What Uncle Sam Really Wants in Yemen

Yemen is currently facing a “biblical type” humanitarian catastrophe.

Fifty thousand children are believed to have died this year alone including from a cholera outbreak and thousands have been displaced.

A Saudi-led coalition is seeking to install Abdrabbah Mansour Hadi as president against a Shia-dominated Houthi rebellion backed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. To accomplish this end, the Saudis have mercilessly bombed civilian infrastructure with the goal of starving the population into submission.

Their crime has been aided and abetted by the United States, which has provided intelligence for bomb targeting, pilot training and refueling assistance for Saudi planes as well as ordinance which has been used to kill and maim civilians.

The Obama administration provided over $100 billion in arms sales to the Saudis and blamed the Houthis for the violence, saying they “had a way of putting civilians into danger.” Trump expanded funding in a trip to the kingdom and Jared Kushner has had a series of private meetings with Prince Salman with whom he has got along with famously well.

A consortium of Congressmen led by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) have spoken out against U.S. complicity in the atrocities in Yemen and sponsored a bill calling for a ban in arms sales.

Murphy said the public had become transfixed with the politicized investigation of Russia-Gate while Yemen was being starved by the Saudi onslaught and blockade. In a speech before the Senate last week, Murphy outlined the ways in which the U.S. was deeply complicit in war crimes and showed harrowing photos of Yemeni children who were dying.

Murphy’s crusading efforts, along with those of colleagues like Marc Pocan (D-WI) and Rand Paul (R-KY), are admirable, though unfortunately insufficient at this time.

One thing missing in their rhetoric is an attempt to explain the motives underlying the American Executive Branch’s policies towards Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which lie at the root of double standards on human rights.

The U.S. is deeply committed to the House of Saud because it has provided the U.S. with access to cheap oil over the years and served as a U.S. surrogate in the Middle East almost as much as Israel.

Another hidden, unstated motive is the coveting of the island of Socotra, a wildlife preserve with 50,000 inhabitants located 380 kilometers off the coast of Yemen and 80 kilometers off the Horn of Africa.

Alfred Thayer Mahan in his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History pointed out that “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player in the international scene.”

Socotra’s strategic waterway links the Mediterranean to South-Asia and the Far East through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. It serves as a major strategic transit point for the shipment of oil as well as China’s exports to Western Europe.

The pristine island is located just 3,000 kilometers from the U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia; one of America’s largest overseas military facilities which was acquired during the Cold War by expelling the local Chagossian population.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had access to Socotra as a base and Russia still allegedly covets access to the island today. The United States has had its eye on it since the end of the Cold War, choosing it in 1999 as the site to build a signals intelligence system.

In 2010, David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, held a meeting with then Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in which Saleh allegedly allowed the U.S. to set up a military base on Socotra from which to launch seaborne missiles and possibly drone strikes to counter “pirates and Al Qaeda.” The U.S. in turn agreed to double security assistance to over $150 million.

This agreement helped weaken Russian overtures to the Yemeni government. Since that time, a new civilian airport has been built on Socotra in accordance with U.S. military specifications. Then in February 2016, Press TV reported that acting Yemeni president Hadi leased Socotra to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for 99 years.

The UAE has since began to use the island for military training. Its increasing military presence is thought to represent a foothold for the United States on an island located at a crossroads of world trade.

The unfolding situation may bear some parallels to American plans in Panama in the early 19th century when the U.S. supported Panama’s secession from Colombia and then pushed through an agreement that prompted Panama to cede its sovereignty. This is how many Yemenis view it.

The New York Times claimed that the Obama administration supported the war in Yemen because it needed Saudi support for nuclear deal negotiations with Iran, though also reported that the U.S. has kept warships in the region to guard a sea lane through which four million barrels of oil pass each day. While never mentioning Socotra directly, in effect they acknowledged a hidden underlying motive for U.S. engagement in a conflict which has begun to arouse the world’s moral indignation.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012) among other works.

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