Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, says the muted criticism of Saudi abuses reveals a double standard when it comes to how Western countries deal with the absolute monarchy, which has been waging a brutal assault on neighboring Yemen for almost seven years with U.S. support. If the U.S. wants the world to oppose Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, “then it’s got to stop supporting the war in Yemen,” says Whitson, who adds that disparate coverage of the wars in Ukraine and Yemen point to “inherent racism” in Western media.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
Today, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to hold talks on energy security, even as critics raise concerns about the countries’ human rights records. This comes as U.S. officials are also reportedly talking to Saudi officials about President Biden visiting to Saudi Arabia to discuss global oil supply, while the U.S. refuses to directly condemn Saudi Arabia for executing 81 men on Saturday — its largest mass execution ever. Efforts to negotiate with the Saudis to increase oil and sanctions on Russian oil come as much of the world is horrified by the atrocities in the war in Ukraine. UNICEF reports the Ukraine war is creating a child refugee almost every second in Ukraine.
At the same time, we’re hearing very little about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen, which is now seven years into the Saudi-led war and blockade, backed by arms sales and technical assistance from the United States and its allies, including the United Kingdom. The United Nations warns acute cases of hunger in Yemen have reached an unprecedented level, with over 160,000 people likely to experience famine in the next half-year. More than 17 million people in Yemen are in need of food assistance, with high levels of acute malnutrition among children under the age of 5.
This was the focus of Part 2 of my conversation with Sarah Leah Whitson. She’s the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. We spoke to her Tuesday about DAWN’s civil lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018 and was DAWN’s founder. I asked Sarah Leah Whitson: How is it possible that the U.S. is continuing to support the Saudi-led war and blockade of Yemen?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s mind-boggling. And it’s mind-boggling that Mohammed bin Salman has actually said that he will not increase oil production unless the U.S. increases its support for the war in Yemen. Basically, the Biden administration is bargaining to do more to save the children of Ukraine by massacring more children in Yemen. That is the formula. And that’s why it’s just — it’s so discombobulating to see Secretary Blinken and President Biden falling over themselves to decry Russian atrocities in Ukraine while they support very similar, if not worse — certainly, to date, worse — atrocities by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen.
We have to be very clear: Saudi and UAE are starving the people of Yemen with a seven-year air, land and sea blockade that has eviscerated the country’s ability to import food, medicine and fuel. Yemen is a country that imports over 90% of its food. Of course people are starving when Saudi and UAE impose a total blockade on the country. Of course people are starving when sanctions continue to be in place. They haven’t entirely been lifted. The U.S. just redesignated so-called Houthi financiers, that will further debilitate the ability of the country to import even legitimate products like fuel and food and medicine imports.
What the Biden administration has now done is what even the Trump administration refused to do, which is reengage as a party of the conflict, putting American troops on the line as part of the fighting effort, as part of the war, making them legitimate military targets in the UAE, where U.S. forces from the military base in the UAE have actively participated in firing Patriot missiles against the Houthis in Yemen, ostensibly to defend the UAE from incoming Houthi missiles. But really the best way for the UAE to protect itself is to stop supporting proxy forces, to stop arming and funding proxy forces, which it dramatically increased in doing in the beginning of this year, and to end its blockade of Yemen. Same goes for Saudi Arabia. This is a dead-end war.
Best news I heard this morning: Reportedly, the Saudis have invited Houthi representatives for talks to Riyadh. I don’t know if the Houthis will trust this offer. There have been prior offers like this. But the whole world knows that the Saudis and the Emiratis are not going to win this war. It’s been seven years. They thought it was going to take weeks. What a joke. They have decimated this country.
And if the United States expects the entire world, which has not gone along, to sanction Russia, to buy what it’s selling in terms of defending Ukraine, then it’s got to stop supporting the war in Yemen, because the world sees this. The world sees that when the United States talks about sovereignty and violence and not attempting to extract concessions by force, it’s got to follow, to talk the talk in Yemen, not just tell the world what to do in Ukraine, because the world is not buying it. This is why there is not more support for the war against Russia in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, maybe that’s where you’ve got it wrong, when you say the world sees. I think the world doesn’t see the way it sees what’s happening in Ukraine right now. I want to read a tweet from CodePink. “Why is there such a disparity between coverage of the war on Ukraine vs. the war on Yemen? Coverage of Yemen reveals the US and UK’s complicity in creating the humanitarian crisis. Coverage of Ukraine constructs the US, the UK, & their allies as the 'saviors of democracy.'” So, let’s talk about the difference. I mean, you have for example, CNN anchors — and this is not wrong. Perhaps it should be a model of coverage of war in so many different cities, in Ukraine, so you see the real effects of what war looks like, feels like, smells like, the destruction of hospitals, the bombing of schools, and people feel it viscerally. Could you imagine if you had those same hosts in Sana’a, in Aden, in other places in Yemen each day to feel this humanitarian catastrophe, the worst in the world? Can you talk about that, the actual lack of coverage of what’s happening on the ground in Yemen, so the world doesn’t respond, right? As Noam Chomsky says, the media manufactures consent for war, and lets people know what’s happening so they can respond.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: There are three elements to this, Amy. The first is the lack of coverage is not an accident. It is by design. Saudi and the UAE have done everything they can to block international media, block international human rights investigators, including myself, from traveling to Yemen. When the war started, we — when I was at Human Rights Watch, we were on the ground in Yemen. We were able to travel to Yemen to document what was happening, to document the destruction, to interview victims. The Saudis made that increasingly difficult, including banning, forcibly banning, by threatening to withdraw funds from U.N. planes that were still traveling to Yemen and taking in humanitarian organizations. So, the Saudis, they understand the power of the media. They understand the power of the coverage that you described. And that’s why they have done everything they can to make it impossible. It is so difficult for international media to get anywhere near the fighting in Yemen. Aden remains accessible, but you have to take a boat from Djibouti to get there. It’s virtually impossible to fly into the country. So, the restrictions on getting in for international media are tremendous, versus, of course, Ukraine, where anybody can go in freely to document what’s happening.
The second is just the factor of time. The media jumps from one crisis to another. The Ukraine crisis is new. The Yemen crisis is old. It’s been seven years. And we have seen, time and again, how the media loses interest and has to move on to the next thing. So there’s an attention span issue.
And finally, there is the inherent racism that we see and that we’ve seen on such grotesque display by the Western media, talking about the white and blue-eyed, blond-haired Ukrainians who are somehow different. Their refugee status is different. Their suffering is different. They’re civilized people. They’re European people. And so there is an inherent bias in the Western media, in particular, who are the bulk of those present in Ukraine, to sympathize with, to feel compassion and suffering for Ukrainians under bombardment, but not the same suffering, not the same pain for Yemenis under bombardment, for Yemenis who are literally being starved to death. And I think this is a good moment for everyone in the media to check their biases, to really think about why that is and what they can do to fix it. I would hope that the international media uses this as an opportunity to redouble its efforts to travel to Yemen and see for itself. When they have shown up, as the BBC did last year in some unbelievable footage, unbelievable coverage, it did make a difference. And I really think and hope and I wish that the international media spends just a fraction of the effort they’re making now to cover Ukraine to get into Yemen, to show the world what’s happening. This is a good moment to draw out the comparisons, the strong, strong parallels between what’s happening in Yemen and what’s happening in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sarah Leah Whitson, I wanted to ask you about Congress and what it’s doing about Yemen right now, because this isn’t just the Saudi-UAE-led attack on Yemen. It is supplied militarily and helped in its funding by the United States. Can you talk about what’s happening in Congress?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. So, while, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Congress, in a remarkable show of bipartisan support, Republican and Democrat, voted three times to ban U.S. support for the war in Yemen and ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, under the Biden administration they approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, using the handy fig leaf of calling them defensive weapons. It’s quite disappointing, if not disgusting, that even members of Congress, like Chris Murphy, who have been so vocal in condemning the war in Yemen and so vocal in condemning arms sales to Yemen, and even vowing that he would not support arms sales to Yemen, voted in support of arms sales to Yemen that the Biden administration put forward.
I think, unfortunately, it reveals a great deal about the conflict of interest within the U.S. government that is so beholden to the defense industry and defense industry profits and defense industry employment, both before and after — they are part of the government — but as well as the notion that we must continue to cajole the Saudi Arabians for acquiescence to a new arms deal with Iran, or now for increasing oil production, by doing what they want and sacrificing Yemen and the Yemeni people if we have to. There are efforts to introduce a new war powers resolution, led by, among others, Representative Ro Khanna, that would resubmit the renewed, reengaged American fighting in the Yemen war to a congressional war powers resolution and war powers approval. But I’m not entirely confident that that will pass.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain exactly what is the U.S. role in the attack, the decimation of Yemen?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure, it’s multifold. Number one, of course, is the provision of American weapons. They are the bulk of the weapons purchased by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and those are the weapons that are landing on the heads of Yemeni children, Yemeni women, Yemeni homes, Yemeni farms, Yemeni schools, Yemeni universities. This is how this country is being destroyed, with American weapons. In addition, there has been years of so-called intelligence support — I should say dumbness support — in supposedly helping the Saudis carry out their targeting and decimation and bombardment, which of course has been wildly indiscriminate, because the Saudis insist on flying their planes so high, to avoid being shot, that they really can’t target anything with any sort of precision. And now we have the direct engagement of U.S. forces, as I was mentioning, in the UAE to support Emirati forces to fire missiles back at incoming Houthi missiles. So the United States is directly a party to this conflict again, and its troops are at risk in the UAE as parties to the war. And it’s just remarkable to me that President Biden would endanger Americans this way.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, which was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
This is Democracy Now! Next up, as the Ukrainian president repeats his call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone and is speaking to the U.S. Congress today, we speak to historian Stephen Wertheim. Stay with us.