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Trump Inks Arms Deal with Saudis as Humanitarian Crisis Rages in Yemen & Saudi Prince Tours U.S.

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On Thursday, the Trump administration told Congress it has approved a $1.3 billion artillery sale to Saudi Arabia. This is the second weapons deal between the U.S. and Riyadh in as many months and has sparked concern from human rights groups, who warn the deals may make the United States complicit in war crimes committed in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. Lawmakers have 30 days to act before the sale is final. The announcement comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wraps up his whirlwind tour of the United States. One topic that has received relatively little media attention during his trip is his role in escalating Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen. Last month marked three years since the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition began its military offensive in Yemen, leading to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led airstrikes and naval blockade have destroyed Yemen’s health, water and sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera outbreak and pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. More than 15,000 people have died since the Saudi invasion in 2015. We speak with Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a between 2010 and 2015 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. On Thursday, the Trump administration told Congress it’s approved a $1.3 billion artillery sale to Saudi Arabia. This is the second weapons deal between the U.S. and Riyadh in as many months and has sparked concern from human rights groups, who warn the deals may make the United States complicit in war crimes committed in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. Lawmakers have 30 days to act before the sale is final.

The announcement comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wraps up his whirlwind tour of the United States, where he reportedly met everyone from President Donald Trump to Microsoft’s Bill Gates to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Time magazine’s cover features a photo of bin Salman’s face with the words “Charm Offensive.” The magazine notes that by the end of his visit, the 32-year-old prince will have visited five states, plus the District of Columbia, four presidents, five newspapers, numerous business tycoons, and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

One topic that’s received relatively little media attention during his trip is his role in escalating Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen. Last month marked three years since the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition began its military offensive in Yemen, leading to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. During a CBS interview on 60 Minutes, host Norah O’Donnell briefly questioned Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Yemen.

NORAH O’DONNELL: Do you acknowledge that it has been a humanitarian catastrophe—5,000 civilians killed and children starving there?

CROWN PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: [translated] It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led airstrikes and naval blockade have destroyed Yemen’s health, water, sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera outbreak—it’s believed a million Yemenis have cholera—and pushing millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. More than 15,000 people have died since the Saudi invasion in 2015. Last month, back-to-back airstrikes from a Saudi-led military coalition tore through a residential neighborhood in the coastal city of Hudaydah, killing 12 civilians, including seven children. This is Mohamed al-Helleisy, who was injured in the attack.

MOHAMED AL-HELLEISY: [translated] We were sitting down, and the planes were flying above us. As soon as I decided to go to sleep, a rocket hit us. I only gained consciousness when the whole building was collapsing on us. I started digging in the rubble and burnt my leg in the process. Then the second rocket hit us.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, 10 Senate Democrats joined a majority of Republicans in a 44-to-55 vote that rejected a bill seeking to end U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-led war.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Iona Craig, journalist who was based in Sana’a from 2010 to '15 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She joins us here in New York. She's in town today to receive the George Polk Award for documenting, in a story for The Intercept, the destruction and civilian casualties of a covert U.S. Navy SEAL raid on a remote village in Yemen. It was last year. It was when the Trump administration first came into power.

Iona Craig, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s nice to have you in studio. Congratulations on your George Polk Award.

IONA CRAIG: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to start off by talking about this latest news. I’m not sure where Mohammed bin Salman is now—in Houston or in Hollywood—as he continues this, what was called the “charm offensive,” and the lack of critical media coverage of him. But talk about Saudi Arabia’s role in the catastrophe that is Yemen today, and the U.S. role.

IONA CRAIG: Well, the war in Yemen started, really, back in 2014, but it escalated massively once the Saudis got involved, which was on March 26, 2015, so over three years ago now. And as a result of that, the import restrictions they’ve imposed on the country, the bombing campaign that has destroyed the infrastructure across the country, the economic collapse that has followed that now means that 22 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. According to U.N. figures, the majority of casualties in the war have been down to the Saudi-led bombing campaign. And you’ve got, you know, 8 million people facing famine. So, the humanitarian situation is disastrous. There is no immediate prospect to even political talks going on or a solution to this conflict right now.

And the U.S. involvement in that, as we’ve seen in the last few days, is the continuation of supporting the Saudi coalition, particularly by weapon sales. The latest one is artillery, so it’s for the ground war. It’s for howitzers specifically. But prior to that, it has been a continuation of selling bombs for the air campaign, in refueling the fighter jets, in helping with intelligence to select targets in the bombing campaign, where there have been many claims of violations of international humanitarian law. I mean, there was this one brief period at the end of the Obama administration when there was the suspension of precision-guided weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, but that was then quickly lifted. And despite the fact that lawmakers have been trying to put more pressure on the issue of this support for the Saudi coalition—and there has been more public awareness—this doesn’t seem to materialize in any indication that either the U.S., the British or the French are going to withdraw that support or even question the Saudis heavily or put pressure on them heavily about the conflict in Yemen and the impact they’ve been having there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, give us some of the figures. A million people are believed to have cholera?

IONA CRAIG: Over a million suspected cases of cholera, more than a thousand deaths. When I was last in Yemen, those numbers, although they were still growing, the rate of cholera was actually reduced, because of the intervention by U.N. agencies and NGOs in Yemen. Diphtheria has become an issue more recently, in the last few months. Because of the healthcare collapse, less than 40 percent of the hospitals are now operating in the country. Several have been—many have been bombed. The people can’t access healthcare, so you’ve now got issues of people dying from preventable diseases. So when you talk about 15,000 deaths in the war, that’s in the violence, if you like, of the conflict, whereas many, many more people are dying as a result of the healthcare collapse, from the humanitarian crisis, and starvation, particularly, amongst children and amongst the very old, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, recently admitted the Pentagon isn’t fully aware of what exactly Saudi Arabia is doing with U.S. bombs in Yemen. Votel made the admission during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. Your response?

IONA CRAIG: Well, the issue with that is, it’s about end use of these weapons, when it comes to issues of violations of international humanitarian law, when you’ve got mass civilian casualties, where we know U.S. bombs have been used, because you can pick up the remnants on the ground. I’ve been into a house in Sana’a that was a residential home where two children were killed, and found the bomb remnants there, traced the serial numbers, and they were American-made. And so, it’s very easy now for the people on the ground to do exactly that. So they know where these weapons are coming from.

And for the U.S. not to know what the end use is, where these bombs are ending up, in the sense of causing potential violations of international humanitarian law, does make the U.S. complicit. And people should be deeply concerned about that. And although the Saudis have said that they will carry out their own investigations into these strikes where there have been claims of violations of international humanitarian law, there have been no real independent inquiries now onto what’s going on on the ground. And for the U.S. not to know where their weapons are ending up, when quite clearly they have been killing civilians, should be a deep concern to everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: You come here soon after that Senate vote took place, 55 to 44 rejecting a bill seeking to end U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-led war. Among those leading this were Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Senator Sanders of Vermont. How much responsibility does the U.S. have here in this humanitarian catastrophe?

IONA CRAIG: Well, the real issue over the War Powers Resolution was: Are the U.S. involved in active hostilities in Yemen, or are they involved in potential active hostilities? And I think the issue is—from what I’ve seen, is yes, as far as the potential is concerned. There have been—you know, the U.S. Navy warship was targeted by the Houthis. They certainly see the U.S. as a belligerent. There’s been a U.S. drone taken down in Yemen. The U.S. obviously is heavily involved in the bombing campaign being able to operate, because of the refueling of fighter jets that the U.S. is responsible for, and in intelligence, which is quite an essential part of it, in order to select targets in the air campaign.

The U.S. did provide the Saudis with a no-strike list, if you like, of targets that shouldn’t be hit. And there have been clear cases where that has been violated, if you like, where targets have been hit which have been on that no-strike list. But the U.S.—the bombing campaign wouldn’t be able to operate without the U.S. support.

But it’s really unclear, as well, how much the U.S. is involved, let’s say, in the blockade aspect of it, in the import restrictions, because you’ve got U.S. warships in the Red Sea now, where they weren’t stationed before. Yes, they were involved in anti-piracy further south, off the south coast of Yemen. But where they were targeted by the Houthis was in the Red Sea, and that’s the crucial area where imports need to go into the country, on the western Red Sea coast into Hudaydah, in order to bring commercial goods into the country, when Yemen, even in peacetime, imported 90 percent of its food. And so, that raises real questions about the U.S. involvement in this de facto blockade, in these import restrictions that are having such devastating consequences for the civilian population.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Mohammed bin Salman here. Talk about the media fawning over the man who’s been really in charge, now the crown prince, of the attacks on Yemen. What is the media missing?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think the media is helping in the cycle of support, really, for the Saudi-led coalition, in doing very little critical reporting, very little serious questioning of both Mohammed bin Salman and the coalition at large. Mohammed bin Salman was the minister of defense, of course, back in 2015, and was really the one who launched this campaign into Yemen in the first place, back in March of that year. And there has a real, it appears, reluctance, both diplomatically, politically, to put serious pressure on the Saudi-led coalition, in order to maintain both strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia but also these financial benefits that come out of the weapons sales.

And the media has really been part of that, without being seriously critical or, in interviews with Mohammed bin Salman, when they’ve happened, without really pushing him or the Saudi coalition on those aspects of what is happening on the ground in Yemen. It feeds into this continuous cycle of very rarely pushing the Saudi coalition or the Saudis on their activities in Yemen. And so we’re kind of helping that noncritical aspect of support for the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen and the ongoing war.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed bin Salman in Hollywood, in Houston?

IONA CRAIG: Yes. I mean, when—it was interesting, actually, when he was in New York at the U.N., because that came over the same time as the anniversary, if you like, of the Saudis’ intervention. And on that day, the Houthis fired multiple ballistic missiles into the kingdom, as a mark of that anniversary, if you like. And when the Houthis had done that in the past, of firing missiles, the Saudis have responded immediately with heavy bombing, particularly on the capital Sana’a and in the north, where the Houthi stronghold is, in Saada. That didn’t happen this time. And I think my perhaps skeptical assessment of that was that Mohammed bin Salman, once he was in New York, did not want to have an issue over mass civilian casualties in Yemen or any airstrikes that cause civilian casualties, like we’ve seen in the last few days, whilst he was either in Washington or in New York, obviously, pushing forward this PR campaign that he’s been doing over the last few weeks in the U.S.

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