The people of Yemen are at risk of suffering famine unlike anything that has been seen in many years. Tens of thousands already have died of starvation and disease.
Like practically all modern famines, this one is man-made, a product of politics.
Political choices matter.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its annual economic output is less than $1,000 per capita. With a population of 28 million, it has 1.2 million suspected cases of cholera, and thousands already have died from the disease. About a tenth of its economic output consists of the production of khat, a mild recreational narcotic, the cultivation of which accounts for 20 percent of the parched country’s water consumption. It is not a major oil producer, but oil accounts for almost all of its exports and a large majority of government revenue, and production has crashed from 457,000 barrels a day in 2002 to 52,000 in 2017. More than half of Yemen’s work force is employed in herding animals; fewer than 115,000 work in industrial jobs. With little arable land, Yemen produces relatively little food — and because it currently produces little of value to trade, the imports upon which it relies are mostly out of reach, a situation gravely exacerbated by the Saudi blockade of its major ports.
The proximate cause of Yemen’s current sufferings — or at least the great current contributor to their intensity — is war, the ongoing civil war between the Houthi insurgency, which is supported by Iran, and the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi role is such that some critics currently describe the conflict as “Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen,” which is practically to say, Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran in Yemen, with a great deal of American logistical and intelligence support.
This is not Yemen’s first civil war, and there is little prospect of a lasting peace in the foreseeable future. And Yemen was desperately poor before the war.
Yemen is culturally backward and isolated. Its government is corrupt and ineffective, its treatment of women is savage, and the practice of slavery persists despite its official abolition. There is not very much there upon which to build. Culture is fundamental, and history cannot be undone.
But those factors do not constitute an unalterable fate. Political choices matter.
Consider Yemen alongside its neighbor, Oman. Together, they make up the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Both peoples speak Arabic, practice Islam (albeit different kinds of Islam), produce oil, and have a difficult and overbearing neighbor to the north. Both were poor, backward, and mostly isolated countries in the 1960s. But they are radically different countries today.
Oman has a cosmopolitan history as a maritime trading power, and one of the great themes of Oman’s history is the contest between liberal and worldly Muscat and the more inward-looking, traditional interior; indeed, until the current ruler proclaimed his sultanate in 1970, the two were officially known as Muscat and Oman. Muscat effectively won that contest. But Oman’s liberal culture did not magically reassert itself after the coup d’état that brought Sayyid Qaboos bin Said al Said to power. The new government made specific decisions based on its values and its vision for the future of its country. That meant building airports and seaports, paving roads to enable trade, seeing to education, encouraging the development of human capital, incorporating women and religious minorities into public and economic life to a much greater extent than its neighbors, and liberalizing trade. It is difficult to imagine any of those reaching for power in Yemen to do the same.
Oman isn’t Switzerland — it remains an absolute monarchy in which arbitrary arrest is a common tool of political control — but the choices it has made have served its people relatively well. It is difficult to imagine Oman’s being reduced to a condition of famine. Qaboos probably should be thought of as, at best, a kind of Sultan Pinochet: not ideal, by any means, but . . . compared to what?
Political choices matter.
We can give the Yemenis food, and we should. The need is great, and the cost to us would be trivial.
But we can’t send over an aid ship full of property rights, the rule of law, cultural liberalism, and trade — or a boatload of peace, which provides the time and space for those things to grow. Still less can we send over the taste for those things, a lesson we keep failing to learn from our doomed nation-building adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Prosperity grows where there is peace. Our influence in Yemen right now is in the opposite direction, as we once again find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with a detestable ally in the notional service of a dodgy regime that is somehow still not the worst of the contestants in the field. It’s a question of ugly tradeoffs. Peace in Yemen would be desirable. So would maintaining our relationship with the Saudis and through them curtailing the influence of Iran in the region. We probably are not going to get both of those, and Yemen probably is not going to get peace irrespective of any decision taken in Washington. In a country where less than 3 percent of the land is suitable for crops, that means that famine will never be very far away.
Political choices matter.