The mayhem in Yemen and the crisis of meaning in the Arab World

Are Yemenis Arabs? And why are other Arabs bombing them?

Yemen Dabashi op-ed Reuters
A Yemeni girl cries after her father was killed by a Saudi-led air raid in Yemen's capital Sanaa [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

“The war in Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – in desperate need of aid and protection,” we read in reports. 

“As the conflict enters its fourth year, millions are without access to clean drinking water and the country is at high risk of a cholera epidemic.”

How did we come to this? By now, amid Donald Trump‘s antics constantly flooding the airways and the internet, you may have completely forgotten the causes of the war in Yemen. The answer is simple: counter-revolutionary mobilisation against the 2011 democratic uprising. This was and remains the main cause of this mayhem.

The counter-revolutionary effort transformed Yemen into a theatre for proxy wars. Outside interference by the Saudis and Iranians radically distorted the popular mobilisation into a sectarian conflict in which the Houthis turned from one of the voices of the uprising to puppets of Tehran. The counter-revolutionary commotion succeeded, the revolutionary momentum receded. 

Foreign interference was detrimental to the Yemeni revolution and to the interests of both Saudis and Iranians. They are also victims of this counter-revolutionary mobilisation against a transnational uprising that endangered the Saudi and Iranian regimes alike. Needless to say, the US and British support and massive military sales to Saudi Arabia are a key factor in exacerbating this catastrophe. 

From proxy war to regional conflict

Now, where are we three years into the “Yemen conflict”, as journalists in the US and Europe call the carnage? 

The Houthis are entrenched more than ever, resisting the onslaught of an international coalition armed with the latest military technology and are still launching missiles at Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is growing and spreading to include the rise of a regional Arab alliance (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) against Qatar.

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At the same time, Saudi Arabia has joined forces with Israel to push the US towards an all-out war against Iran. The Trump administration has happily obliged and increased economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, putting more strain on the US-European alliance. In Syria, Israel has sought support from Russia to open yet another front against Iran.

In short, the war in Yemen has become integral to an all-out regional conflict from which only arms manufactures in the US and the UK and the aggressive and militaristic government in Israel can benefit – all to the delight of reactionary Arab regimes. 

The human casualties of the carnage

What has been the political result of so much brutality and bloodshed we have witnessed in Yemen? Nothing. There is no diplomatic, political or even military solution to this carnage in sight.  

The state of war in Yemen is its purpose and objective: to kill the democratic aspirations of a nation, to force it to degenerate into sectarian hostilities, to turn Yemen into a proxy war between two sectarian hegemonies in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia. That is the manifest condition in which Yemen and its future are now trapped.  

But there is a far more evident, far more palpable consequence of the war in Yemen, to which all the factions have contributed. “At least 10,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen,” this according to a conservative UN estimate reported in January 2017

Other sources give much higher numbers. “In November 2017,” according to a report, “Save the Children confirmed that 130 Yemeni children were dying every day, with 50,000 children already believed to have died in 2017.”

These staggering numbers are getting worse with each report. “An international charity says more than a million children in Yemen under the age of five are suffering from malnutrition while more than half of the country’s population of 28 million face food shortages,” reports Al Jazeera. In another report we read, the war in Yemen “has left nearly three million homeless and 22 million in need of humanitarian aid”. 

There is no scarcity of reliable reports that the entire population of Yemen, from one end of the country to another, faces a colossal humanitarian crisis. And this on a peninsula endowed with a monumental body of natural wealth, with Saudi and other Arab princes and princesses leading obscenely luxurious lives. 

In one report we read, “Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman buys [$593m] yacht.” In another report, we read, “$300m French chateau bought by Saudi prince.” 

What are all these weapons for? 

All of these obscene numbers pale in comparison to the military budget of these rich Arab states. The Saudi Arabian leadership, a tiny little ruling tribe – to be more exact – with no claim to any democratic representation whatsoever, is now the most voracious buyer of military junk in the world after the US and China

“Global military spending rose last year,” according to a report by Al Jazeera in May 2018, “to its highest level since the Cold War, with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia topping the list, according to a Swedish-based research institute.” The same report indicates that “Saudi Arabia replaced Russia in third place, spending $69.4bn in 2017.”

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Imagine that: One ruling clan of a few dozen princes spends more on military machinery than a massive country like Russia. But why? What kind of obscenity is this? 

Saudi Arabia is not alone in this tragi-comic picture. According to a report by military magazine Jane’s, the UAE spent almost $20bn on defence in 2017.

The entire population of this tiny little oil-dom is less than 10 million people, of which less than 1.5 million are actual Emiratis and the rest are foreign labourers. You divide $20bn by 1.5 million and figure out how much per capita the Emirates spends on buying US and Israeli military junk. Does that make any sense? 

The fact is that the US and Israel have incorporated these little military garrisons in the Gulf into the map of their military conquest of the region – and they get the ruling families of these states to pay for the privilege of plundering their people’s wealth. These small states have all been effectively turned into mercenary armies and military stations tasked with protecting the strategic interests of the US and Israeli militarism.  

Now, in the midst of all these vertiginous numbers, a very simple question arises: What in the world does “the Arab world” actually mean anymore? Are Yemenis Arabs, too – are they part of this “Arab world”? What does it mean when a gang of Arab nations bomb the poorest Arab nation in their midst? To what extent does this benefit Iran? What could possibly an Iranian intervention offer the Yemenis that they would sacrifice the future of their children for? 

Finally, imagine if a fraction of the Saudi-Emirati military budgets was spent on reconstruction of Yemen from the ground up.

Then, place the mayhem in Yemen next to the GCC crisis in which four Arab states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) have ganged up and collectively imposed a blockade on their fellow Arab state of Qatar accusing it of sponsoring “terrorism”. 

Then consider these two facts when you look at the Palestinian scene, when in broad daylight of history, day after day, a European colonial settlement is using Palestinians (men, women, and children) as target practice and turning Gaza into a killing field, as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world stand by and just watch. 

Are Palestinians not Arabs? What exactly does “the Arab World” mean? What exactly holds this abstraction together?

An existential crisis of meaning

What do masses of millions of Arab people have in common with their corrupt leaders? How much more in common Arab people have with their counterparts in Iran, in Turkey, in Pakistan, in India, and by extension in the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and than with the myriad of immigrant communities in Europe and the US? 

Does a common language (spoken with widely differing dialects) from Morocco to Syria really define the “Arab World”? 

The ludicrous, state-sponsored, ideologies of pan-Arabism, or its counterparts pan-Turkism and pan-Iranism, are all without an exception colonial delusions – racialised ideologies pacifying the inner dynamics of class struggles, gender segregations, racialised exclusions, sectarian hostilities within nations, compromising their democratic aspirations.  

Only on one recent occasion did “the Arab world” mean something – and that is when the world was witness to a widespread revolutionary uprising from one end of the Arab world to another, when Arab tyrants were shaking in their boots, as ordinary people were out in the streets dreaming of their democratic prospects and ordering them to leave. That is the only time when “the Arab world” meant something – and meant something glorious.

The idea of “the Arab world” is a living organism. It comes to life in the streets and squares of revolutionary uprisings against tyranny and imperialism, in the art and literature of revolt, and it dies and withers away in the halls of power when the Saudis and the Israelis and the Emiratis conspire to mobilise their counter-revolutionary designs and get the US on board.

Today, the Arab world dies with every bomb that the Saudis and Emiratis drop on Yemenis, with every bullet the Israelis fire at Palestinians protesting their cruel fate. And the self-same Arab world comes to life when, against all odds, it still dreams of a revolution, of people pouring into their streets and squares singing “People demand the overthrow of the regime!”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.