Yemen’s turn


“Young boys inspect graves prepared for victims of Saudi Arabia’s airstrike on a school bus in Saada province, Yemen, August 10, 2018.” PHOTO/Naif Rahma/Reuters/Popular Resistance

Some general characteristics of the imperialist recolonization of the Arab world, which began with that brutal dress-rehearsal, the First Gulf War of 1991, are now clearly visible. Too many people supposed that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the us eagle would discard its talons; because they wanted it to be so, they thought it was. [1] In the event, Washington has relentlessly targeted national sovereignty in those parts of the Middle East where it still exists. Countries that have resisted total submission to American hegemony, imposed directly or via local relays, are being dismantled. Regime change is accompanied by massive destruction and loss of life, followed by de facto partition along ethno-religious lines and the entry of giant corporations—some entrusted with rebuilding cities bombed by the us and its Euro-allies, others going for the oil—and all this in the midst of a generalized political chaos under the watch of the us and Israeli military.

The Arab Spring, numerically strong but politically weak, failed to break this destructive dynamic. With the corpse of Arab nationalism in a state of advanced decay and the principal opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, desperate for a deal with Washington, the 2011 uprisings were easily confiscated by the us to further its own aims in the region. Despite its many national peculiarities, the ruinous war in Yemen has to be viewed in this context. For the past three years, a military coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the uae, but with critical diplomatic, logistical and intelligence support from Obama and Trump, has wracked the poorest country in the Middle East, devastating its infrastructure and blockading its ports in an effort to bludgeon the 27 million inhabitants of this mountainous and mostly arid land—who rely on imports for 70 per cent of their food—into submission to the dictates of foreign powers. Helen Lackner’s Yemen in Crisis opens with a horrific description of the havoc they have wrought. ‘By mid-2017 Yemen faced total humanitarian disaster, its first famine since the 1940s and the world’s worst cholera epidemic.’ The situation was unprecedented and avoidable: both famine and cholera were ‘the result of a civil war dramatically worsened by foreign intervention’.

It’s been a long journey for Lackner from the hopes and struggles of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the seventies to the neoliberal wreckage that is today’s Republic of Yemen. A research associate at soas’s Middle East Institute and an independent consultant on rural development, Lackner has lived and studied in Yemen for long periods beginning with her arrival in Aden, capital of the pdry, as a young soas-trained anthropologist and linguist, to practise her Arabic and conduct fieldwork in the only socialist state in the Arab world. Her supportive but not uncritical assessment, pdr Yemen: Outpost of Socialist Development in Arabia, appeared in 1985. She also produced a careful study of Yemen’s powerful neighbour, A House Built on Sand: A Political Economy of Saudi Arabia (1978)—written, as she puts it, ‘from the point of view of the welfare of the Saudi Arabian population, not that of Western capitalism’. All of this accumulated experience lies behind the matchless geopolitical profile of contemporary Yemen—its political conflicts, its economic structures, and, above all, its people—that she has now provided. She knows the country at least as well, and in some respects better than the gangs in Foggy Bottom and Whitehall, not to mention Mossad operatives or the other spooks of the ‘international community’ based in Riyadh. Yemen in Crisis patiently traces the complex network of influences and rivalries which intertwine on the branching rope that constitutes Yemeni national consciousness—a rope that outside military intervention has now severed.

On a peninsula teeming with petty emirates and the pampered scions of the House of Saud, Yemen has always stood out. It has been under republican rule for half a century, divided into two states until 1990. In the North, Nasserite nationalists triumphed over the Saudi-backed Imamate in 1970 after a tragic conflict. In the South, communists and socialists ejected the British from the port-city of Aden, which commands the entrance to the Red Sea through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Cold War competition resulted in massive inflows of aid from the West and the Soviet Union, helping to build a strong social infrastructure in both territories. Remittances from the more than one million Yemenis working abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia, were also vitally important.

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