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Reporter Talks About Yemen's Humanitarian Crisis In Presentation

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: For many Americans, the first time they focused any attention on Yemen was related to it being labeled a haven for terrorist training by Al Qaeda and ISIS. And recently, a civil war there has devastated the country as what some call a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been ongoing. Those elements — in combination with Yemen's economic struggles — have pushed the nation into a humanitarian crisis. Journalist Iona Craig has been reporting from Yemen for nearly a decade, and she's in the valley for a presentation tonight as part of ASU's Center on the Future of War. Her presentation is called “Reporting from Yemen: The World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis.” And she's with me via Skype. Iona, what is the atmosphere like in Yemen right now, including politically?

IONA CRAIG: Sure. So at the moment, you've got a very bogged down conflict that began as a civil war and then involved regional nations led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have been fighting rebels in Yemen known as the Houthi since 2015. More immediately, there's been an attempt by the UN to broker a peace deal around one of the main ports in Yemen which is so vital to humanitarian aid and food imports into the country called Hodeidah. And there has been some progress on that in the last couple of days, and they're trying to get the forces of the Houthi rebels to redeploy outside of the city and to enforce the cease fire there that has been in place since January. So it's a real attempt to try and at least make the first steps towards bringing an end to the conflict although there's very little optimism that that will happen anytime soon.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there a way to define for us on the world stage which side countries are on?

CRAIG: Yeah sure. So this started very much as a civil war. So essentially, it was a fight between two presidents, really, like much of the region after the Arab Spring. Yemen's president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to step down from his position, and then a new president put in place, President Hadi. Soon after that, in 2014 the Houthi rebels, as they're known as, from northern Yemen began to take territory with the support of the former president. So it started very much as a civil conflict but escalated then in 2015 when Saudi Arabia led a coalition of some 10 nations and really led this conflict, now with the United Arab Emirates against the Houthis. Now the Houthis are certainly, before the conflict were politically aligned to Iran, and now do receive a considerable amount of support from them militarily, in the form of sort of ballistic missiles and advanced weaponry. And so you've got Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other, along with those that broader coalition, and that coalition is supported by the U.S., by the U.K. and really by the international community. As far as the international community is concerned with the aim of really getting President Hadi, who is the current president who's been in exile since 2015 when the conflict escalated back into Yemen and essentially back into power. But it really plays into that regional rivalry now of Iran versus Saudi Arabia because, you know, many people call it a proxy war really between those two sides although the Houthi is relying to Iran. They're not actually overall controlled by Iran. But they're certainly reliant on them as the conflict goes on.

GOLDSTEIN: Now Yemen was cited by several administrations actually here in the U.S. for being a terrorist haven. Is that still the case?

CRAIG: Yeah I mean certainly with Yemen, the big focus that the U.S. has always been the concern over Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which emanates from Yemen and of course that started with the attack on the USS Cole and escalated after that with attempts to put bombs on planes, which were then picked up in the UK but they were U.S. bound planes, and they were also picked up in Dubai, that happened later on. So the focus really for the U.S. has always been about counter terrorism in Yemen and the threat that emanates from AQAP, as they're known, and they were certainly before the war in Syria started, seen as the greatest threat to the U.S. abroad, in terms of Al Qaeda. And of course Yemen, infamously has been known as the homeland or the birthplace of Osama bin Laden. But actually he was not, he was never in Yemen. His family originated from there but he'd never actually been in Yemen or actually was not born there. But yes, unfortunately in many ways, for Yemen, that's always been the greatest association for the U.S. and certainly for Washington, really, and their greatest focus in the country. Which is almost like the ironic in the context of the Civil War because actually the Houthis, who the Saudi-led coalition are fighting, which is supported by the U.S. are very much enemies of Al Qaeda in the broader Shia versus Sunni Muslim sort of battle really or struggle, the Houthis are the Zaydi Shia group and of course Al Qaeda is very much on the Sunni side. So they are actually fighting each other on the ground as well in Yemen at the moment. Which means America is in some way supporting a coalition where I've seen with my own eyes Al Qaeda troops fighting on the frontlines with those coalition forces against the Houthis. So yes, I think you know it puts the U.S. in a very difficult position because they're all on one side supporting this coalition, while at the same time they have been carrying out counter terrorism operations, Navy SEAL raids, drone strikes and airstrikes against Al Qaeda, which are essentially on the same side as the coalition that they're supporting at the same time.

GOLDSTEIN: Part of your presentation at Arizona State is going to be about how Yemen is the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Can we explore this a little bit more deeply when we phrase it that way, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now?

CRAIG: Yes, well Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East even before this conflict started. And it's a country that used to import up to 90 percent of its food. Prior to the war. So when you have a conflict and you have import restrictions that were imposed by the Saudi UAE led coalition and in some cases that was a complete blockade for periods of the war. It increases the price of food astronomically because the cost of getting food into the country, the ability to get food into the country, has very much been restricted. At the same time you've had internal economic collapse you've had civil servants wages that haven't been paid for years now, you've had the devaluation of the currency. What that really means when you're in the country, when I go there you can actually see a lot of food, flour, beans, rice, fruit and vegetables in the markets, but people simply cannot afford to buy it. You've got now have a 24 million people in the country of a population of around 30 million, 24 million people now in need of humanitarian aid. You've got children, predominantly, and, you know, vulnerable people, women and elderly people just starving to death because people simply cannot afford to buy the food that is sitting in the markets.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Iona Craig. She will be in the Valley here on Thursday night, “Reporting from Yemen the World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis,” as part of a speaker series on ASU's Center on the Future of War. Iona, thanks very much for the time.

CRAIG: Thanks very much for having me.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.