Canada’s deadly role in the Yemen war

Op-eds Opinions

Canada exports weapons to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia exports bloodshed and famine to Yemen

Seven million people in Yemen are on the verge of famine due to a brutal war and naval blockade led by Saudi Arabia, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in November. The blockade began in June 2015, a few months after the UN Security Council issued an arms embargo on Yemen and the war began.

Andrew Wender, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Victoria, says that the Saudi war is “an attempt to prevent Iran from gaining advantage in a now Houthi-dominated Yemen.” The Houthis, a diverse Yemeni tribal coalition, forced the Saudi-backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to resign in Jan. 2015.

Hadi came to power during the 2011 Arab uprisings that swept the region due to discontent over the corrupt and authoritarian rule. But, Wender explains, Hadi was only in power due to attempts from Saudi Arabia to keep the Houthis from controlling the country.

“The Saudis helped to engineer a transfer of power from [former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh to Hadi in an attempt, from a Saudi standpoint, to keep control of Yemen.” Wender says. “Because the Saudis regarded Saleh’s regime as one that was beneficial to Saudi interests and the Saudis did not want to see that regime completely collapse.”

The Saudi monarchy, who are Sunni Muslims, may be using Sunni–Shia sectarianism to “mobilize and appropriate” these divisions for their own political interests, Wender says. A coalition of Sunni-Arab states led by the Saudis began a massive bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015 after the Zaydi Shiite Houthis took power. The Saudis want to keep a Sunni regime running Yemen to repel the cultural influence from Shiite Iran subverting their regional dominance.

“On Dec. 21, the Red Cross tweeted that there were one million suspected cases of cholera in Yemen, while ‘more than 80 per cent of the population [lacked] access to food, fuel, clean water and access to health care.'”

While creating a massive famine and humanitarian crisis, the Saudi war has not wrested control of the country from the Houthis, but it has opened things up to other players. The war has destabilized the country enough to allow an extremist group called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain control over a significant amount of uncontrolled territory.

But the target of the Saudi war is the Houthis, not AQAP, who are Wahhabi Sunnis, the same branch of fundamentalist Islam that the Saudi monarchy enforces.

The Saudis are attempting to starve the Houthis out of power now. They have been blockading Yemen by land, sea and air, stopping ships and planes from landing at Houthis ports — including many that have been verified as weapons-free by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen.

Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food and medicine according to the World Food Program (WFP). Hudaydah and Saleef, two ports under blockade, processed 80 per cent of commercial imports before the war. The shortages of food, fuel and medicine have grown so dire that the medical system has all but collapsed. On Dec. 21, the Red Cross tweeted that there were one million suspected cases of cholera in Yemen, while “more than 80 per cent of the population lack access to food, fuel, clean water and access to health care.”

By August, the WFP provided assistance to 6.5 of the 6.8 million Yemenis that are severely food insecure, but it had to thin the rations for 3.5 million people to 60 per cent of their daily needs due to funding shortages. Canada provided $12 million dollars to the WFP relief this year, which, however, only has 45 per cent of what it needs to prevent severe malnutrition.

The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, pleaded for a ceasefire last month as violence reached a new pitch in the capital Sanaa. Former president Saleh was shot to death on Dec. 4 after he changed allegiances away from the Houthis.

Over this Christmas season, the Global Affairs Canada website claimed that “the Saudi government plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.” Since the war began, the United States has been providing the Saudi coalition with munitions, aerial refueling and targeting intelligence support.

“Weapons sales to the Saudi coalition must be ceased.”

Human Rights Watch stated in January that both the Saudis and the Houthis committed war crimes in 2016, but the Houthis remain the only party under a UN weapons embargo. “Saudi Arabia’s goal is to gain maximum geostrategic advantage for itself in the Arabian Peninsula and region wide,” Wender says.

Saudi Arabia loosened the sea and air blockade on Yemen in late November, permitting some aid shipments to enter the country. While this has improved the flow of aid, the cholera is still worsening and Canada needs to act.

Canada remains relatively mute on the likely illegal actions of Saudi Arabia, which was Canada’s second biggest weapons customer in 2016, according to a Global Affairs Canada report.

Canada was the second largest arms dealer to the greater Middle East after the United States, thanks to a $15-billion sale of armoured fighting vehicles to the Saudis made in 2014. A July 2017 Globe and Mail report found that some of those armoured vehicles had been used inside Saudi Arabia to repress Shiite civilians, whom the Saudis called terrorists.

The Liberal government decided to honour the agreement despite the oppressive war already raging when they were elected. As former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion wrote in an April 13, 2016, press release, “cancellation would deprive almost 2 000 workers of their livelihood, principally in London, Ont.”

“Our government will not weaken the credibility of the signature of the Government of Canada,” Dion wrote.

Eight months before Dion’s statement, the Saudis had bombed four shipping cranes in Hudaydah, Yemen, which were crucial to offloading aid supplies. They were also accused of bombing a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital; a Coca-Cola factory; a funeral, killing 140 and wounding 600; and a school, killing 10 students under the age of 15.

Chrystia Freeland, current minister of Foreign Affairs, told the CBC in August that she was “deeply concerned” about the appearance of Canadian vehicles in use against citizens, but added that Canada needed to ensure it is “acting on fully reliable information we can stand by.”

Later that month, Global Affairs embodied the stereotypical image of the trusting Canadian when they told CBC columnist Neil Macdonald that the videos the Globe and Mail found on social media did not amount to “conclusive evidence” of oppression.

On January 3, Reuters reported that Norway had suspended weapons exports to the United Arab Emirates because the arms could be used in Yemen, with sales to Saudi Arabia already prohibited. This would be a good time for Canada to follow Norway’s lead. Thailand was the only country denied weapons export permits by Canada on human rights grounds in 2016, according to Global Affairs.

The Canadian government has been looking for a peacekeeping mission to regain its historic prestige in that role. With Yemen being the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster, it would be a good starting point for Canadian forces to get back in the peace game. Canada’s Navy would be well suited to ensure Yemen’s ports remain completely open to receive aid shipments, while the army could supervise weapons disarmament on all sides and help facilitate a ceasefire, followed by fair elections. Imminently though, weapons sales to the Saudi coalition must be ceased.