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Yemen is now as close to hell on earth as one can imagine. A monstrous calamity – “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world,” according to the EU – is unfolding before our very eyes. It is nothing short of a crime against humanity. The pictures of sick, starving and stressed-out children that we increasingly see on television say it all. How much more must they endure before we demand an end to the slaughter of the innocents?

Civil war & big power rivalry

The ongoing civil war in Yemen, a country with a long and bloody history of political instability and conflict, is now in its third year. It is a mess of shifting alliances, warring factions and foreign interference.

Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran of arming anti-government Houthi (Zaydi Shiites) rebels, intervened on the side of pro-government forces. With the support of the US and the UK, and backed by a loose coalition of Sunni Muslim states, the Saudis have unleashed a deadly and indiscriminate air war against the Houthi. It has also imposed a crippling land, sea and air blockade of Yemen.


Though Iran denies supporting the Houthi, it is not a disinterested observer given that it is locked in a deadly power struggle with Saudi Arabia (and the US and Israel) all across the Middle East.

To complicate matters, Yemen is also home to al-Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) forces who have been fighting everybody else and, in turn, are regularly bombed by US forces.

Whatever the causes of the civil war, the consequences have been devastating. More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed thus far while tens of thousands more have been wounded, the majority as a result of the Saudi-led air campaign. Yemen’s cities are also being reduced to rubble; 3.5 million Yemenis have fled their homes and are barely surviving in makeshift shelters and camps.

The Saudi blockade, in place since 2015, has now pushed Yemen – which imports 80% of its food – to the brink of famine. The UN estimates that 130 children die every day in Yemen as a result of the war, famine and disease. To make matters worse, cholera and diphtheria are now raving the land as well. 

Malaysia must act

Of course, Middle East politics is both a minefield and a quagmire with many different forces and many different political, religious and regional cross-currents at play. But silence is no longer an option, not when so many are being slaughtered, not when so many are starving and suffering.

Malaysia must act because to keep silent is to betray our own moral values, our own national conscience. We must act even if there’s a price to pay, even if it upsets our friends because to do nothing is to acquiesce to crimes against humanity.

Of course, we are but a small nation with limited resources. We have no great army at our disposal and neither do we sit in the great councils of the world. But we have a voice, and we must make it count for something.

In fact, Dr. Mahathir’s return to high office couldn’t have occurred at a more opportune time vis-à-vis the situation in Yemen.  He is, after all, one of the few leaders left in the Muslim world with the stature and integrity to command respect. More importantly, he is trusted and respected by both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide.


He is well placed, therefore, to help broker at least an immediate end to the bombing of civilian areas, the creation of safe zones and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance. And beyond that, to perhaps discuss building new bridges across the Sunni-Shia divide.

The recent invitation by the Saudi monarch to Dr. Mahathir (hand-delivered by a special envoy no less) to visit Saudi Arabia is a significant development, particularly as it comes a few days after the visit of the Saudi foreign minister. It could provide an opportunity for Malaysia to begin the process of engagement and the search for solutions.

The UN will, no doubt, also welcome Dr. Mahathir’s assistance if it can help end the slaughter of civilians in Yemen. Iran, too, might be open to Dr. Mahathir’s possible role as a mediator.

At the same time, Malaysia must itself do more to help the people of Yemen. We can, for example, immediately increase our financial support for international aid agencies providing humanitarian assistance to Yemen. We can also discuss with Saudi Arabia and international agencies the possibility of dispatching hospital ships to Yemen to help provide urgent medical assistance to the sick and wounded. And there is no reason why we should not consider evacuating to Malaysia children in need of longer term medical care.


A foreign policy priority

Yemen is now the most pressing international issue of our time; it must become our number one foreign policy priority. Make no mistake – all the great speeches we’ve made in international fora about a principled foreign policy will mean nothing if we don’t act now. We’ve rightly criticized other nations when they failed to live up to their responsibilities in similar situations; we must not be found wanting ourselves.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 31st October 2018