In Yemen, Arabs Prefer to Look Away Rather Than Take Responsibility

Published July 2nd, 2018 - 10:04 GMT
Pro-government fighters give food to Yemeni children on the road leading to the southwestern port city of Mokha on January 26, 2017. Saleh Al Obeidi (AFP)
Pro-government fighters give food to Yemeni children on the road leading to the southwestern port city of Mokha on January 26, 2017. Saleh Al Obeidi (AFP)

By Brian E. Frydenborg

AMMAN — In the magisterial English rendering by the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation team, Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the famous line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

Perhaps it can very much be said to be the same for nations, and it is with a crushingly depressing sense of irony to note in the present that Yemen was dubbed by the ancient Greeks and Romans as Arabia Eudaemon and Arabia Felix, respectively (Happy Arabia), with the port of Aden known as Eudaemon, (Happy, Blessed, Fortunate, or Benevolent Spirit).  

It is without doubt, however, that Yemen today can be seen as spectacularly and quite uniquely unhappy, its misery far exceeding that of the Oblonsky family Tolstoy had in mind with the unhappiness referenced in that first line of his opus of a tragic novel.

Should the Romans have been able to see Yemen in its current state, surely they would have renamed it Arabia Tragica, although that could be said for much of its modern history.

Yemen before modern era

Long ago before this modern era, Yemen was home to biblical Sheba and its famed queen.  The region was rich and powerful as a hub of unique luxury goods and with a grand port in Aden as a midway point between the ancient great powers of the East and the West.  


After Islam’s domination of Yemen from the early seventh century, by the late ninth century, the northern part of Yemen had come under the theocratic rule of a Shiite Muslim sect known as the Zaidis that lasted, mainly uninterrupted, until the 1960s, meaning the Sunni-Shiite divide has been a source of conflict in Yemen for well over a millennium.  

The Zaidi sect, in particular, preaches the right to overthrow bad rulers, contributing the instability that has plagues Yemen for many centuries. The Houthis at the center of the current conflict in Yemen are, unsurprisingly since they overthrew the post-Arab Spring Yemeni government, members of this sect.

Apart from the religious conflicts, Yemen has been the subject of Imperial competition throughout its long history: between the various states of the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, between Romans and Persians, Ethiopians and Persians, much later between the Ottomans and the British, and Egypt and Britain followed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  

Al-Qaeda vs. the U.S. has also been a conflict in Yemen for some years.  Today, the main rivalry (apart from various internal ones) tearing Yemen apart is competition between the self-dubbed standard-bearers of Sunni and Shiite Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians, respectively, in their own form of a ”Cold War.”

Humanitarian crisis


(AFP File Photo)

Before the current humanitarian crisis was unleashed, Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East.  But when you read the statistics regarding the humanitarian crisis—entirely man-made—in Yemen, the numbers cause the mind to figuratively stagger back in a horror that is all too real:

Keep in mind the below numbers does not even reflect developments from late 2018…

Out of a total population of 27.4 million people, as counted as of late January:

  • 22.2 million people—three out of every four—need some kind of protection or humanitarian assistance

  • 11.3 million of these—over two out of five—are facing a severe need

  • Over 17 million people—some two out of three—are not sure from where their next meal will come

  • Some 8.4 million people—over 30%—are facing starvation (a 24% increase from 2017)

  • Some three million—nearly 11 percent—are displaced within Yemen

  • Nearly 200,000 others are refugees who have fled Yemen

  • Since late April 2017 over 1.1 million people—over 4% of the population—have suffered from cholera

  • 7.5 million—over 27% of people—need nutrition assistance

  • These include 1.8 million children—over 6.5% of the population—and 1.1 million pregnant/lactating women—over 4% of people—who are severely malnourished

  • Nearly $3 billion has been requested to fund aid/relief efforts but only 1% of this has been received

  • Half Yemen’s health facilities are not fully operational

  • 16.4 million—nearly 60% of the population—need assistance getting healthcare

  • 9.3 million—more than one out of every three people—of these need major assistance

To be clear: There is no excuse for any of his.

In the words of the UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowock, “The situation in Yemen - today, right now, to the population of the country - looks like the apocalypse…Unless the situation changes, we're going to have the world's worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years.”

(AFP/Getty Mohammad Huwais)

Back to Saleh!

When former Yemeni strongman-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on December 4th, 2017, I thought to myself, “Wow, things just might get crazy enough in Yemen now that the world might pay attention to what’s happening in Yemen and demand a dramatic improvement to the humanitarian situation for the millions of suffering people there.”  

Salah had been ousted by the Arab Spring back in February 2012, but then allied with the Houthis in 2014 to take on his successor, leading to the current proxy-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out amid a Yemeni civil war.

I really did hold out hope that this conflict would finally get the (positive) attention it deserved.

Then Trump opened his big, stupid mouth about Jerusalem a few days later.  And, as far as most Arabs the world was concerned, Yemen may as well have fallen off the face of the earth.

Lack of news coverage

There has been much made about the lack of news coverage about Yemen, (although I would point out that The New York Times, the West’s leading newspaper, has regularly featured the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen on its front page), with headlines and aid groups regularly describing Yemen’s war as “forgotten” for several years running.  

The google-search term “Yemen,” when compared to the combined total of “Palestine,” “Israel,” and “Jerusalem,” comes out far below in terms of interest, and the same can be said of the Arabic equivalents of these words. The gap is even wider in English when it comes to Syria, although Yemen in Arabic does a bit better than Syria.

This year, the (majority-Sunni) Kuwait-based mobile phone service provider Zain’s annual Ramadan video highlighted the harm that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were inflicting upon (mostly Sunni Arab) civilians in Syria, made it a point to highlight the Israeli imprisonment of a look-alike of Palestinian teen activist icon Ahed Tamimi, to dispute the assertion that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (the boy singing repeatedly that it’s the capital of Palestine), indirectly but clearly challenges Trump’s bigotry towards Muslims and refugees, emphasizes the plight of refugees trying to get to Europe, showcases the plight of the (mostly-Sunni) Rohingya suffering from genocide and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Burmese, and even got Kim Jong-un into the video.

Entirely absent from the video? Any mention whatsoever of the atrocities, unnecessary destruction, and mass-suffering of civilians in Yemen, suffering at this point mainly inflicted by the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, which has been heavily criticized and includes Kuwait and many other Sunni/Arab powers and is supported by the U.S. and other Western powers, though at this point only Saudi Arabia and the UAE are conducting offensive operations (according to Al-Jazeera), and support in the West is falling significantly.

Street protests

Street protests also reflect this overall imbalance: There were massive street protests all over the Arab/Muslim world in response to Trump’s announcement to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and more when the move (and accompanying Gaza shootings) happened, but there have been no massive, nor widespread, demonstrations against Assad all throughout the Syrian Civil War or against the horrible suffering Yemeni civilians or the gross-misconduct-or-stupefying-incompetence (or both) of Saudi forces in Yemen.


Saudi fighters (AFP/File Photo)

What’s interesting is none of these crises emerged suddenly, but over years.  Major fighting and killing happening in both Yemen and Syria occurred month after month after month after month.  

Where I live in Amman, Jordan, there were enormous protests with thousands of people taking to the streets in the summer of 2014 during the conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel and again in December, 2017, (and worldwide, not just in Amman), but even though Assad and the Saudis have killed far more people in Syria and Yemen, respectively (more people have died of cholera alone in Yemen recently than the entirety of Palestinians who died from Israel’s summer 2014 operations), even though the still-terrible Israeli semi-siege of Gaza pales in comparison to the restrictions on food, water, fuel, and aid in Yemen, it is the Israeli operations that, by far, receive the most attention and the most criticism.  

That’s right, especially Assad but also the Saudis of late have killed far more civilians—other Muslim Arabs—than Netanyahu, but instead of the constant chorus of vitriol launched at Netanyahu, the most than can be seemed to be mustered from the collective Arab Muslim voice against Assad or the Saudis is something of a collective “meh, yeah, they’re bad…”

Houthi rebel in Sanaa (AFP/File Photo)

Elephant in the room

We sure do live in a world that is ever more tribal, including in America and Europe without a doubt, and the elephant in the room is that if it is Arab governments that are  perpetrating mass killing against other Arabs, Arabs are much more comfortable complaining about Arabs dying if they are dying at the hands of Jews, Americans, or other non-Arabs, even if the scale is far, far less.  

Yes, America supports Israel; but it also supports the Saudis and Syrian rebels fighting Assad, and Russia arms Assad. So no, it’s not about Western imperialism driving Arab anger.

Full confession, I am not religious but I still respect symbolism and what religion means to people.  But that doesn’t mean people can’t take such sentiments too far, and lose sight human life, which is much more important, especially in the eyes of most sensible interpretations of Islam.  

What many people should be asking themselves here in this region is “Why has such a horror, the greatest humanitarian crisis in decades, been allowed to become worse and worse and worse, and why didn’t I care more?”  

An unsettling answer far too many must give if they are honest would be “Because I cared far, far more about the symbolic location change of an embassy that would not change the life of a single Arab living in Israel or under occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza than about millions of starving children in Yemen.   

Maybe part of it is the shame that it was coming mainly from fellow Arabs that I was so much more willing to look the comparatively small bloodletting in Gaza at the hands of Israelis than I was willing to look at starved babies in Saana.

I somehow convinced myself that the God I pray to cares more about the sovereignty of a particular city and its holy sites than about a massive amount of human beings suffering, far more from disease and starvation and death than Palestinians at this particular moment.”  

(AFP/File Photo)

If there is to be a true assertion of mass Arab will that bring about a humane end to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen that is not dependent on Western action, then those people will have to being telling themselves that their current way of deciding how much they should care about this issue or that is unacceptable, and needs to change.  Or someone else will still be able to write about millions starving in Yemen a year from now.

Brian E. Frydenborg in an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News, only those of the author. 


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