One morning last December I opened the newspaper to read that “today marks 1,000 days since the beginning of the war in Yemen, a country which is now suffering from the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”
By mid-2017 Yemen faced its worse famine since the 1940s and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The war between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels has claimed at least 10,000 lives. The former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had switched sides before being killed and wider imperialist tensions drive the conflict.
Helen Lackner has written a significant work about these complex issues in Yemen. She has spent the last four decades researching Yemen and has worked in the country for 15 years.
At the beginning of the book Lackner includes three maps, a glossary and a timeline to facilitate orientation and understanding. Each of the ten chapters that follow cover significant aspects of Yemeni society, such as the impact of the Arab Spring, the role of Islamism and separatism, and the economy.
Yemen’s shortage of water is central, as Lackner explains, and the lack of clean drinking water is a notorious health hazard, with a debilitating impact on productivity and wellbeing, not to mention life.
Ninety percent of Yemen’s water is used for agriculture. Lackner suggests that reducing the demand substantially would ensure that people’s needs could be supplied adequately for generations to come. This has not happened because removing water management from the control of large rural landowners would have meant challenging a group of powerful individuals, whose support Saleh needed to remain in power.
Lackner also includes a short section on the role of the UK. The UK sells weapons and there are arms fairs held in East London. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade challenged the sales on the basis of evidence that Saudi-led coalition strikes against civilians were in breach of international humanitarian law.
I found the book very useful and informative but would have preferred a more analytical approach.
The situation in Yemen is a product of inter-imperialist rivalry in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran acting as proxies for larger imperial powers — Iran for Russia and Saudi Arabia for the US.
Even though they both have their own regional ambitions, the ruling classes of Iran and Saudi Arabia are inevitably drawn into the wider context of inter-imperialist rivalry in the region.
The plight of Yemen is yet another extension of this wider geopolitical conflict, which involves exacerbating previously dormant social divisions between Sunnis and Shias and using divide and rule tactics for their own ends.
Lackner’s book provides crucial background and detail which can help untangle this complex picture.