If you travelled from Western Australia north-west across the Indian Ocean, the first country you would encounter has been described as ‘Hell on Earth’. You will find there civil war, famine, drought, refugees, destruction and a blockade for starters. Now it has a cholera epidemic. No wonder it has been called the worst story in the world which nobody is talking about.
It applies to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. It sits next to the richest, Saudi Arabia, which is partly responsible for its neighbour’s misery. Yemen has been racked by civil conflict for three years. It is as much a case of the leaders of the two mainstream branches of Islam – Iran (Shiite) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni/Wahhabism) – locking horns for dominance using their proxies. The Iranians want to expand Shiite influence and have backed the Houthi rebels who occupy Sana’a, the capital, in the north. The Saudis support the ousted elected president who now operates from Aden in the south.
Such is the indifference of today’s world that violence and numbing statistics concerning death, suffering and devastation have become an almost accepted part of Middle East life. We have seen pictures of Mosul in Iraq where the extent of destruction is almost beyond the imagination. It illustrates what has become 21st century business as usual in this turbulent region.
No wonder an infuriated Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says ‘the world is sleep-walking into yet more tragedy’. He was referring to Yemen and what he says is a ‘preventable, man-made humanitarian catastrophe…the worst cholera epidemic in modern history’.
An estimated 600,000 Yemenis have been affected by cholera. Each day brings 5000 new cases due in part to the destruction by Saudi-led air raids of the country’s sewage networks and water treatment plants. Nearly 2000 have died. The BBC says 60% of the population do not know where their next meal will come from. Two million children are malnourished. Aquifers have dried up. Health workers have not been paid for a year. Ports have been blockaded. Humanitarian aid has been left to NGOs rather than the international community. The Red Crescent Society – the Islamic Red Cross – has been missing in action. Only 45% of Yemen’s hospitals are functioning and just 30% of needed medical supplies are getting into the country, reports Britain’s ITV News.
‘Yemen looks an awful like Hell on Earth right now’, according to Jeff Nesbit, a former senior official in the George W.Bush and Obama administrations. Writing in US News and World Report, he says Donald Trump has been a hindrance rather than the help you would normally expect from the US. ‘Trump has decided the way forward is to bulldoze UN humanitarian aid, throw his financial support behind Saudi Arabia’s military strategy in Yemen and starve humanitarian efforts that are Yemen’s last chance’, he says.
The Saudi strategy – egged on by the new crown prince – has seen a three-year civil war, 8000 deaths and another 42,000 injured. Most of those were due to Saudi and Emirati warplanes. Fox News has described some of the raids as carpet bombing and war crimes. The US has joined in, doubling its number of air strikes since Donald Trump took office. Its special forces have been active – including looking for Al-Qaeda operatives – and its warships have exchanged fire with the Houthi rebels.
Some fear the United States is getting sucked into yet another fight without end. ’The way we’re dealing with failed states in the Middle East is on a “whack-a-mole” kind of approach which means we kind of deal with the crisis of the moment’, warned former US Defence Secretary and CIA Director, Leon Panetta. He worries that Washington may be bowing too much to pressure from Saudi Arabia to get more involved.
The former US ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, had a warning of his own. He told Fox News: ‘There is a proclivity to stumble into these wars…and I think that’s the danger. This (was) a low level conflict that then grows and our interest and our involvement in it grows and it almost sneaks up behind you until you realise that you are knee deep in the muck, and it’s very hard to extricate yourself at that point’.
He may well be right when the current occupant of the Oval Office sees the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. In Trump’s eyes, the Houthis would certainly be bad guys because they are allied with those notorious bad guys in Iran.
Egypt, in debt to the Saudis, has sent warships towards Aden and government officials have even talked about sending in troops should a ground invasion against the Houthis take place. If that happened, it would be treading on terrain haunted by the past. In the 1960s Cairo despatched 70,000 troops to join the eight-year civil war there. More than 10,000 died. It was called Egypt’s Vietnam.
Yemen is ungovernable due to fierce, tribal and religious rivalries. It is now a failed state like no other. Its wretched catalogue of misery is likely only to get worse. The world will continue to give Yemen a wide berth and the two Islamic rivals will continue to impose their influence whatever the human cost. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba, who came from the northern part of Yemen, once journeyed to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of Solomon. Even a modern day Solomon would be stumped what to do on this one.
Who knows, there may be a pause for reflection as the Haj pilgrimage is due to begin at the end of August. The very thought of cholera seeping in among the crush of the expected two million devotees – Shiite and Sunni alike – will surely have the Saudis very nervous indeed.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.