In about 570 AD, in the dry hills of what is now northern Yemen, the great dam of Marib collapsed. It had been one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, with a mud-and-brick retaining wall fifty feet high and 2,100 feet long—twice as long as the Hoover Dam. It fed a complex irrigation network that made the desert bloom and sustained the kingdom of the Sabaeans, who had built it, for more than a thousand years. The fertile plains around Marib were one reason the Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, fertile or happy Arabia. After the dam’s collapse, the agricultural system failed and famine spread, setting off a mass migration of people.
Yemen may now be approaching an equally historic catastrophe. After nearly four years of civil war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition determined to restore to power the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, every month seems to bring some shocking new measure of civilian misery. Yemen now has the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, and among the highest rates of child malnutrition. An estimated 16 million people, more than half the country’s population, are threatened by starvation. During two weeks of reporting in September, I saw suffering on a scale I have rarely seen anywhere: overcrowded hospitals full of skeletal, starving children; makeshift camps of displaced people begging for handouts, many of them with war wounds; child soldiers on almost every street. Although the civilian death toll (roughly 50,000, though estimates vary widely) is dwarfed by that of Syria’s civil war, Yemen’s isolation, poverty, and barrenness pose a greater threat to the survival of its people.
In recent weeks, modest hopes for peace have been stirred by a United Nations–brokered cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeidah. The UN has sent monitors to bolster this shaky truce, which each side has accused the other of violating. The deal partly reflects a dramatic shift in global perceptions of the war’s primary architect, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. In an irony that was not lost on Yemenis, the murder in October of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi turned a spotlight on the deaths of thousands in the deserts of southern Arabia. Soon afterward, then Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a cease-fire. In December the Senate voted to end the US policy, which began during the Obama administration and has continued under Trump, of providing intelligence, targeting, and logistics for the Saudi-led bombing campaign.
It is not yet clear how much pressure the Saudis are feeling, but there are signs that they may be willing to settle for less than total victory over the Houthis. Huge obstacles to peace remain, above all the…
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