About this Episode
After more than four years of war, Yemen teeters on the brink of what the European Union has described as “the world's largest humanitarian crisis.” Conservative estimates count at least 10,000 civilian deaths in the ongoing conflict, with millions more threatened by disease and famine. Yet for many in the West, Yemen remains a forgotten war, despite the fact that the Saudi-backed forces fighting the northern Houthi rebels continue to deploy weapons produced in the United States and in Europe with devastating effect.
This month, History Talk explores the current conflict in Yemen and its historical antecedents with two experts on the region: Dr. Asher Orkaby and Dr. Austin Knuppe. We examine the conflict in its multiple facets – a civil war between regional parties, an anti-terrorism campaign, and a proxy war between regional foes: it’s all three – to better understand why peace remains so elusive.
To learn more about the War in Yemen, read this month's feature article, Yemen: A Civil War Centuries in the Making, by Dr Asher Orkaby. For more coverage of the Middle East, be sure to check out The Secular Roots of a Religious Divide in Contemporary Iraq, Alawites and the Fate of Syria, and Syria's Islamic Movement and the 2011-12 Uprising.
Eric Michael Rhodes: Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. My name is Eric Michael Rhodes, and I'm here with my co host, Lauren Henry.
Lauren Henry: Hi, Eric. Often we think of humanitarian crises as forces of nature, droughts, plagues, crop failures. All of these, we assume, are the root causes of mass suffering. But actually today, the world's largest humanitarian crisis, according to the European Union, is an all too human affair, the war in Yemen or the Yemeni Civil War. The brutal violence that Yemen has witnessed over the past five years has taken an enormous human toll on the nation of 28 million. Conservative estimates count 10,000 civilians among the worst casualties, though many think up to six times more have died. Blockades mean millions face starvation. And the destruction of medical facilities has facilitated the largest outbreak of cholera in recorded history.
Eric Michael Rhodes: Many people know little about Yemen or its politics and history. Yet understanding that history is key to understanding the conflict, whose roots lie in geography, religion, economics, and international relations. Today we'll examine various facets of this conflict, and with the help of two esteemed scholars of Yemen.
Lauren Henry: First joining us via Skype is Professor Asher Orkaby a research associate at the Harvard University Davis Center and a lecturer at the Harvard Extension School. Professor Orkaby has published a monograph on the Yemeni Civil War of the 1960s and has contributed regularly to foreign affairs, the national interest and many other policy publications. Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Professor Orkaby.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: My pleasure.
Lauren Henry: And joining us in studio today is Dr. Austin Knuppe. Thanks for being here.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Thanks for having me.
Lauren Henry: The Yemeni civil war has been called the Forgotten War and it's certainly less well-known than other conflicts in the region. Many of our listeners probably won't know much about the country. So let's start with the basics, who are the main antagonists in this conflict?
Dr. Asher Orkaby: In its most simplistic level, the Yemen civil war in its current form, is between a Yemeni Government, internationally recognized Yemeni Government, sitting in exile and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and a government in Sana'a capital city of Yemen run by the northern tribesmen group called the Houthi movement. And Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have used the cover of the internationally recognized government to intervene in Yemen, and to overthrow regimes that the Saudis have often said is aligned with with Iran, and have used this as a cover to stake our claims in south Arabia, claims related to oil and other territorial claims along the border. In essence, the wars between the Old Republic and a new group of tribesmen whose overthrown the Republic and behind the scenes is groups of Saudi Emirates, and they're paid mercenaries trying to stake claims in south Arabia. And that, in a nutshell, is really what the Yemen civil wars about.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, I like the way you framed that. I guess as a political scientist as one who thinks about dynamics of political violence, I would frame it as four interlocking struggles or four interlocking conflicts. So Asher is very good about talking about the Houthi incumbent regime dynamics, the civil war going back several decades. I would look at the U.S. counterterrorism operations or U.S. counterterrorism effort in Yemen since 2001. As a dimension, I would think about the proxy conflict between the Saudis and Iranians as a regional competition for hegemony or political control in the Gulf. And then even recently, thinking about dynamics between various Islamist insurgencies in South Yemen. So competition for support, capacity, and control among al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Islamic State affiliate in Yemen, that these Islamic groups are fighting amongst each other for control and influence independent of the fact they may agree about their broader ideological goals vis-à-vis the U.S. or Saudis?
Eric Michael Rhodes: So we've heard a little bit about the dynamics here. Would you tell us about the origins of this conflict? How did this conflict begin?
Dr. Asher Orkaby: As a historian you can look five days in the past you can look five months, we can look 150 years. So we'll start somewhere in between about 67 years. And look at actually the origins of of the conflict really began during the 1960s when the Republic was first started and marginalizing these groups of Northern tribesmen. Fast forward then a few decades of political and economic marginalization to a religious revivalists movement during the 1990s. There's a prominent family in the north known as the Houthis. Now it's important to note that these Houthis from a religious standpoint are part of the Sayyid families are those who have a direct descendantcy, or at least trace their family's lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and have a, at least in a religious sense and a tribal sense of the top, occupy the top of the social hierarchy. After the Republic was founded, they were put down to the bottom of the social hierarchy. Especially during the 1990s, Saudi Arabia began spread of Wahhabi Islam. So Wahhabi Islam is a form of Islam. Salafi Islam that goes back Salafi meaning going back to the tradition. Traditional Islam also prides itself on its spread across civilization throughout the Middle East, especially in the northern regions. The Saudi version of Islam was seen as the threat to traditional religious customs in northern Yemen. That's Zaidi customs -- Zaidiyyah is a small sect of Shia Islam. The Houthi movement began as a religion revivalist movement trying to defend the Yemeni religious and social traditions from the spread of Saudi Wahhabi Islam. This eventually spread into a political movement in the northeast northern tribes and found that the political party and reached a climax in 2004 when the Yemeni government came to arrest Hussein al-Houthi who was one of the leaders of this movement and whose name in fact that al-Houthi ended up christening this northern tribal movement. And this first battle in 2004, led to a series of six battles between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement until 2010. After a peace was was reached in 2010. The Yemeni government at least reached some temporary peace accord with the northern tribesmen after the fall of the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. There was a power vacuum in essence and many portions of the country including the North, and that's where these northern tribesmen as part of the Houthi movement, were able to carve out a territorial for themselves. In 2014 the Houthi tribesmen reach the capital city of Sana'a. In 2015 they demand political representation. When it's not given they take control of the government and send the legitimate government or the internationally recognized government into exile and form their own tribal government in Sana'a. And that's really where the conflict began. And all the way up until where it is today.
Lauren Henry: You mentioned the ouster of President Saleh in 2012. To what extent can we see the Yemen Civil War as an outgrowth of the Arab Spring?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, I think there's a helpful way to frame it and thinking about the dark, unintended consequences of revolution across the Middle East in the Arab Spring and Yemen being an example of popular revolution, creating domestic instability, and a power vacuum that it was formerly effectively filled and controlled by autocrats. You saw similar things across the Middle East in Egypt, effectively, Sisi is no better in terms of representation or governance as his predecessor. The one exception to that is the relative success in Tunisia. But more often than not, these democratic revolutions fail to find political representation that can provide both governance and popular legitimacy, right, regimes are always balancing governance, the ability to provide security, public goods, economic opportunities, with legitimacy being recognized as having the political authority of broad swaths of civilians across ethnic, religious, economic, regional classes. And so there's a reason these autocrats are very effective at their divide and rule strategies. And the aftermath of that you see the dark, unintended consequences of popular revolution, which is really heartbreaking.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: There was a lot of excitement in the streets of the capital city in Sana'a, in Taiz and other major Yemeni cities. And specifically, because there was a young generation of Yemenis who saw this movement as the Arab Spring movement of the call to overthrow a generation of Arab revolutionary dictators, and give a new hope to a young generation. And the protest started on that platform. But the problem really was both in Yemen and across the Middle East, North Africa is that if you dismantle the one party dictatorship that controls the country, the only organization that's strong enough to collectively mobilize the population is the mosque or the Islamic movements. That was the case in Egypt. That was the case across the North Africa. And also that was the case in Yemen, a previously splinter opposition party known as the Islah movement, took control of the Arab Spring to control these protests, and saw this as an opportunity to gain in stature and in fact, gain 50% of the electorate. So yes, ideally, this would have led to a much more equal democracy. But when no one other than the Central Party, the one parties in Yemen, it's the GPC and the Al-Islah Party, other than those two, nobody really has that ability to collectivize the movement. So it starts as something that's very exciting, and something that has a lot of potential, and it is eventually overrun and taken over by organizations with much more conveining power and much more political access and money. And that's really what happened in Yemen and why the Arab Spring protests didn't produce something more consequential and more optimistic in Yemen.
Eric Michael Rhodes: What role did Yemen's fragmented history play in the development of tensions between Houthis and the Yemeni government? Of course, our listeners might not be very familiar with a longer swath of Yemen's history.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Sure. So let's look for a moment just that the origins of these Houthis themselves. The Houthi movement, in itself, not all Northerners are Houthis. It's just a single family. But the single family represents a lost history of Yemen for over 1000 years. These northern tribesmen, and specifically the Sayyid families who are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, had ruled North Yemen, and controlled the government for over 1,000 years when this old history of the Imam who's the religious leader of Northern Yemen was overthrown in September of 1962, and a Republic was established that turned the social hierarchy and the political elite onto its head. So these Sayyid families were now in the bottom of the social hierarchy that really set the the northern tribesmen on a collision course with the Yemeni Government based in Sana'a. And those tensions really haven't been reconciled in Yemen. And in fact, what's faced today and what the war is really about today, is the Yemenis trying to sit down and make a decision of what type of country they're looking at. Are they looking at a republic? Are they looking at some kind of theocracy? Is it a return to the imamate? Or is it something in between? And that's the decision that's playing out in the field. And I'll give one last historical anecdote and I can turn this question over to Austin. In 1968 there was a Soviet correspondent named Pavel Demchenko and he was the Soviet correspondent in the Middle East for the Pravda newspaper. After seeing six years of an internationalist Civil War, there were 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in Yemen during the 1960s. There were Soviets, Americans, others over running the country. Everyone withdrew by 1968. And Yemenis came up with their own conclusion, or at least the beginnings of a an agreement between the Republic and the northern tribesmen, and Pavel Demchenko says something then that I think is very true now. He says only now after six years of a bloody internationalized Civil War did we realize that the Yemen Civil War was not about the Cold War. It was not about Egyptian Saudi tensions at the time, but what it was really about was about Yemeni, just transitioning power. And if that's the case, then this is also the case now, is that it's not really about the global international politics. But at its core, it's about the Yemenis figuring out how to reconcile these tensions between the Houthis and the Yemeni Government.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, I appreciate what Asher is saying, about the kind of the deep underlying social cleavages that affect these conflicts, and I think, more often than not political science, even policy conversations about the Yemini's civil war, the Saudi intervention, focus on the political, the contemporary politics, and and the fact that we could control Saudi behavior and the air war or the intervention of the Stockholm agreement of December, last year holds and somehow we'll have a tentative peace and we can resolve, reach political agreement but I think he's Asher's wise to point out to the social cleavages matters that exist before the Saudi lead intervention before U.S. involvement. And they're going to exist long after. It's a real similar diagnosis or problem to what we see in contemporary Iraq and Syria and Libya, that these are competitions over really redefining the parameters of the state. And I think what we see that provides stability and some level of representation is instances where we have federalized systems of kind of weaker central governments but really respect for regional autonomy with respect to politics and economics, Iraqi Kurdistan, I think about Cyprus, places like, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland autonomous areas of Northern Somalia that these are not fully functioning democratic or developed states. But neither are they failing or weak states, they balance the demands for governance and state capacity with local legitimacy with this hybrid hybrid form of political authority. So that may provide some anecdotes or some successful cases of what to look forward to, in terms of restoring governments to Yemen, as Asher points out, it's not going to be a function of U.S., Saudi or even Iranian state building or proxy war. That's going to be a function of domestic politics in Yemen. And sorting, you know, sorting these cleavages
Lauren Henry: Very curious to hear about what you both think the way forward is, but just for our listeners, who may not be sort of familiar with the thicket of international involvement on the ground, and Yemen, Dr. Knuppe, if you wouldn't mind just walking us through who exactly is in Yemen, why they're in Yemen, and what they're doing there. you've alluded to both Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And I know that there's a United States presence as well. And what's the sort of what's at stake on that level of your sort of interacting viewpoints of the Civil War?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Certainly, so yeah, Asher's pointed out kind of the domestic politics or that the nature of the domestic actors involved in the Civil War. As someone that studies international politics, I would look at the role of, of regional states in the U.S. So if we start with the U.S., the U.S. is traditionally involved in a pretty cohesive political relationship with Saleh the former president, and that, particularly after September 11, 2001, there's tacit coordination on counterterrorism not only because U.S. was interested in fighting the so called Global War on Terror, but also because Saleh wanted to consolidate power and control right, he was worried about domestic Islamist within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula, and any of its affiliates, threatening his control. And so we worked with Arab autocrats rather effectively from the counterterrorism perspective at identifying and eliminating these groups, despite the fact that we're fundamentally undermining former U.S. perceptions of legitimacy on the ground. And so you have a U.S. counterterrorism mission in Yemen that involves what we call a light footprint. It's not lots of U.S. ground troops, marching around Yemen, Special Operations, it's a drone war. It's coordinating with the Yemeni military, on that kind of a shadow war, kind of a more discreet form of intervention.
Lauren Henry: So to be very clear, you're speaking contemporarily.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Contemporarily. Yes. Since 2001.
Lauren Henry: The United States government is supporting the internationally recognized government. How does the United States interface with this Civil War conflict?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, in three different ways. So before the abdication of Hadi, it really worked with the internationally recognized government and counterterrorism. Now it's coordinating with Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi led coalition. And it's actually--United States is basically operating independently of the Yemeni government and the Saudis to wage direct counterterrorism interdiction for Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in the region. So that's, its operating through local actors, as well as independently to pursue the counterterrorism interests.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: The irony amongst this and I'll just add in over here is that there's really only one power in the region that's actually fighting groups, traditionally known as Al Qaeda, and ISIS. And, you know, that's not the Saudis ironically, that's the Houthis.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, that's right.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Part of this is a division between Sunni and Shia Islam--is a brief background. So Sunni and Shia Islam were the two main groups of Islamic theology. This goes back centuries to to the roots of Islamic religious history. For the intents of understanding Yemen the Zaidi, the Houthis' main religious body are staunchly Shi'i, staunchly Zaidi, and see the spread of groups like Al Qaeda and like ISIS, and frankly, like this Saudi Wahhabi movement, which is very close in line in a doctrinal level to Al Qaeda -- sees them as invading Yemen, both religiously and practically, with actual troops in the ground. That's part of the irony of U.S. policies. You're forced into a corner to recognize an international government. And that's currently on their president Mansur Hadi sitting in a luxury hotel in Riyadh, with no legitimacy on the ground in Yemen, but yet still occupies every ambassadorial role, occupies the UN. While at the same time you have a group of Houthis, these northern tribesmen, who hold a monopoly on legitimacy in Yemen, but are not internationally recognized. And even though they fall in line with a lot of U.S. counterterrorism policy doesn't necessarily translate into practical diplomacy or international affairs. That's been historically a very tragic bit. But as the current situation is that it's very difficult to get past that sense of internationally recognized governments even though they're sitting in exile.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: I think it's a great point. It's important to note as well, that US policy vis-à-vis Yemen is really bifurcated. It's one of these rare instances where you have the U.S. Congress resurrecting the 1970s War Powers Act, to reassert congressional authority over U.S. military action in Yemen, and yet in the executive branch with President Trump and his close acolytes, the very personal transactional, personal based, diplomacy with the house of Saud, and Saudi Arabians. So even within the United States, we're having these debates about the role of US foreign policy in Yemen, there's a division between the interests in the Congress, and what President Trump and his closest allies are trying to accomplish. I mean, the United States does not have an ambassador to Saudi Arabia at this point. And so it's all very personal transactional diplomacy. And despite the fact that the Congress has voted against U.S. efforts there, it looks like President Trump most certainly will veto that and Congress doesn't have a veto proof majority to kind of regain congressional control of U.S. support for the Saudi coalition. So even within the United States were divided us to the proper role of U.S. assistance in the Civil War.
Eric Michael Rhodes: So just for our listeners' sake, Dr. Orkaby, you mentioned that President Hadi, who is Saleh's successor is in exile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. So what are Saudi Arabia's historic interests in Yemen?
Dr. Asher Orkaby: I think that's a great question, because without understanding the long history of Saudi Yemeni tensions, it's difficult to understand what the Saudis are doing, what their end goal is. And then on a more practical level, how do we solve Saudi Yemeni tensions? For this you need to go back to 1933, shortly after Saudi Arabia was first founded. There's a famous, could be apocryphal, episode as the founder, ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia sends an emissary, a peace emissary, to the Yemeni Imam at the time, the leader, Imam Yahya. And asks him to resolve a Saudi Yemeni border dispute. Saudi Arabia in Yemen share a very large border. And to this request, the Imam Yahya of Yemen responds, Who are you calling ibn Saud Bedouin to come tell me, settled Bedouin for the past 900 years, what I should and shouldn't do? So there's a cultural aspect to it in terms of nomadic Bedouins versus settled Bedouins in Yemen. But beyond that, this really underscores the border tensions between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And of course, when this emissary was rejected Yemen and Saudi Arabia fought their first border war, first of many tensions along the border, and concluded in 1934, something known as the Treaty of Taif. Now this treaty of Taif what was important about it, so Yemen loses the war, and is forced to cede three provinces over to Saudi Arabia, these provinces are called Asir, Najran, and Jizan. Asir may be familiar to a lot of people because that's where a lot of the 911 terrorists have come from. They're, in fact, Yemeni culturally and religiously, but are part of Saudi Arabia. And these three provinces have been at the corner of Yemen Saudi conflict for the decades since 1934. At each point that the Yemeni Government seems to be emerging as a strong central government, Saudi policy has been to counteract that strong central government. There were episodes both during the 1960s when the Republic was first founded, during the 1970s when Yemen had a particularly strong president named Ibrahim al-Hamdi, and also when Yemen first unified in 1990, creating a unified Yemen and a threat to Saudi Arabia because one of the first declarations of the Yemeni government was, we're going to retake the three provinces. Fast forwarding then to the Houthi movement to understand how that fits into the Yemen Saudi conflict. The Houthis, one of their first items on the agenda, was we're going to retake these three disputed provinces. So the Houthi government is not a threat, because of Iran, but it's a threat because of the Saudi Yemen border tension, that has been very large part of Yemen, historic Yemen, Saudi tensions. Part of solving the Saudi Coalition's problem the Saudis' issue with Yemen is solving that southern border crisis. Creating stability along the southern border, will go a long way to alleviating Saudi Yemeni tensions.
Lauren Henry: I wanted to ask about the coalition aspect of it. We're slowly widening out our viewpoint here that we sort of started talking about these internal tensions. And now we're looking at the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But who makes up this coalition? And why are they involved here? And what role does Iran play in all of this, either in their motivations, or in the progress of the conflict itself?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: The Saudi led coalition of March 2015, is a function of the Saudi military, the Emirates. I have to ask Asher, it may also be the Egyptians. They don't have a large military footprint, but it's dominated by the Saudis and Emirates supported by the United States. And this is an example of U.S. providing not flying alongside Saudi warplanes but rather providing a lot of sophisticated air to air refueling, logistics, intelligence and munitions. So it's incredibly complicated to wage an air intervention absent ground troops. And so the U.S. has provided kind of the necessary logistical support for the Saudis to continue their sorties or aerial sorties over Yemen. At the same time, the Emiraties is known as the Sparta, the Sparta state of the Persian Gulf, have sought to exercise some military strength in the region as well. They've sent ground troops into Yemen. They're supporting, as Asher mentioned, the southern kind of transitional breakaway forces that are funding Islamist groups that are incredibly effective at combating Houthi insurgents. And so there's a combination of U.S. support for the Saudis and Yemenis, and also indirect security assistance to local groups opposed to the Houthis all in an effort to counter an Iranian proxy war and support for the Houthi movement. So the Saudis are concerned certainly about border security and regional hegemony in the Gulf. They also look, Mohammed bin Salman the Crown Prince and really a nexus of political power in the kingdom, looks across the Gulf sees the Iranians, sees the Iranian military success at advising, assisting and supporting proxy forces in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and is increasingly worried a successful proxy support in Yemen that would undermine their political insecurity. And for good reason, right? You saw Houthi forces launching Scud missiles, kind of regional missiles, into civilian centers into Saudi Arabia. So these are not unfounded security concerns. At the same time, they very well could be embellished, or accented in an effort to gain U.S. compliance. And so there's a very real Saudi Iranian kind of proxy war contention, even as there is dynamics of an internal Civil War, the US Saudi relationship's very much at the center of this, Trump's, the President's relationship with the Crown Prince, you have international local and regional political dynamics all interacting, which makes it really an intractable conflict.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Just taking it back in history for a second to explain coalitions. So on a very fundamental level, a coalition, the Saudi coalition, is really about dollars and cents, is that the Saudis can offer a significant amount of money to any country willing to support this coalition to make it seem like an international coalition. So obviously, dollars in oil money definitely does speak. In terms of the regional conflict, if you think back to the 1970s, in Saudi American relations during the 1970s. There's some really great lines from King Faisal and others after him pointing to the danger of communist takeover in Saudi Arabia during the 60s and 70s. And you see various U.S. presidents reacting to this with alarm that if we don't, if the United States does not aid Saudi Arabia, then communists will take over. The communists were never going to take over Saudi Arabia. It's a various number of reasons, just mostly religious reasons would never have stood for a communist state. Nonetheless, as soon as you say that, unless you support Saudi Arabia, then they'll be a communist takeover, then not supporting Saudi Arabia will be politically disadvantageous. And the same is true in the current climate. As soon as Saudi Arabia declares that the Houthi movement is an Iranian proxy immediately there'll be calls within the United States and elsewhere to support the anti-Houthi forces because any failure to do so would be a failure, a real political gambit, because not looking tough on Iran would not work well in the elections, etc. So that's really what it's about. How much the Iranians actually influenced the Houthis. That is probably tenuous at best. A limited amount of material weapons that actually get into Yemeni territory, and Austin, you mentioned the the Scud missiles, if you actually look at the origin of those Scud missiles, they go back to the second Yemen civil war in 1994 between North and South Yemen, so South Yemen, there was an arms embargo against South Yemen. None of the Western countries are willing to arm South Yemen, except Saudi Arabia who had an interest in dividing Yemen. The only country who was willing to sell Saudi Arabia arms at the time was North Korea. So these Scud missiles were purchased austensibly for South Yemen, by Saudi Arabia from North Korea. But the problem is, by the time the Scud missiles arrived in Yemen, and the southern Yemeni port city of Aden, the war was over. So these Scud missiles became property of the Yemeni army, and are now being launched at Saudi Arabia. So, sure, Saudis are concerned but the only fault is in them for arming the Yemeni military with hundreds of Scud missiles who are now being launched on Saudi Arabia. So it's a bit of an ironic twist, but it's one that you need to understand within the context of broader U.S. Saudi relations.
Eric Michael Rhodes: Speaking of the impacts of the war, who is getting hit hardest by these Scud missiles? How has this conflict precipitated what the European Union calls the world's largest humanitarian crisis? What kinds of privations do ordinary Yemenis face today?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: The current complex really exacerbated a lot of underlying humanitarian dynamics was going on in Yemen. We see that there's increasingly widespread cholera epidemic. The war has introduced increased deprivation in terms of access to food and fuel. When you have conflict with these key ports, it's not that they don't have access to food, but it's distributing food, humanitarian aid, fuel, etc. You have all these dynamics that are really exacerbated by climate change. Yemen, really suffers an incredible amount of drought and may be one of the first countries we see functionally run out of water in the coming decades. And so you have the climate dimension, you have the cholera, the public health dimension. You have lots of international aid organizations trying to deliver aid but distributing it, protecting these organizations, and being able to really meet the public health needs and malnutrition, etc, is really what's complicated. It's incredibly complicated logistically to deliver aide in the midst of a fighting. And so part of the design of this tentative peace agreement last December, was to create some breathing room for immediate you humanitarian relief. I think a lot of our U.S. listeners don't realize that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is far worse than in Iraq or Syria, despite the fact that the fighting is more pitched in a place like, in the Syrian civil war.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Austin, yeah, I think you're right. If you look at the statistics, definitely number of cholera epidemics and even more so if you see a picture of a starving child, your heart is going to pour out to this and anybody whose heart doesn't should definitely reconsider where their sympathies are lying. But beyond those statistics, and beyond those heart wrenching photos, I think it's important to, to look at what's actually going on in Yemen. And without bringing up any specific names or organizations it's clear that the number of cholera victims is actually far exaggerated. It's hard to get statistics in an area of the world where you don't have a centralized medical record. So which means you could have one person come in with cholera and then assume that 1,000 more haven't come in and in addition to that it's extrapolating those numbers, and especially in Yemen, where the diagnosis of cholera could be definitely conflated with other stomach ailments. Anybody comes in with an upset stomach, you assume it's cholera. So that inflates the numbers. So are there a million cholera victims? Probably not. And from the research I've done, it's probably closer to between 10 and 100,000. But nonetheless, and you ask why does this continue and understanding also about Yemen. I think also you made a good point that Yemen has always been rain dependent. Its history for thousands of years has always been one of periodic famines sparked by, which then lead to, conflict. So yeah, when you have a rain dependent economy, and a rain dependent agriculture, you're going to have spikes, and falls in agricultural production. It was actually part of the reason why Yemen is running out of water is because of misplaced US AID dollars. During the 1970s and 80s wells were dug in many of these villages as part of a wide scale, self-help program. But when you dig wells, and you don't teach conservation, water conservation, at the same time, then eventually the wells stop producing water. But if you don't teach the conservation then you end up coming up with, with that, just, you know, then a point then with all of that considered looking at the humanitarian aid, the amount of the humanitarian aid that the European Union is declared for this year is $4 billion. To put that into context, with Yemeni's population, it comes out to about $140, per Yemeni that has been dedicated for humanitarian aid, and then equals about 10% of the per capita GDP in Yemen. So this humanitarian aid has become one of the largest if not the largest natural resource that Yemen is producing in the current fiscal year. It's disincentivizing any end to this conflict. By constantly dumping additional humanitarian aid onto the conflict you create a wartime economy that's self sustaining, and in essence, that the longer this war goes on, the more humanitarian aid is coming in. And you can be assured as Austin said, that that humanitarian aid is not necessarily going to the people who need it the most. You can find food in Yemen. Problem is, is that the purchasing power for most of Yemenis, with a falling rial, with currency is almost near impossible to actually purchase these goods that are given for free by the international community, and then turned into a wartime economy. So it sounds almost heinous to say, but if anything, humanitarian aid has been exacerbating the humanitarian conflict. Aid needs to be given more judiciously and, frankly, the European Union has been hiding behind the increased numbers in dollars amounts for humanitarian aid, rather than actually addressing the situation. It's easy every time to hide behind it larger and larger, whether it's 2 billion, 3 billion or 4 billion dollars in humanitarian aid without actually putting your policies on the line in Yemen and actually intervening in a more substantive way, hiding behind this humanitarian aid, calls for ends to violence and all these other catchphrases without actually producing anything of consequence in Yemen. So it's a bit different than what you'd hear on regular media. But that's, in fact, the reality what's happening in Yemen.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: I think it's a great point. I mean, political science, we spend a lot of time talking about the aid trap or these perverse, negative consequences to foreign aid. I think about, Asher's comments, remind me of what's going on Afghanistan, where at some point, in the last five or six years that international investment aid accounted for a majority of Afghan national GDP. So it was either foreign aid or heroin production that was the vast amount of economic production in the state. How do you expect local actors to adjudicate concerns over sovereignty and territory and political authority when they're dependent on these external revenue streams, basically. And so there's a perverse incentive to exacerbate the conflict, to attract an increased levels of security systems and foreign aid, something they're using manipulating strategically for these local actors to advance their interests. So yeah, that's absolutely right.
Lauren Henry: Dr. Knuppe, you mentioned the truce in the port city of Hodeidah that came into effect in December 2018. And Dr. Orkaby, you also mentioned this idea that the European Union could possibly be taking a different role, or should possibly be taking a different role. I was wondering if you could talk to us about the attempts that have been made to solve this crisis to end the war so far? What does that look like? And what has the effect been? Has it been effective at all? You know, are we at a turning point or what has been done?
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, so I think there's two sides of this. There's the the Stockholm agreement of December, I think it was 2018, where you had representatives from the Houthi movement in the international regime or government in Stockholm to over the course of a week or so to adjudicate an immediate temporary suspension of hostilities to adjudicate some these concerns, and there's a big focus on humanitarian relief and having the United States leverage their relationship with Saudi to posit the air war in order to kind of adjudicate some of these concerns. There's lots of debate over getting access to these port cities there's Salif and Aden and but also Hodeidah, which is a source of a lot of political fighting and political violence, major port access for food and relief. And so a lot of these are these, these micro kind of immediate term political negotiations that kind of get some traction on the larger term conflict. From the perspective of US foreign policy, like I mentioned, you've seen, even in the last two years, you've had members of the Congress and senate reassert congressional authority under the War Powers Act which was a product of the Vietnam War, to try to arrest or inhibit the executive branch's ability to support the Saudi coalition. And I mentioned they don't have veto proof majority for either house, and it's most certain that the Trump administration will veto, check on executive power. But even in the context of U.S. foreign policy, you have two complete, you have the congressional interests, and then you have the Trump administration's kind of unusual over interpersonal relationship with autocrats around the world. But Mohammed bin Salman in particular and the kind of the transactional nature of Saudi support.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: A lot of what's happening in the international community, actually, the two most important things to come out in the past six months have come out of Stockholm. So one is also mentions the Stockholm agreement, where the UN envoy finally managed to get some quorum of representation together in Stockholm. And the best thing I think that's come out of this conflict for Yemenis is some really great comedians have come out of here and have made their careers on political satirist. And some of the best photos that have come out of the Stockholm agreement are Yemenis were used to relatively mild climate coming to Stockholm where it was below zero temperatures and you see them coming in with these jackets, maybe three, four or five jackets and trying to stay warm and this Swedish temperature and then some of the Houthi representatives coming back. And you know, what kind of joke was this taking us to such cold climates? How did the Europeans live? Those sorts of questions. But it underlines only slightly the ridiculous nature of how this international diplomacy has been conducted. Previously, the Yemeni government and Houthis during the 2004 to 2010 conflict took advantage of the Qataris and a really safe negotiating space in Doha to come up with two substantive agreements, the Doha agreements, one and two. And honestly, they should have been the basis to the international community's dialogue and diplomacy. But the way the UN works is really a bit hegemonic in terms of the way they run their diplomacy. It's always been so and, unfortunately, is really the case in Yemen as well. Back in the 1960s, the UN Yemen observer mission was in Yemen to oversee the withdrawal of foreign forces Egypt and Saudi during the first Civil War, much of it was constrained by international diplomacy and politics. This is also true after the the Arab Spring. Jamal bin Omar, who at times was was touted by the Obama administration, as a hero for overseeing post Arab Spring reconciliation in Yemen. Turns out that while he was organizing something called the National Dialogue Conference, the NDC in Yemen in 2012, that the only reason that Yemenis were staying in this conference is because Jamal bin Omar who was the UN Special Envoy was giving out envelopes of cash convincing people to come to this dialogue conference. It was months on a really expensive hotel bill at the Mövenpick and Sana'a to a nice, it was a nice hotel. And a lot of Yemeni tribesmen leaders loved the fact that they were wined and dined for about six months to talk about Yemen's future. But the UN didn't really understand what the conflict was about. It was more about the photo ops, whether it's Yemen, wearing a lot of jackets, or Houthis shaking hands with an internationally recognized government. The other bit that's really coming out of Stockholm is something that didn't receive the same attention is the SIPRI the Stockholm Peace Research Institute. And but three, four weeks ago came out with a study that in fact, the United States does not have a monopoly on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, or to any other country in the world. So that congressional calls pressure on the U.S. president to pull back U.S. support from Saudi Arabia may sound very good in terms of backing humanitarian human rights and peace conflicts, but won't have a positive effect on the Yemen Civil War. And in fact, pulling back U.S. role in this civil war would take a real leverage point away from international diplomatic efforts, because the Saudis could easily go to another country, whether it's the Chinese weapons industry or the Russians, or India and get similar weaponry. They might have a lull of retraining their their soldiers and new weapons. The Chinese would give weapons to Saudi Arabia without those same checks and balances on Saudi policy. So if anything pulling back the United States and its role in the war may actually exacerbate this conflict because it would give a carte blanche to Saudi policy to do whatever they want, without having to answer to a Western public.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Yeah, I think that's right. I think that's one of the more principal arguments to make in favor of using the U.S. Saudi relationship as a means to check Saudi behavior. At the same time, there would be, I think, a period of adjustment. I think the Saudis have outside options that you know, at the same time, right, they're flying American fighter jets that require replacement parts, munitions, intelligence, logistics, support. These are incredibly complicated means of assistance that maybe could be, you could supplement with a different revenue stream, so to speak, but it would take some time. It would be far less effective than U.S. military assistance. And so I think it's a toss up. And it's a point of contention, whether or not U.S. support for the Saudi coalition as a means of credible assurance of control of Saudi behavior, or if the U.S. are basically being taken for a ride, using, basically the Saudis to extract U.S. support to pursue their local political interest independent of U.S. authority. And either either way, I think we're, there's not a lot of good options for U.S. ability to influence or temper Saudi behavior in the Gulf.
Eric Michael Rhodes: So we've heard a little bit about current efforts to establish peace in Yemen. And this is a podcast about the past. So we try to resist the urge to prognosticate. That being said, let's prognosticate and ask what does a way out of conflict look like for Yemen? And what will it take to reach a resolution?
Dr. Asher Orkaby: I can offer a solution one which I've been working as of this morning with Yemeni groups to implement is something of a federal state in Yemen. Now that's it's often difficult to, to manage. But if you actually look at the fault lines of the military, today, there's a North Yemen, there's a South Yemen, and there's an East Yemen. North Yemen being the one that is currently controlled by the Houthis, the South Yemen, which is a combination of the Southern Transitional Council, and a group called al-Hirak, the southern liberation movement. And then in east Yemen and there's a traditionally autonomous region of Hadhramaut, which literally means the gates of death, but is also, has some of the most beautiful Desert Oases and is also very wealthy. So you're looking at three, essentially three regions in Yemen, that rather than break up into separate states as had been the case in the past, can form a federal state. The background to this historically is that prior to the unification of Yemen, and these three parts of Yemen in 1990, there was no concept of a United Yemen. Yemen didn't exist as in the political boundaries that it had today. So really was in 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen putting together these three parts of Yemen and trying to create one out of them, maybe that is what failed that unification. So the solution would be giving those northern tribesmen that are part of the Houthi movement, the political equality and power that they have been advocating for for several decades. Giving the southern movement the independence and autonomy that they have sought within the Yemini context. And finally giving the Hadhrami in the East that autonomy that they've had for centuries. But yet putting the three together in a loose and weak central government in Sana'a that would really give that Yemen the final solution for its major political tensions and problems. And in terms of the Saudis, it's helping the Saudis maintain that southern border, and most importantly, that southern border tensions that have really fueled this conflict. The UN could actually do something productive rather than hold expensive meetings in Stockholm is to put an observer group along the border, something similar to what was done during the 1960s to ensure that the Houthis don't attack the Saudis and that the Saudis aren't infringing on Yemeni sovereign territory. That would go a long way into alleviating those tensions and also giving the Saudis a face saving measure to withdraw from the Yemen conflict and still declare victory as having secured their southern border.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: I think it's right. I think that the federalism solution is intriguing. There's a lot of contemporary analogs that we can point to that are fairly successful. I think I mentioned the Cyprus conflict, right, Northern Cyprus, Moldova, Somaliland, Somalia. See this, this semi autonomous region of Northern Somalia functions pretty effectively, despite the fact that it's neither democratic or liberal in a traditional sense of the word. So I like this idea of the federalism and giving local stakeholders some political authority and keeping political authority diffused. I think there's a lot of question marks with that approach and in southern Yemen at the Southern Transition Council. To what extent can we ensure, can local Yemini political authorities ensure that you don't have a semi autonomous regions basically, de facto, Calafat under the control of the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State in Yemen. We want indigenous kind of bottom up governance to emerge. At the same time ensuring that foreign fighters don't basically create their own form of governance. We have limited effectiveness in that. But from the interests of U.S. policy, we still have an interest in making sure that domestic governance isn't basically turned over to to al-Qaeda's wider network.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Yemen can't be solved in a day, but we made it an effort.
Lauren Henry: We'll wrap it up on that note. Thank you again to our two guests, Dr. Asher Orkaby and Dr. Austin Knuppe.
Dr. Asher Orkaby: Our pleasure.
Dr. Austin Knuppe: Thanks so much.
Lauren Henry: Thank you, everyone. This episode of History Talk was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative in the Goldberg Center, and the history departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. And our audio producers and hosts are me, Lauren Henry, and Eric Michael Rhodes. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website, origins.osu.edu on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. And as always, you can find us on Twitter, @originsOSU and @historytalkpod. Thank you for listening and we'll see you next month.