When President Joe Biden announced in February that he was ending US support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, phoned her colleagues in Yemen. “I was calling them to say, ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel,’” said Jumaan, who is Yemeni American.
“Not a single person believed it,” she said. “They knew better.”
So far, the skepticism of Jumaan’s coworkers has been vindicated. Nearly three months have elapsed since Biden’s statement, and he has yet to specify what constitutes an “offensive” operation. It remains unclear what, if anything, his administration has actually done to stop the Saudi Arabia–led military intervention. When asked by Congress last week for updates, Biden’s Yemen envoy, Tim Lenderking, claimed ignorance. And this month, the White House announced that it was moving forward with a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, one of the main players in Yemen’s war.
The Biden administration also recently played down one of the main drivers of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis: a Saudi naval and air blockade that is preventing fuel and other critical supplies from entering the country. Rather than answer questions about US support for the Yemen intervention and blockade, ongoing since 2015, a State Department spokesperson told Vox that the blockade “is not a blockade,” quibbling that some food and other supplies are getting into Yemen and that Yemeni authorities are also contributing to import problems. The denial followed comments from Lenderking, who last month attempted to shift the blame for fuel shortages onto Yemeni rebels, despite United Nations and press reports pointing to the Saudi blockade as the most immediate cause.
“The fact that the Saudis determine what gets into Yemen and what doesn’t and when, that is a blockade,” said Jumaan, adding that her organization hasn’t been able to send medicine to Yemen in over a year.
The Biden administration’s equivocating and willingness to cover for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and its opaqueness about its own continued involvement in the conflict track with a trend in US policy in the region—one that far predates the six-year war. Even though the United States boasts tremendous influence over Yemen and the regional powers jockeying for control over it, Washington has for decades treated the country as a tool for pursuing tangential foreign policy goals—usually countering terrorism and maintaining warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
“There is no US Yemen policy,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch and a former journalist. “There is counterterrorism. There is Saudi. There is the Gulf. There is Iran. But there is no Yemen policy for Yemen.”
As the Biden administration continues in the tradition of US nonpolicy, the humanitarian situation in Yemen, which has been widely considered to be the world’s most dire for roughly five years, grows more calamitous. Two and a half years ago, Save the Children estimated that around 85,000 children in Yemen under the age of 5 had died of malnutrition, and under current conditions, 400,000 more children could die by the end of this year, according to a February report from four UN agencies. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimates that fighting itself has so far taken around 100,000 lives.
Biden “has been given a very rare chance to correct the wrongs [the United States has] inflicted on the Yemeni people,” said Jumaan. “And instead of [his] taking the chance to correct that, we’re seeing the same old story and same old behavior.”