The breakthrough in the UN-sponsored Yemen peace talks, which led to an agreement between the warring factions to end the fighting over the city of Hodeida, represented incremental progress, but still does not end a conflict that has had a horrendous fallout on civilians, particularly children.

Perhaps one of the most horrific symbols of the devastation visited upon Yemen, which even before the fighting had been the poorest Arab state, was that a cholera epidemic had broken out, with 21 of the country’s 22 provinces affected so far, as well as about a million people, not to forget thousands dead, making it not only the biggest outbreak of the disease in recent times, but also in all of human history. A cholera case, leave alone an epidemic involving so many people, should have been unthinkable in the 21st century, but it is one of the results of the war there.

The war had resulted from the Houthi movement’s rebellion against the government of President Abdur Rabbuhu Mansur Hadi, and their alliance with his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, there were two things which changed the nature of the rebellion. First, the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia meant that the rebellion was no longer just a local development, but part of the proxy war between the two which also encompasses the Syrian Civil War.

However, the Saudi intervention must be given priority in the deadlines of its effect. One of the salient features of that intervention in favour of President Hadi has been an incessant air war. That constant bombardment has seen people, ordinary Yemenis, running scared, frightened into worrying that they could be hit by bombs no matter what they do. One activity to have suffered is well-digging, and along with it, the supply of potable water. As a result, a burgeoning population has had to use contaminated water, which is not just nasty, but causes just such cholera outbreaks as Yemen is now experiencing.

It is not intended to lessen the tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi, but it is worth noting that his murder caused more outrage in Western capitals than that of so many Yemeni children. Granted that he was murdered brutally and his body disposed of almost contemptuously, but then the children of Yemen are dying of starvation, and suffering from malnutrition. The commonality is that Khashoggi’s murder has been blamed on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who has also been blamed for the Saudi intervention, and thus for all of the children’s deaths.

Crown Prince Muhammad has been stoutly defended by US President Donald Trump for the Khashoggi murder, not just because Saudi Arabia is a key oil producer, but also because of the massive order for US arms that was placed by Saudi Arabia when Trump visited the country. That order was placed not just because the Saudi government wanted to please the USA, but to resupply the Saudis for the arms and ordnance expended during the Yemen invasion. The order for US arms followed a record order for British arms, made during the visit by Prime Minister Theresa May. Again, while one result was to bolster Saudi clout in London, that was not the real reason; rather, it was because of the consumption of stores during the Yemen bombings. Saudi Arabia was learning once again that war is a terribly expensive business; especially an air war such as it has been conducting in Yemen.

Ground war is also costly, though not as much. The Saudis have committed ground forces, and the USA itself has committed some special forces there. Thus the US involvement in the whole sorry affair becomes clear. The USA has a number of reasons to get involved. The first is Israel. The strength of the US animus against Iran is mainly because Iran has replaced the Shah’s pro-Israel policy with one that is implacably opposed to Israel. So long as the Shah accepted Israel, Saudi Arabia was in the forefront of its championship of the Palestinians, but it has grown tepid in the four decades since the Iranian Revolution brought such a virulently anti-Israeli government in Tehran. Saudi Arabia has gradually moved to mend fences with Israel, but it has refrained from recognition. The friendship between Crown Prince Muhammad and President Trump Jewish son-in-law and close aide Jared Kushner is a sign of this, and shows that the Saudi dynasty, more particularly the Crown Prince, view the Saudi support for Israel as a guarantee for US support for Muhammad’s ultimate succession to the throne.

It should not be forgotten that the Trump Administration cancelled its participation in the nuclear deal with Iran because it supposedly did not do enough to make Israel secure from Iranian nuclear weapons. The Israeli paranoia about nuclear weapons in the hands of Muslims was behind the labelling of the Pakistani nuclear weapon as an ‘Islamic bomb’. There were wild speculations that Saudi Arabia and Libya had used oil wealth to fund Pakistan’s atomic weapon. The underlying assumption, that Pakistan was too poor to fund a nuclear programme, did not account for India, an even poorer country, funding a nuclear weapons programme, even though it had no outside help in building what was not labelled a Hindu Bomb, even though the BJP’s continued stint in office is converting the Indian nuclear weapon into one.

The talks do have a humanitarian dimension, but they can also be seen as the USA using the UN to find a way out of an imbroglio for an ally. Though the agreement on Hodeida deserves a welcome on a number of counts, like its providing some relief at least, and its being the first agreement between two sides which may lead to more, it is also important to be cautious. A darker view is that it would be window dressing, a move by both sides to keep the other engaged while they improved the military balance.

However, it must not be forgotten that the Yemeni tragedy has not got the attention it deserves because of the Syrian tragedy. Not only is the Syrian conflict older, its consequent refugee flow has involved Europe more deeply. 190,000 Yemenis have fled to neighbouring countries, even though there are still 280,000 refugees there from other countries, mostly the Horn of Africa (which basically means Somalia), according to the UNHCR. On the other hand, the same source says that 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country. With a vast number going to Europe (no less than 3.3 million registering in Turkey), Western attention is obviously focused on Syrians, even though Yemenis are also suffering. To give some perspective, it must be remembered that the total Yemeni population is 28.25 million, the Syrian is 18.27 million.

Pakistan resisted attempts to send troops to Yemen. Even though Saudi Arabia called in its debts when asking Pakistan to provide troops, Pakistan did not. Instead, Pakistan has offered Saudi Arabia mediation with Iran generally, but specifically in Yemen. That offer does not seem to have gained traction, and may well have been made by the PTI government with an eye on domestic opinion. If for nothing else, Pakistan must stay out of Yemen. The optics of Pakistani troops juxtaposed with malnourished Yemeni babies does not bear thinking about. Pakistani doctors treating them might seem better, but even that runs Pakistan the risk of getting involved in fight it would do best to stay out of.

 

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

 maniazi@nation.com.pk