The National Interest Whitewashes Saudi Aggression in Yemen

Photograph Source: Felton Davis – CC BY 2.0

The National Interest has published a shameless apology for Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen, “The Saudi War of Necessity in Yemen” by Ahmed al-Maimouni.

With his second sentence, Al-Maimouni, a retired Saudi major general, forfeits his right to be taken seriously: “It is imperative for Saudi Arabia to preserve peace in Yemen….”  What peace?  Yemen has been at war since 2015 and the reason is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  In 2015, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen without provocation.  Since then, 150,000 Yemenis have died, most of them at the hands of the Saudi coalition.

General al-Maimouni serves up another whopper in his very next sentence: “It is a war of necessity, not a war of choice for the Saudis.”

Really?  Time magazine defines a war of necessity as “a life-or-death struggle in which the safety and security of the homeland are at stake.”  What’s meant is an existential threat.  Does Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, threaten Saudi Arabia’s existence?  The question answers itself.

Beware of any nation which claims to be fighting a “war of necessity” without first being attacked.  The George W. Bush Administration claimed that its 2003 invasion of Iraq was a war of necessity to protect Americans from Saddam Hussein’s dread weapons of mass destruction.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on March 20, 2003 that “We are at the point at which the risk of not acting is too great to wait longer.  [T]his war is necessary.”

Saudi Arabia was not responding to a Houthi attack when it dropped its first bombs on Yemen in 2015.  The mindset of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, can be summed up this way:  Oooh!  Oooh!  I feel threatened.  One day, Iran may turn Yemen into a satellite state!  (When?  Don’t know.  Someday.)  And then, Iran will invade Saudi Arabia from Yemen and block the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which much of the world’s oil passes.

That’s not a war of necessity; that’s preventive war, which is prohibited under international law. Preventive war is a polite name for aggression.

Vladimir Putin shares Bin Salman’s mindset.  Did Ukraine attack Russia?  No, but Putin feels threatened.  Ukraine could join NATO which is advancing closer and closer to Russia’s borders.  Never mind that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has been dead in the water for years.  Once Ukraine joins NATO, it and the other members of NATO will invade Russia.  So, Putin had better attack now.

Is Russia facing an existential threat from Ukraine?  No.  If the Ukrainians lay down their arms, Russia will conquer Ukraine.  What will happen if Putin’s army lays down its arms?  Nothing.  The troops get to go home.  Russia will go on as it did before.

The Biden Administration hypocritically condemns Putin’s aggression in Ukraine while the US actively abets Bin Salman’s aggression in Yemen.  There were hopes that President Biden would reverse the course set by the Obama and Trump Administrations which had provided Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners with intelligence, logistics, target spotting, arms sales, spare parts for Saudi and UAE warplanes, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes.  Biden made progressive hearts beat faster during the 2016 campaign when he called Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” and pledged to sell Saudi Arabia no more weapons.

In his first major foreign policy speech as president on February 4, 2021, Biden promised to end US support for “offensive operations” in Yemen.  That pledge was soon broken.  Biden has reframed US support for the Saudis as “defensive” while arms sales to the coalition continue apace.  Yemenis speak of the “Saudi-American war.

“Hunger Is a Weapon”

“Hunger is a weapon,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky proclaimed on April 6.  In a virtual address to the Irish Parliament, Zelensky alleged that Russia is destroying “civilian infrastructure.”  Putin’s forces “consistently destroy fuel storage sites, product distribution centers, destroy even conventional agricultural machinery, and … are constantly sowing mines everywhere.”  These are non-military targets which are essential for human life. Hunger has come to Ukraine, historically the “world’s bread basket.”

General al-Maimouni neglected to mention that the Saudis do the same thing.  Saudi air attacks target infrastructure used to produce and distribute food.  The Norwegian Refugee Council reports that there were 348 airstrikes on Yemeni farms between January 2018 and September 2020, “an average of almost one incident a day.”

Saudi warplanes also bomb grain silos, farm animals, water purification plants, fishermen’s boats, homes, hospitals, and trucks which transport food and other essential goods.  This puts the lie to al-Maimouni’s claim that “The coalition was also very keen to preserve the country’s infrastructure and reduce collateral damage, to prevent using disproportionate power, and to safeguard the civilians as much as possible.”

Al-Maimouni complains that the Houthis “confiscated the central bank, airports, and seaports, which led to the complete control of supplies to most parts of Yemen regions” (emphasis added).  This is true; the Houthis do obstruct delivery of humanitarian aid.  However, Al-Maimouni does not mention the SLC’s land, sea, and air blockade which makes food unaffordable to Yemenis even when it is available.  Twenty-three million of Yemen’s 30 million people are dependent on international food aid to survive.  Parts of the country are sliding into famine.

In a report prepared for the World Peace Foundation, Martha Mundy, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, quotes an off the record remark from “a senior Saudi diplomat” that “Once we control them, we will feed them.”

Bogeyman from Tehran

US media almost invariably refer to the “Iran-backed” Houthi rebels.  I have yet to see a reference to the “US-backed Saudi coalition.”  That’s a significant omission.  Like other apologists for Saudi Arabia, al-Maimouni exaggerates Iran’s support for the Houthis.  He does not mention that the Saudis receive much more support from the US than the Houthis receive from Iran—about ten times more in monetary terms.  Support for the Houthis is a relatively low-cost way for Iran to bedevil its Saudi rival.

Aisha Jumaan, president and founder of the humanitarian NGO, the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, says that focusing too much on the Houthis parrots the Saudi narrative about the war.  Dr. Jumaanwrites that “Insisting on referring to the government in Sana’a [Yemen’s capital] as ‘Houthi rebels’ obscures the role of other groups and conceals the presence of a real government in Sana’a.”

There has been a truce in Yemen since the beginning of April.  The truce has lasted longer than any previous truce in Yemen.  There have been violations, but we must hope that the truce continues and that it enables negotiations which will finally bring the seven-year war to an end.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at