Last Monday, Saudi Arabia declared that it would force the closure of all air, land and sea ports in Yemen. This is the latest move in a long, brutal campaign against Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement, who the Saudis regard as a threat to their national security. However, whether we sympathise with the Saudis’ security concerns or not, the international community must unite in forcing them to abandon this cruel course of action. Blocking the passage of aid and food into Yemen will cause indiscriminate and widespread suffering: Saudi Arabia’s quarrel lies with Houthi fighters, not the Yemeni people.
Some, including our very own government, seek to defend the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s actions. The Houthis, after all, are supposedly armed by Iran, with whom Saudi Arabia has long standing hostility. Furthermore, they now control a large portion of Yemen, including its capital. One could argue that the Saudis have a legitimate security concern if a neighbouring country is being taken over by a rebel group backed by their sworn enemy in the region. Indeed, Saudi Arabia claims that they were forced to take this course of action after intercepting a missile fired at its capital from Yemen.
However, does a single intercepted missile justify imposing widespread starvation and death upon the innocent Yemeni population? UNICEF has said that Yemen has enough reserves of fuel and vaccines to last only a month. The World Health Organisation has warned of a resurgence of the cholera epidemic that has only recently started to end: there have been 900,000 cholera cases in Yemen in the past six months alone, and denying the country access to vaccines and medicine will only make the situation worse. A WHO ship is standing by with 250 tonnes of medical supplies but is unable to get these vital resources to where they are so desperately needed because Yemen’s ports have been forcefully closed. Meanwhile, 7 million people are on the brink of famine, yet Saudi is starving the country of food imports. By any measure, it is an unjustifiable state of affairs.
Sadly, this is only the latest example of indiscriminate suffering imposed by the Saudis on Yemen’s population. Their attempts to reinstall Yemen’s exiled president have featured repeated bombing campaigns on civilian areas, from which an estimated 10,000 civilians have died. Amnesty International have accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately targeting schools and hospitals (five schools in August to October 2015 alone), both of which constitute a war crime. The Yemeni people have for too long been made to bear the brunt of this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the current blockade is just the most recent episode in this tragedy.
Shockingly, the British and American governments have been complicit in the frequent violations of international law committed by the Saudis since the conflict broke out. Since March 2015, the UK government has made nearly £5 billion from exporting arms and other goods to Saudi Arabia, a sharp increase compared to the years before the bombing campaign started. We have unashamedly been profiting nicely from this tale of suffering. The Obama and Trump Administrations have also been guilt of approved arms sales to Saudi, and even use their own planes to refuel Saudi bombers in mid-air to prolong the bombing runs. Both countries should be ashamed of their unambiguous involvement.
The international community must step in to end the recently imposed blockade, and then to end the proxy war itself. Every day that the blockade continues, more Yemenis will be made to go without the vaccines, treatment and food they desperately need. 60% of Yemen’s population is close to starvation: there simply isn’t time to spare. Two thousand Yemenis have died from cholera since April, despite the fact that it has been almost eradicated in the developed world. One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is unfolding before our eyes, with our support, and yet we do nothing.
Once the end of the blockade is secured, the war must end too. It is an illegitimate war, in which civilians are being killed indiscriminately in the hope that some Houthi rebels die too. If the UK and US were to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately, withdraw support for the war and threaten a freeze in diplomatic relations unless the bombing and the blockade stop, the Saudis would almost certainly budge, having spent years trying to improve their status with the Western powers. We are complicit in this crisis and we possess the means of ending it: inaction would be morally indefensible.