The civil war in Yemen is currently the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. A hundred thousand Yemenis have died, more than 8 million are displaced, and 80 percent of the population is on the brink of starvation. What began as an internal conflict in 2014 morphed into a complicated proxy war between the internationally recognized government in southern Yemen, backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in the north. The United States got involved when the Obama administration began providing military support to the pro-government coalition and sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, an arrangement that continued under former president Donald Trump. The United States provides two-thirds of the aircraft the Saudis use in Yemen. Equipped with American arms and aided by American advisers, the Saudis have waged a sustained and often indiscriminate bombardment of the Houthis. They have targeted schools, hospitals, factories, and weddings.
In early February, President Joe Biden signaled a new direction when he announced that the United States will end “offensive operations” in Yemen, freeze “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and name a special envoy to Yemen to pursue a diplomatic solution. The United States will also lift the terrorist designation from the Houthis to allow more humanitarian aid to reach northern Yemen. This is a marked departure from Donald Trump who, overriding a congressional vote to end U.S. involvement in the war, increased military and intelligence support for Saudia Arabia. In the last twenty-four hours of his presidency, Trump completed another deal to send arms not only to the Saudis but also to the United Arab Emirates, which also belongs to the pro-government coalition. As a 2018 Commonweal editorial argued, Trump’s unwavering and mainly mercenary loyalty to the Saudis led him to overlook their human-rights abuses. Most notably, he covered up for the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who likely orchestrated the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 because of Khashoggi’s criticism of the regime, including its war in Yemen. (“I saved [bin Salman’s] ass,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in an interview. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.”)