In the waning hours of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an order designating the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization; one of Joe Biden’s first actions upon taking office was to reverse that designation. Now, under pressure from the United Arab Emirates, he may be having second thoughts. Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein and Michigan State University assistant professor Shireen Al-Adeimi join Ryan Grim to discuss the potential consequences of restoring Trump’s last-minute order.
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Ryan Grim: So inflation numbers are out and prices rose at a 7.5 percent annual clip, according to the Department of Labor’s latest data. Joe Manchin was quickly out with: “I told you so,” and he has framed his opposition to the Build Back Better Act as rooted in a fear of what he calls “the inflation tax.”
Sen. Joe Manchin: Where I’m at right now, the inflation that I was concerned about, it’s not transitory, it’s real, it’s harming every West Virginian: the cost of gasoline, the cost of groceries.
RG: But a significant chunk of that has nothing at all to do with federal spending, but it’s instead a function of rising energy prices. When oil prices rise, we not only pay more at the pump, we pay more for everything that’s produced using energy, which is nearly everything. So that puts oil prices right in the center of not just our domestic politics, but our foreign policy too.
Since we last covered the war in Yemen on this podcast a year ago, after Biden promised to end support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s “offensive operations” there, the war has only ramped up and the conditions on the ground have only gotten worse. The question for American foreign policy makers seems to be: How many Yemeni lives are we willing to trade for how many new barrels of oil?
This week President Biden and Saudi King Salman spoke, and oil production was on the agenda. But Jared Kushner is still at work in the region. The autocrats there appear to be hoping they can wait out, and perhaps help drive out, the Biden administration to get back to the more explicitly transactional politics of the last administration.
Bloomberg reported Thursday that Kushner recently met with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while in Saudi Arabia, and he met as well with the head of the country’s national oil company, raising money for his new investment firm. So Saudi has both the current administration and an administration-in-waiting both making pitches, giving them options to choose from. I’m told by regional sources Kushner also went to Qatar for meetings, but came up empty there — not surprising given his hostile posture toward the Qataris while he was in the White House.
Drones originating in Yemen have begun successfully striking Abu Dhabi, changing the nature of this conflict. My colleague Ken Klippenstein broke the news this week that the Biden administration is now considering reversing itself and taking the major step of designating the Houthis in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization.
Ken joins us today to help unpack all of this, and I’m also happy to welcome back Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemini-born assistant professor at Michigan State University, who writes and speaks frequently on the conflict.
Ken Klippenstein and Shireen Al-Adeimi, thank you so much for joining me.
Ken Klippenstein: Good to be with you.
Shireen Al-Adeimi: Thanks for having me.
RG: And so, Ken, I want to start with you to talk about the call this week between King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Biden. You compared the two different readouts that each country gave of that call, and found one noticeable difference. Tell us about that.
KK: Yeah, so during that call, King Salman’s transcript included something in it that the U.S. transcript of Biden’s conversation did not. And that was King Salman asserting his obligations to OPEC Plus. If you look at the U.S. readout, it just describes how they talked about the importance of maintaining the stability of the oil markets.
Now, OPEC Plus refers to the group of oil producing nations of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, along with Russia and a bunch of others, where they agree to set prices. And the interesting context to this is that President Biden has, for months now, been urging the Saudis to increase production, because they have a very low production quota right now, which is driving up gas prices in the U.S., driving up prices of goods because of that, and MBS has refused to do that so far, or King Salman.
And so what the discrepancy between those two readouts suggests is that Biden asked once again, as he has publicly, to increase production and that the Saudi government has declined to do so, saying: We have to stick with OPEC Plus here.
RG: Right. And very telling that Biden’s team chose not to put that on the readout, because they clearly know if he had pledged, OK, yeah, I’ll help you out with gas prices, you can believe that some diplomatic version of that would have been put into the U.S. version of the readout. So clearly, they were not happy with the answer.
The Saudis though, other than King Salman, were not happy, I assume, with the call itself — in other words, who was on the call. President Biden, throughout the campaign, came after Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, who has become the kind of de facto ruler and insisted — he called him a pariah, said I’m not going to deal with him, and has insisted on not treating him as the actual head of Saudi Arabia and instead wants to interact with King Salman as his counterpart. And so my sense is that is a significant reason why Saudi Arabia keeps telling him no.
Now, at the same time, Biden has not really put the brakes on the war in Yemen and has allowed significant weapons shipments to flow out. So Shireen, can you bring us up to speed on where the war in Yemen is at this point? And who is MBS? And what’s his role in this?
SAA: Yeah, so MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, is the one who launched this offensive in Yemen in March of 2015. This was just two months after he became Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister at the time — now he’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler, people would say, and launched this offensive, ostensibly, to restore Yemen’s U.N.-recognized president to power, called it Decisive Storm, didn’t end in two weeks as he expected, and here we are almost seven years later. And it’s very much seen as his war — alongside of course, the UAE, and his allies in the U.S. and the U.K. and other countries.
And so the war has not gotten any better. It’s gotten worse. There was some hope when Biden took office because of certain things he said during the campaign trail — of course, we know this support for the war began under the Obama-Biden administration in 2015 — but Biden started making statements like you said about making MBS a pariah, about ending all weapons sales, his campaign being very explicit about ending all forms of support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. He said they’re going in, killing innocent children and I will put an end to this.
A year ago, he announced officially in his first foreign policy speech that he was going to end, and enter a random distinction here, a dichotomy, he said he was going to end the offensive operations in Yemen, and he was going to end relevant arms sales.
And he’s done the opposite. He’s not ended the war. He’s not ended U.S. support for the war. He has helped him launch and continue to launch offensives in Yemen. He approved the weapon sales that he paused temporarily to review both to the Saudis and to the UAE, and is now considering designating the Houthis as terrorists. And so he’s, in many ways, kind of escalated, or at least kept things as they were during the Obama and the Trump administrations.
RG: So other than the direct audience with Biden, it does seem like MBS is getting everything that he’s wanted. The war is continuing; the weapons are continuing to flow. He has not given Biden what he wants on the gas prices. I’m sure that the Biden team believes that a significant chunk of their collapse in approval rating is connected to gas prices; politicians heading into midterms don’t care about anything more than gas prices.
And so it goes to one of the many problems of linking your entire economy to fossil fuels, is that people like the Houthis in a country like Yemen then get kind of caught up and become a fifth or sixth or seventh level concern for foreign policymakers as they’re working through these issues. And I want to unpack what you said about the the effort to get them designated as foreign terrorists.
Ken, you scooped this week, that there is serious deliberation within the White House to do that, and pressure: What have you learned about the push to designate the Houthis as terrorists?
KK: Yeah. So when I first heard President Biden say that we’re looking into it, I thought, oh, maybe this is just him trying to look like he’s taking this seriously for the benefit of the UAE. So I started poking around — and pretty quickly, folks in the Intelligence Committee told me that the NSC, National Security Council, had in fact, held formal meetings, and they were disseminating something called a policy options paper that sort of delineates choices that policymakers have with respect to foreign policy — and in addition to that, they discussed this policy options paper last week, Friday, in what’s called a deputies committee meeting, which is very senior administration officials from the different agencies, not just within NSC, but representing departments like the State Department, where they discussed the advisability of this course of action.
So it really looks like he is taking this seriously. And that that wasn’t just rhetoric that he was putting forward.
RG: And so, Shireen, who are the Houthis and who wants them designated as terrorists — and what would be the implications of that?
SAA: So the Houthis came to prominence in the late ’90s and early 2000s in Yemen when they were speaking out against corruption by the Yemeni government at the time, both internally and also the influence of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the influence of the U.S. in Yemen. And this led to six different fights with President Saleh at the time, the government, in Yemen in the early 2000s. And Saleh enlisted the help of the Saudis to fight the Houthis. And they didn’t succeed in any of these fights. And the idea was that: Well, these guys are at your border, it’s in your own national security interest to help join this fight against the Houthis before they become a big problem.
And they, in fact, just grew as a movement. And they tried to enlist the help of the US in the fight against the Houthis at the time, under the accusation that they were getting weapons and support from Iran, but there was no evidence to support that. And so the U.S. didn’t, in fact, get involved in the early 2000s against the Houthis.
But in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring in Yemen, and the kind of this revolution that was still in tumult years later, the Houthis ended up taking over the capital Sanaa in late 2014, to apply pressure to the interim government at the time. And they still were able to sit down in early 2015, with various factions of the government and other parties in Yemen, and under the supervision of the U.N. Envoy at the time, Jamal Benomar, they were able to form a unity government, a coalition government, and Jamal Benomar writes in Newsweek last year or the year before, how he was in communication with the Saudis, and they were thinking about where to sign this agreement, Yemen was finally going to have some kind of coalition government, and the Saudis began bombing two days later.
So the Houthis, since then, have become much stronger as a movement. They have enlisted the help of many tribes in Yemen, and they have formed an armed opposition to the Saudi-led coalition since 2015.
RG: And so what has the UAE’s role been in this? Out of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who’s taking a more active role in this contest?
SAA: They’re both actively involved in Yemen and have been since 2015. The coalition that began bombing Yemen, was formed largely with UAE and Saudi military. But the UAE has actually taken an interesting role. So they’re not just bombing like the Saudis are, but they created a sort of police state in areas that they control in South Yemen. So there have been investigations by the AP that uncovered at least 18 secret prisons that were operated by the UAE where there was documented evidence of torture. The UAE has been involved in battles on the ground in northern Yemen, in Marib, to try to take that over from the Houthis. They have been kind of taking over various Yemeni islands and they’ve made them into tourist destinations, essentially. And we’re talking about really interesting and just spectacular islands off the south coast of Yemen that the UAE has taken over. And they’ve been controlling the gas liquefaction plants and Yemeni ports in the south. And so they’ve had much more strategic and commercial interests in Yemen, whereas the Saudis just seem to want to bomb their way through winning this war. So I would say that the UAE has had a much more nefarious role in Yemen than the Saudis.
RG: And Ken, who’s leading the charge in Washington to push for this terrorist designation?
KK: Definitely the UAE but, to my surprise, also the Israeli government — and I’m working on a story about this now — has been pushing for this not just to the White House, but members of Congress as well.
RG: What’s their interest in the situation?
KK: What I’m told, is that they are doing this as a favor to the UAE, pursuant to the Abraham Accords and their much closer relationship with these Gulf nations, because of that Trump-era agreement; that agreement that was framed, I think disingenuously, as a peace agreement, when in practical terms, what it’s meant is a more overt relationship, like we’re seeing now, in pushing for the Yemen conflict to continue going, but then also providing surveillance and intelligence equipment for these Gulf monarchies to repress their own people.
RG: And what argument are they making in Washington? Why should the U.S. do what they’re asking?
KK: Well, one point they’re advancing now that they didn’t used to as much in the past is that there’s a zero-sum game between the U.S. and China. And if we don’t give them everything they want, they’re going to run to the arms of China, so we’d better do that. And they’ve been very effective at placing strategically — if you talk to folks in the intelligence community — they’re very skeptical about all these news articles about, for instance, a couple months ago, it came out that there was a supposedly secret military base that the Chinese were erecting in the UAE and everybody panicked — all the political folks, the appointees panicked about that. You talk to folks in the intelligence community and they say: There’s no way — we knew about this years ago.
They’re much more cynical about what it means. They think that they’re playing the press and trying to get everyone scared so that, oh, we better give them whatever concessions they want, so that they don’t work with the Chinese instead of us, when in reality, we are the partner of choice in the region. There’s so many strategic and structural reasons that they would rather work with the Americans than with the Chinese government.
RG: Yeah, and Shireen, how are you seeing China’s role in the region play out?
SAA: China’s role is interesting. When the war in Yemen began in 2015, a couple months later, the Chinese built a base, or began negotiating for building a base on the other side of the street. So Yemen controls Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and on the other side is Djibouti, and they set up their first international base in Djibouti. And the negotiation started in 2015, just after the war began, and the base was constructed in 2017, which apparently, according to the New York Times, was a surprise to the Americans at the time.
And so they realize the importance of Yemen’s strategic location. This often gets construed as like, oh, it’s about curtailing Iranian influence, but really Yemen has a geopolitical location that the U.S., and the Saudis, and the Emiratis are interested in. Their oil and oil products, 6.2 million barrels a day, are still traveling through that strait. Plus world shipping, everything going through the Suez Canal has to go through Yemen first, and back from there as well.
And so I think that’s one aspect. But I would agree that this is just kind of an overstatement of China’s role, because all of their weapons they’re getting from the U.S. and there’s no way for them to just switch over to China. It would require an entirely different weapons system to be able to accept Chinese weapons, for example — a process that could take 10 years to even get to, and so China’s not going to be supplying the UAE with any significant weapons or anything like that. They’re still very much reliant on the U.S. for that.
RG: The other new development in this war is that the war has started to come home to the UAE. There have been all of these reports and some videos of Houthi-run drones that have been able to make it to Abu Dhabi and launch drone strikes. Early in the war, and I’m sure you remember that the UAE lost several dozen of their own fighters, and mostly the Emiratis are fighting with mercenaries there, but several dozen of their own citizens were killed, and it was a 9/11-like event for the Emiratis, because they had not experienced that that type of war coming home to the UAE — more used to like the United States does now, where we bring we bring the wars overseas, but we’re not used to it blowing back.
So how have the strikes hitting Abu Dhabi changed everybody’s calculation about this war?
SAA: Well, they called it a war and they wanted to call it a war for all these years, but they didn’t expect people to fight back. And so what was it then, in the last seven years? Was it a genocide? Because that’s what it looked like.
When you have the UAE reacting as though 9/11 happened to them when they lost fighters in Yemen, occupying Yemeni lands and fighting inside Yemen, and no civilian deaths in the UAE until recently where there were three civilian deaths with Houthi drones; and on the other side of this, we are talking about 377,000 Yemeni civilians dead by the end of 202. We’re not even counting the fighters here, and they are killed either by bombs that the U.S. continues to supply or they have been starved to death at a rate of a child dying every 75 seconds because of the blockade that’s been imposed on Yemen.
And so this has been asymmetrical warfare from the beginning. And they are just trying to now craft this as a Houthi instigation; that the Houthis have started this and so we are responding to Houthi attacks by, let’s say, what they did in Saada recently, which is targeted water facility that cut water to 126,000 people, or they shut communication lines that turn the internet off of the entire country of Yemen for four days, or hit a prison in northern Yemen that killed 90 prisoners. And so they’re framing this as counterstrikes. And I think some media sources have kind of gone along with that narrative, not realizing that the UAE has never left Yemen. They’ve been bombing Yemeni civilian targets, infrastructure, water, civilians in their homes, and their schools, and even weddings and funerals for all of these years. And the Houthis fighting back now is being considered a terroristic act, and not part of the war which they started in Yemen in 2015.
RG: Yeah, and Ken, shortly after one of these first successful drone strikes, you had the UAE ambassador immediately meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. And you really got the sense that they considered this to be an event of enormous consequence when, as Shireen said, it’s a years-long war. I think Shireen puts it well: It’s either war or it’s genocide.
And so how has the UAE been able to kind of make its case here in the U.S. that it’s okay for them to attack Yemen, but Yemen responding is some type of war crime that the United States needs to respond to by designating the organization as a bunch of terrorists?
KK: Well, they have a PR apparatus that is the envy, I’m sure, of almost any country. And you compare that to Yemen; they have no media apparatus to speak of in Washington. And so, in addition to that, there’s a lot of money at stake. If you look at what happened to the Emirati stock market, after some of the strikes, it took a hit; it fell by several percentage points. My colleague, Murtaza Hussain, had a very good story recently that I encourage people to read, describing how this sort of pierced this perception that the UAE — not an untrue perception — was a relatively peaceful area, as compared with its neighbors. For example, Saudi Arabia’s had these missiles from the Houthis going on for a number of years now.
So this was a change in not just the sense that it was safe there, but also a perception by foreign investment, potentially, that they would want to base themselves there if this is going to continue to become more unstable. Now, the simple solution of that [laughs] is just to not be involved in the war.
RG: [Laughs.] It seems — yeah.
KK: And they wouldn’t have a problem anymore with the Houthis. But unfortunately, they’re really set on doing this. And, I think that money is a huge consideration here. Because if you can remove from that country its almost unique reputation for relative stability, that can have a big effect on foreign investment.
RG: Yeah, and Shireen, when I saw those drone strikes happen, the first thing I thought was: Oh lord, they’re gonna respond, and just carpet bomb in response. And like you said, one of the first things they did was shut down the entire internet —
RG: — days on end, and then launched an extraordinary round of strikes in response. But I kind of feel crazy watching this all unfold, asking the question: Why won’t it just end? Whose interests are being served by this continuing year after year to drag out, particularly now that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking at least some incoming fire as well?
SAA: I think this is a classic case of hubris. You are talking about two of the world’s most rich countries, the wealthiest countries, wealth that we’ve never even seen before, pummeling, essentially, for seven years, one of the world’s poorest countries, certainly the poorest in the Middle East and on its way to becoming the poorest country in the world because of what happened over the last seven years. And they disabled the Yemeni Air Force in the first 48 hours. So the Houthis don’t even have a helicopter, they don’t even have a civilian airplane, right? They can’t control the airspace in any way. All they have is fighters on the ground with a very strong ideology that is based on sovereignty and independence.
Yemenis are not going to give up this fight on the ground, whether they’re Houthi supporters or not. And this is what we’ve seen for the past 7 years. They have a stake in making sure that they’re not an occupied territory; they’re not occupied by the UAE, or the U.S., or Saudi Arabia. Parts of Yemen are under occupation currently, and have been under the coalition’s control since July of 2015. This is the area in Yemen where I’m from, where my family’s from, in the South. And it’s been a complete security mess over the last seven years. You have groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS gaining power in those areas. And you have a government that’s supported by Saudi Arabia that’s based in Riyadh, that has no authority in South Yemen, and another government that is controlled by the UAE that wants to secede from the north. So it’s a complete mess in the south and people in northern Yemen are looking at this and say: We don’t want occupation, we don’t want what’s happening in the south to happen in North Yemen. And so they’ve given it their all and they’re not going to give up.
And the U.S., and Saudi Arabia, and the UAE think that if they just could just blockade the north and they would surrender — and they haven’t surrendered. Well, if we can just bomb half the hospitals, and bomb the schools and bomb the infrastructure, and they’ll just give up — and they haven’t given up. Well, if we can just designate them as terrorists, which is what Trump did, and then Biden undid in his first acts of office, then they’re going to give up — and you’ve seen that they just have not given up. Because what do Yemenis have to lose at this point other than their sovereignty, whereas the UAE has everything to lose — the security, like you mentioned, Ken — and the Saudis have a lot to lose, but they are seeing this as a very embarrassing situation to just kind of leave, because how have they not been able to win this fight against a bunch of people who don’t even have an airplane? And so they just continue putting money into this, hoping that’ll just get better.
RG: Can’t the U.S. coach them on how to declare victory and lose a war? I mean, that’s, that’s what rich, hubristic countries do now, right? [Laughs.]
RG: Launch impulsive wars, stay too long, and then eventually recognize that we’ve lost and then say we won, and leave. It’s complicated if you lose right as you’re leaving.
SAA: I mean, I had a conversation with Tim Lenderking, who was the Biden envoy to Yemen. I had a conversation with him over the years, just a couple weeks after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I said to him: Don’t do what you’ve done in Afghanistan, wait 20 years only to realize that the tribes are going to take over and Afghanis are going to rule Afghanistan. And that’s what’s going to happen in Yemen. Yemen is a tribal society. They will work it out. They will do whatever strategic deals are necessary for different groups to come together and sort out their own issues. And the U.S. is going to look like a fool just like they did in Afghanistan after 20 years; don’t let this drag for 20 years.
So I don’t think the U.S. has a great track record either here of understanding when to leave, and when to leave it to the people.
SAA: And so you’re dealing with three countries that are hugely — I mean, for the U.S., it’s been a gigantic commercial boost, right?
RG: It’s true. It’s true.
SAA: It’s hundreds of billions of dollars. And because the Emiratis and the Saudis don’t even make handguns, let alone grenades and fighter jets, and all of the things that they’ve been dropping on Yemen. So that strike, for example, that killed 90 prisoners, the serial number was traced to Raytheon. The strike a couple years ago, where they bombed a school bus full of 40 kids, the serial number was traced to Lockheed. So all of these U.S. weapons manufacturing companies are making hundreds of billions of dollars. So the U.S. has no incentive to stop, as long as there’s no representation for Yemen in the U.N. There’s no media pressure to end this war. There’s just been nothing. There’s been operating in Yemen, committing all of these war crimes with impunity for all these countries involved. So they’ll just keep going. And the Saudis can just continue to try to bomb their way through it. And, unfortunately, what we’re seeing in the U.S. as well is the lack of commitment from Congress, like we’ve seen in past years, but hopefully that’ll change soon.
RG: What did Lenderking say, the envoy?
SAA: Well, at first, he was surprised. He said: Well, what do you want us to do? Just leave it up to Yemenis to sort it out?
And I said: Yeah, that’s exactly what you need to do. How dare you?
RG: Crazy idea.
SAA: [Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, how is this a shocking thing to understand? And he was actually talking as though he was a neutral party, as though he was trying to negotiate some kind of deal between the Houthis and the Saudis. And I had to stop him there. I said, well, the Houthis won’t meet with you, first of all. And how are you a neutral party? You’ve been bombing Yemen; you’ve been supporting the one side.
And he thought I overstated the U.S. support for this war, but acknowledged that they have been supporting them every step of the way. I mean, logistics, training, spare parts, maintenance weapons, choosing targets, mid-air refueling until 2018 — how has the U.S. not been an active partner in this war? To the point where Congress passed a war powers resolution directing Trump to end his support for this war, recognizing it as active warfare. And so I think he was kind of taken aback by my suggestion that you should just leave it up to the Yemenis to sort it out, because there’s this idea that, Oh, these people just don’t know how to govern themselves, we need this intervention. And we need to insert our own dominance here.
RG: And your point, too, about the weapons sales is a key one. Because everybody in Washington is happy when the weapons are being shipped out, and the checks are coming in, and the property values in Northern Virginia are skyrocketing. But if you build up enough of a weapon capacity, at some point, they’re going to be used. That is the point of these weapons. And I think that you’re probably right that a significant amount of this is the Emiratis used a significant amount of their wealth to build up this massive store of arms. And what good is a store of arms if you don’t occasionally use it?
And so when you’re in the meeting making decisions about foreign policy, and you’re sitting there on this warehouse of bombs and planes, that becomes a very easy solution to point to, and the U.S., like you said, is happy to replenish their supplies when needed.
And Ken, speaking of dollar diplomacy, the emir of Qatar was recently in Washington, and shortly after his meeting with Biden announced this surprise, multibillion-dollar deal for 50 large cargo planes that is going to inject massive amounts of money into the American economy. Qatar has been at odds with the UAE and Saudi Arabia for years now. How is their return to the diplomatic fold shaping any of this?
KK: Well, it’s kind of interesting. I think Biden is up against a wall now, because Saudi and UAE have so clearly thrown in with the Republicans under the Trump administration.
RG: Yet still getting everything they need from Democrats, which is pretty impressive.
KK: Right. Right.
And so I saw the invitation or the recognition of Qatar, as a key, non-NATO ally, as him trying to find someone — anyone — that he can work with as a sort of countervailing force, not necessarily hostile to the UAE and Saudi, but some other party that one can work with, because they’re a little bit more — you know, it’s complicated. I don’t want to overstate the conflict between those parties. But they’re a little bit more independent in some ways.
RG: And, Shireen, some progressives in Congress are now pushing another War Powers Resolution to try to end the war; others are pushing for legislation that would ban the U.S. from doing maintenance on any planes that are involved in these operations, which apparently would, as I understand it, shut everything down overnight. They need to be maintained, and need to be maintained by American personnel or interests pretty much after every flight. And so that would stop everything cold.
Is that the only path out of this? Or is there some other diplomatic avenue that I’m missing?
SAA: I mean, the U.S. has lost every kind of credibility because they’ve been an active partner in this war. And so for the U.S. to play any diplomatic role is — I can’t see that happening. The Saudis and Emiratis are applying tremendous pressure on the U.N. Even as recently as October, they stopped funding this independent body of investigators who are investigating war crimes and violations against human rights committed by all parties in Yemen. And the U.N. stopped funding this group of eminent experts. And it was later revealed that is because the Saudis and Emiratis were using pressure and incentives and threats to make sure that they could continue to investigate their own crimes in Yemen. And so that’s been allowed to happen. So we’re talking about, again, operating with impunity over the last several years.
But I think on the congressional front, Congress should have moved a year ago and not relied on Biden’s word to end the war and to stop supporting, or stop whatever he designated arbitrarily as offensive versus defensive, or relevant versus irrelevant arm sales. And it’s been difficult, to be honest, trying to get even our progressive supporters in Congress to launch a war powers resolution until now when we heard from Rep. DeFazio and Rep. Jayapal that they’re interested in doing this by March. But you have people who are just waiting for Biden to fulfill his word. Congress has asked multiple times: What do you mean by offensive versus defensive? And they’ve not received any kind of cogent response from the Biden administration.
The NDAA, the national defense budget, was challenged in the summer for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and that didn’t go anywhere. So I think there just needs to be huge pressure from Congress, because, again, they get to declare war and not the president, and they need to reassert their authority over war-making. So that’s one avenue. And the other avenue is to try to block arm sales. But what’s really disheartening as people like Chris Murphy, who was one of the leaders of the War Powers Resolution in 2017, ’18, ’19, and even as early as 2015, calling out the Obama administration for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, he, too, voted to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia recently, and he’s buying into this offensive versus defensive distinction.
So it’s really disheartening to see how difficult this has become in Congress when there’s a Democratic president.
RG: When you would talk to some of the offices that had been supportive in the past of ending this war, what were the indications that you got about what their hesitation was at moving faster and more aggressively, on the Biden administration?
SAA: So when I spoke to Ro Khanna, for example, he said that he’s just not convinced that we continue to support the Saudi-led coalition in the same way. He thought that we’re not sharing intelligence anymore for offensive purposes. And I said: But do you even know what that means? And he said: Well, we just know that it’s defensive now and not offensive. And so it’s like he needed more proof to be able to move whereas, you know, in January 2021, before Biden made this announcement, he was saying that he’s ready to introduce another war powers resolution.
And so it just seems like they feel like they don’t have enough proof anymore, because the administration is saying that they are not sharing intelligence for offensive purposes, or they’re not helping with strikes for offensive reasons, and so they feel like the burden of proof has gotten more difficult. But I think it’s just a little more political than that; it was easier to stand up to a Republican president, and it’s just harder to stand up to a Democratic president.
And I mean, they should be shouting, screaming at the top of their lungs, considering what you know, Ken revealed with this serious consideration of the FTO. This will spell genocide to the 20 million Yemeni people, 80 percent of the population. That’s what Biden is doing by considering this. And it should be met with fierce opposition, by everybody, every lawmaker, because how can a president just casually be considering genocide?
Like this is what we’re saying here. This is what we’re doing in Yemen. And the Biden administration knows this. He delisted the Houthis as terrorists in one of his first acts in office. And the State Department at the same time said that they heard the U.N., they heard aid groups, they understand this is going to make the humanitarian crisis worse, and yet they’re going through with it anyway, as a political move.
RG: And last question, but from the people that you talk to in Yemen, what are the conditions like now? I am sure that different regions of the country are facing different conditions. But is there anything you can generalize or anywhere specifically that’s worse off how? How are things there compared to how they were a year ago, two years ago, or 10 years ago?
SAA: I mean, the blockade has not been lifted, Yemeni airspace still continues to be controlled by the Saudi-led coalition, so people are still trapped in most of the country, they’re not able to leave, to seek treatment, to seek refuge, there’s no larger Yemeni refugee crisis. And so people are just internally displaced — over 4 million people right now.
Half the population has no access to a hospital. The other half that does have access to the hospital, I was speaking to somebody the other day, just when the internet came back, and we were able to reconnect with people in Yemen, and he said that a nephew of his died, a four year old because he had a fever, and there’s just no medicine. So a child just dies because there’s no over-the-counter medication for something like a fever. And these deaths don’t get counted, you know?
RG: I always think when my kids get a bad fever, and we’re able to treat it, able to either bring it down or with antibiotics, think about how awful it must have been, how terrifying it must have been for parents 100, 150 years ago, when these technologies weren’t available, medicines weren’t available, and people would die needlessly like this. And it’s terrifying to think that in 2022, you’d have a four year old get a fever, and just die from it.
SAA: Yeah, and this happens in every household. And so let’s say you have an infection, and you don’t have medicine, antibiotics, right? Let’s say you need dialysis, and there’s no fuel in the hospital to operate the machines. Let’s say you have cancer and, again, you don’t have access to any cancer medication because of the blockade. And so people are dying of preventable things.
Like you said, it’s really horrific to think that this is happening in 2022. It’s happening at a large scale, larger than we’ve seen anywhere. There is no one country in the world, where 80 percent of the people are dependent on aid, where 50 percent of people have no access to a hospital, where 4 million people are displaced internally, and there’s no refugee crisis because they’re completely blockaded. And so when we say the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, it’s people’s everyday lives. They’re either going to be bombed while they’re sleeping, or they’re going to die of very preventable things like a small fever, or coronavirus, or diabetes, or anything — any of the things that modern medicine has been able to resolve. Or starvation, because there’s no food, and there’s no fuel.
And so, again, every 75 seconds a child is dying because they’re being starved to death and our government continues to support this.
RG: But things are going great in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The money keeps flowing.
RG: Ken, Shireen, thank you so much for joining me.
KK: Good to talk to you.
SAA: Thanks so much for having me.
[Credits theme music.]
RG: That was Shireen Al-Adeimi and Ken Klippenstein.
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