helping me to conceptualize what that means in terms of crippling the capacity for development. And I would add also to that, another thing that's been just decimated is the ability to collect information. So because all of the ministries and more or less out of commission. So for example, the World Bank would usually has pretty good data collection capability is now publishing just wild guesstimates and journalists can't get in. So things aren't documented. So it's every form of infrastructure including information.
Helena Cobban:
10:13
If I could just jump in there. I think it's great that you're saying this because as you list these kind of targets, it reminds me also of Israel's classic Dahya doctrine that it used in 2006 against Lebanon, which was definitely, you know, bridges and electricity, the central electricity generating plant, and infrastructure that is vital to civilian wellbeing.
Sheila Carapico:
10:48
Right, exactly.
Helena Cobban:
10:50
And also in the case of Gaza and, and Yemen, as you mentioned, a lot of sort of productive facilities, factories and store houses, agricultural, you know, processing facilities and so on. I mean, I went to Gaza in 2009 right after Operation Cast Lead and you would just go up and down east of Gaza and see bombed facilities after bombed facilities. I can imagine that Yemen huge areas of Yemen are like that. And, so this is our friends, our allies, the Saudis, who are doing this in Yemen with US military help.
Sheila Carapico:
11:36
Yeah. I just add one more point about targeting and then I'll come to that question. There's also the deliberate targeting of sewage and water facilities, which is the reason why there's the cholera epidemic.
Helena Cobban:
11:53
Oh, right. Yeah.
Sheila Carapico:
11:54
That's a man-made cholera epidemic, which is affecting, you know, hundreds of thousands now of people. And there is, of course factor, which is also man-made famine. It's not really that there isn't any food. It's that livelihoods have been destroyed, including civil service, as well as, you know, private entrepreneurs, farmers or truck drivers or whatever, so people can't buy food. So there's a health-care crisis in Yemen and that's what earns it the label of the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world specifically the cholera and famine, both again, man-made.
Sheila Carapico:
12:43
Now that's, you know, there's really no question that the Saudi-led-coalition, which is, you know, fights almost exclusively from the air and or from at sea, there is air-force and naval forces, is deliberately bombing most of the sites. I mean, now, and then they'll say, oops, you know, we didn't mean to hit that funeral. Although even then you have to wonder whether they're telling the truth. But in any case, most of it is clearly deliberate targeting. And yes, the United States, as you point out in your piece and as others have as well, has been helping with, you know, logistics, including the in-air refueling. Although I think that the US has cut back a little bit on the refueling,
Helena Cobban:
13:34
But they've been training the Saudis to do it, right? Yeah.
Sheila Carapico:
13:39
Maybe people working for the Saudis, so they might still be Americans, but not in an official capacity. I don't know.
Helena Cobban:
13:47
So, before we come back here to the United States and look a little bit at the US politics of this. Let's look a little bit at the regional politics there in the Arabian Peninsula about which, of course, you recently pulled together a wonderful anthology called Arabia Incognita. So, when we talk about the Saudi-led-coalition, that is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And are there other Gulf Cooperation Council members involved in that or is it basically those two?
Sheila Carapico:
14:28
It is mainly those two. Bahrain provides a little bit of kind of lip service, I suppose you might almost say. Sudan, at least under the deposed government, Egypt has pulled back a bit, but you know, part of the effort has been to for the Saudis to conduct an air war, then other countries to contribute at least some ground forces in exchange for assistance from either the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. From the beginning, I always thought, you know, the Saudi-led-coalition and that the Saudis and the Emirates were, you know, working towards the same goals. That has increasingly seemed not to be the case. In other words, there seems to be a split between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates have become very, very active on the southern coast. What used to be the old south Yemen, which runs from the Oman border to the Red Sea around Aden, which was the old British colonial court.
Sheila Carapico:
15:46
And there, the de-development, this is kind of runs a ground and I've had a little bit of trouble with it, because the Emirates, at this stage, appear to be really trying to carve out more or less of an economic colony. So they're building things they, you know, are investing, but of course in the hopes of controlling. Yeah, the Emirates who do have at least some troops on the ground, although probably more of those or some kind of foreign troops rather than Emirati troops. But the Emirates themselves are on the ground. They're also investing. And they're investing in oil facilities. They're investing, as far as I know, in things like hotels and in ports that are in the south on the Arabian Sea. And you know, they're trying to kind of remake the economy. They're working with various local groups, some of which are militias who were at odds with one another.
Sheila Carapico:
17:00
Som the Emirates, unlike at the beginning of the war, when it seemed that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were again working for the same purpose, so one could refer to the Saudi-led-coalition as kind of, you know, a solid coalition. Now it seems that the Emirates are perhaps trying to carve out a new South Yemen and at least some southerners mainly do want to be independent from the Republic of Yemen. There's a split with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Initially, In other words session from the Republic of Yemen and many of them were welcoming the Emirates overtures. Now, there's at least some of these southerners and certain parts of the south, but also certain, you know, parties, political orientations, who are becoming increasingly resentful of the Emirates, who are running, for example, their own secret prisons. They're disappearing people, some of those people come out, you know, having been tortured. Some of them never come out at all. Their mothers are demonstrating outside the prisons. So, the Emirates are, on one hand, not I think the epitome of de-development again, in the sense that they are investing. But on the other hand, they are doing so in a very, you know, neo-colonial way.
Helena Cobban:
18:50
And I think it looks from the maps as if they've completely taken over the island of Sumatra. Presumably that has some strategic value. Does it have other values as well?
Sheila Carapico:
18:59
Oh, I mean, it's a world heritage natural site, so it's like the Galapagos. It has unique, I'm not very good at naming these, but has any number of unique species of the world, and has rather been untouched by, you know, hotels and developments in big ports and stuff like that. And yeah, they seem to be taking it over with the intention of making it a kind of, a tourist resort for, especially people from the Gulf and you know, environmental groups are trying to raise awareness about the dangers to, be like, you know, building a military base on the Galapagos.
Helena Cobban:
19:48
Oh, or in Diego Garcia.
Sheila Carapico:
19:53
Well, which of course there is.
Helena Cobban:
19:55
Yes. So, amongst the other Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC states. Oman has not joined the war coalition and I think tried to do a little bit of mediation and the same with Kuwait. What happened with [inaudible]? Were they in it at the beginning?
Sheila Carapico:
20:18
No, I think they were pretty skeptical from the beginning. The war started more or less, I'm not sure I could trace this month by month, but it kind of coincided with the increasing rift between Qatar and, particularly Saudi Arabia, which of course, I mean the war itself and then that rift came up really with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, which is all in early 2015 and then worsened, as you know, as time went on. Kuwait also, if they are involved, it's on a very low and subtle level. Oman as you said, and they, I mean for strategic reasons, I think also, Oman has tried some diplomacy, because they're of course kind of sandwiched between Yemen. I mean, they share a border with Yemen, you know, are a little bit, they're less belligerent towards Iran, than Saudi Arabia and even the Emirates. So they have made some efforts, I think at diplomacy.
Helena Cobban:
21:32
So actually now we've mentioned Iran, and that makes me want dive back into one key question about Yemeni politics, which is the Houthis. I really don't know much about the Houthis. Are they all Zaidi Muslims, or is it a coalition? They had a coalition with Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was the previous president who was not as a Zaidi as far as I recall. So like can you just untangle it for me and for the listeners a little bit of like who are the Houthis who are, who's in that coalition, what do they represent?
Sheila Carapico:
22:16
You know, there's a wonderful book out, an edited volume called Sectarianization. So for example, Ali, Abdullah Salah, as far as I know, just given his regional background, would have been raised Zaidi. But not ever self-identified as Zaidi and then because people didn't self-identify, certainly not as Shiaa or Sunni, but even Zaidi. And then, the Sunni denomination in Yemen is called Shafi. And then at some point, the Saudis started proselytizing a very kind of Salafi or Wahabi form of Islam. And then the Houthi Movement, which is fundamentally Azidi, but from a very particular part of the country in the far north near the Saudi border had what many authors, you know, anthropologists and historians who have studied them, have called the Zaidi revival. And then they had an uprising against Saleh. They fought six separate wars against Saleh. And then once the Gulf Cooperation Council kind of started meddling in the transition and they forced all out and then they started, I don't even want to go into those details, but in a surprising turn of events. Boy, I was really taken aback by this one, Saleh and the Houthis joined forces. And then of course a couple of years later Saleh decided to change coats again
Sheila Carapico:
24:03
and join the government-led, I may add, by his entact former vice president, Abedrabo MAnsour Hadi, and once the Houthis saw that he was doing that turn-coat thing, they killed him.
Helena Cobban:
24:23
Right? So, not necessarily a wonderful bunch of people,
Sheila Carapico:
24:27
Not necessarily a wonderful bunch of people, but also to say that it's purely sectarian or that everybody who is on the Houthi side is Zaidi is I think to fall into, what I consider at least, a Saudi narrative about this being about the great denomination of divide in Islam in general and in Yemen in particular, between Sunni and Shia. And that has become more and more true as the war has gone on, but that's why the term I think Sectarianization is useful rather than to assume that they're fighting over who would be the successor of the Prophet, you know, centuries ago.
Helena Cobban:
25:21
Right. Some of this, like intra-Yemeni politics, presumably leaks over the border into Saudi Arabia, given that Saudi Arabia as currently constituted, contains two provinces that were historically Yemeni, right?
Sheila Carapico:
25:42
Yes they do. And those were one in wars in the 1930s. And then there's of course also an oppressed Shia minority inside the kingdom, who the Saudis tried to blame on anything and everything that goes wrong. You know.
Helena Cobban:
26:04
They are on the other side of the Peninsula, right?
Sheila Carapico:
26:05
That's right. That's on the Gulf coast. Right.
Helena Cobban:
26:11
So just trying to put all this stuff together because, you know, I lived through the civil war in Lebanon for so many years and you have this kind of dizzying array of coalitions that break and make a really form and Yemen seems very similar to that. Yeah. So, well talking of internal politics, let's come home here to Washington DC. So Barack Obama was with his fine national security team, the one that decided to support, and this was not only just giving a green light to the Saudis to go ahead in 2015 with launching their operation Decisive Storm, but also to give material military aid to that effort. So to me that's a little bit like further than what the US attitude toward Israel's various military adventures has been, although who knows. So Barack Obama continued to support the Saudi war in Yemen till the end of his term. And then Trump has supported it very strongly ever since. But things are changing on Capitol Hill. How do you explain those current changes, like the support that the Senate and House resolutions got in recent months, the resolutions that would stop material US-military-aid going to the Saudi war effort.
Sheila Carapico:
27:53
Well, I mean, even before Obama, you know, it's been US policy for a long time to export as many weapons to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the petro-monarchies so-called, who have, you know, a lot of money and are willing to collect military hardware. And they pay cash, you know, it's not Israel. They pay.
Helena Cobban:
28:23
And they pay like top dollar.
Sheila Carapico:
28:25
Exactly.
Helena Cobban:
28:26
They subsidize a huge portion of the US-military's own production and procurement in essence.
Sheila Carapico:
28:34
Yeah. And the major arms exporter more to the point. So they, I mean, it's a balance of trade issue. It's a manufacturing issue. And Traditionally Congress, you know, there are American arms manufacturers in most congressional districts and I think in every state. And so congressional support for those weapons sales has been very high. The one thing, the only thing you will ever hear me say good about Donald Trump is that he has been very candid in saying that the war in Yemen is good for American jobs and the American economy. Obama took that opinion and so did Hillary Clinton, but they never said it quite so many words, whereas Trump has. I think though that, you know, there's a point at which, the American public and through them, you know, increasing numbers of congressional representatives and Senators are looking with horror at this humanitarian disaster. I mean, it's not as if the Yemen ever threatened Saudi Arabia whatsoever.
Sheila Carapico:
29:54
It's purely an intervention and it is not a war, particularly it's an intervention with no particular purpose and leading to no particular outcome except for, you know, death and destruction and cholera and starvation on a massive scale. And so, you know, certain members of Congress who have been reacting to this now for a few years and increasing numbers of senators and congresspeople are just horrified. But the part that they're attacking is really the very small proportion of the whole arrangement, which might be called quote and quote "aid." So the in-air refueling surveillance assistance are getting assistance and that aid so-called is just minuscule compared with the arms exports. So even what congress is calling for and the president is promising to veto would not be in itself an end to the war.
Helena Cobban:
31:00
So Sheila, we would hope that the current legislation can go through and the senators can override the veto and that would only stop the actual military aid that the US military is giving to the Saudi war effort. But what should we be asking for beyond that? Should we be asking for an arms embargo on transfers of weapons to Saudi Arabia? Should we be asking for the US to take action at the Security Council to end this war? What should we be asking for?
Sheila Carapico:
31:37
The US is not going to take action in the Security Council. If anything, they will block action in the Security Council. An arms embargo specifically against Saudi Arabia. I mean, you know, that would be a good thing, but I think it's such a big task. That we may as well take a step back. And think about undoing the military industrial complex, which is so detrimental to the world climate.
Sheila Carapico:
32:15
You have the fuel and the materials used to manufacture weapons, whose only purpose is to destroy things. You have the fuel expenditure to get the weapons there. You have the explosions on the ground, you have the destruction here, think of the pictures of Aleppo in Syria and what that cleanup is to cost, and you don't have quite that scale of destruction in Yemen, but again, de-development or the other word I've used, is echo-side. I mean, as long as such a huge proportion of the resources of the United States are devoted to creating manufacturing Weapons of Mass Destruction. That's not exactly the way that's usually used, it's hard for me to be optimistic.
Helena Cobban:
33:16
Right. Well, I guess as part of the green new deal, one might see the conversion of military industries too. You know, building things that we actually need in this country, like bridges and roads and high speed rails, conversion with the military industries would be a great thing. So, I think we'd probably better wind this up right now, but it's been great talking to you and hope to have you back on the podcast soon and thanks for all your work.
Sheila Carapico:
33:45
Thanks for listening.