Editor’s note: This article is one in an occasional series entitled “Know Your Square Inch,” Roberto Rivera’s nod of the head to Abraham Kuyper’s famous claim that every square inch of creation belongs to Jesus Christ. That being the case, Roberto seeks to inform American Christians of important global issues that may be unfamiliar to them.
During the Iraq War, the blogosphere coined the expression “Friedman Unit,” in “honor” of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who over a two-and-one-half year period repeatedly told readers that the “next six months” were critical to the outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (That’s five “Friedman Units.”)
This, along with his paeans to the power and wonder of globalization such as “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” “The World Is Flat,” and the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which argues that “that no two countries that are both part of the same global supply chain will ever fight a war as long as they are each part of that supply chain,” make Friedman easy to mock.
But in a recent column, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last,” he crossed the line from (perhaps) wrongheaded to appalling. Daniel Larison of The American Conservative rightly called it a “Love Letter to a War Criminal.”
The “war criminal” is Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The “crime” is the starving of Yemen. As the Financial Times (unfortunately behind a formidable pay wall) tells readers, “There is also little doubt that without a change of heart in Riyadh, Yemenis will starve on a scale the 21st century has yet to see,” adding, “In such circumstances, the US and Britain would be found guilty of complicity in crimes committed in the name of Saudi hubris.”
The immediate occasion of both the Financial Times’s article and Larison’s comments is the Saudis’ blockade of Yemen’s ports, which has effectively cut off food and medical aid to the country, where an estimated 7 million people are at risk of famine. This is in addition to what is officially the largest cholera outbreak in recorded history, expected to reach 1 million cases by the end of the year.
The combination has produced the “World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis.”
And that brings us back to the object of Friedman’s man crush, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is often referred to by the moniker “MBS.” Until Saudi Arabia, led by then-Defense Minister MBS, intervened in 2015, the conflict in Yemen was your basic civil war, pitting the central government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Since Saudi Arabia shares an 1,100-mile border with Yemen, it is understandably concerned with the chaos and instability in Yemen. But what really got Saudi Arabia’s attention was the role played by the Houthis in Saleh’s coalition.
The official name of the Houthis is Ansar Allah, “the partisans of God.” The name “Houthi” comes from the family name of their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. The Western media frequently identifies them as Shia Muslims. This designation enables that same media to treat events in Yemen as a “proxy war” of sorts between Sunni forces backed by Saudi Arabia and Shia forces backed by Iran.
Reality is nowhere near as tidy. For starters, there are Sunnis among the Houthi rebels. And while al-Houthi and the overwhelming majority of his followers are Shia, they belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, which is theologically closer to Sunni Islam than it is to the Shia Islam practiced in Iran.
And while Iran is assisting the Houthis, to call them “proxies” overstates the closeness of the relationship. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says that “the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests, though often with smuggled Iranian arms and other indirect help.”
Saudi Arabia, especially the crown prince, doesn’t see it this way. After the Houthi-led coalition captured the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in 2015 and forced president Hadi to flee the city, the Saudis and forces from eight other countries launched Operation Decisive Storm. (Does the name ring a bell?)
While some ground troops were involved, the operation mostly involved air strikes. These air strikes, aided by American and British military personnel, were supposed to target Houthi forces but often hit civilians, instead.
This intervention turned what was a tragedy into a humanitarian disaster. More than a million Yemenis have fled the country, with another 2.5 million internally displaced. Yemen was already the poorest Arab country, with an infrastructure to match.
Before the war, Yemen already had one of the lowest average life expectancy rates in the world. It also had a relatively high rate of infant mortality. Yemen spent on average only $40 dollars a year per person on health care. (The U.S. spent more than $9,000 at the time.) That’s near the bottom globally. Half of the population lacked access to the most basic health care.
Then the bombs started flying.
Not surprisingly, the Houthis punched back. Their retaliation included launching Yemeni versions of the Scud missile at targets in Saudi Arabia. Most of them were shot down by U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles, including one that was knocked out near the Riyadh airport, sending debris raining down on parts of the facility. In response, Saudi Arabia tightened its blockade of Yemen, an act that is threatening to turn a humanitarian disaster into a humanitarian catastrophe.
By some estimates even a partial lifting of the blockade “will still push at least 3 million more to the brink of starvation, and could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.”
Even if the Houthis were Iran’s proxies, Saudi Arabia’s actions would constitute a war crime and make the object of Friedman’s man crush, MBS, a war criminal. But the evidence that the Houthis are either is, as noted above, less than overwhelming.
Do they accept aid from Iran? Of course. But even if several divisions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were stationed at the Yemen-Saudi border—not at all likely—the threat to Saudi security and interests wouldn’t match the one posed by the Shia-dominated government in Iraq and the proximity of Iran to Saudi Arabia’s restive Shia population in its oil-producing Eastern Province.
And even if the Houthis were Iranian proxies, the potential deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, as well as those of innocent noncombatants, would not be justified.
Of course, the blood of these people isn’t only on the hands of the Saudis and their coalition partners—it’s on our hands, too. President Trump is preserving his predecessor’s support for Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Yemen, despite the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued.
Larison, to his credit, has been a voice crying in the wilderness over all this. While many columnists swooned over MBS because he allowed Saudi women to drive, and others rubbed the Palantir while standing in the shadow of the Eye of Sauron, Larison wouldn’t let us forget that the real faces of what’s happening on the Arabian peninsula are ones like this, this, and this.
It’s on us. Larison is absolutely right when he says, “The disaster now engulfing the people of Yemen was entirely foreseeable and preventable, but the Western governments in a position to prevent it from happening chose instead to ignore the crisis and continued arming the governments responsible for creating it.”
The stain of our complicity in “one of the largest crimes against humanity in recent times” is “indelible.” And all cries of “Out damn’d spot!” will be to no avail.
Lord, have mercy on us all.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.