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Plagued By War and Famine, Yemen Is 'No Longer A Functioning State,' Journalist Warns

Journalist Robert Worth on how Yemen became the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and why Americans should care.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may not think of the war in Yemen as an American war, but many Yemenis do, in part because many bombs that have fallen there are American bombs that were sold to Saudi Arabia, which is conducting the bombing. The architect of the war is Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, who is now Saudi Arabia's crown prince and is suspected of having ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Why is Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen? What role has America played in the war, and how has the war led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world?

We're going to talk about these questions with journalist Robert Worth, whose latest trip to Yemen was in September. He wrote the cover story for last Sunday's New York Times Magazine about how the war in Yemen became a bloody stalemate and what he witnessed on his trip. He's a contributing writer for the magazine. Worth served as The New York Times Beirut bureau chief from 2007 to 2011 and reported from Baghdad for The Times from 2003 to 2006. He also wrote a book about the Arab Spring, called, "A Rage For Order."

Robert Worth, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your incredible reporting. To what extent is the war in Yemen our war, an American war? What is the U.S. involvement now?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, when the war started in 2015, it was announced from Washington by the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel Jubeir. Many saw that as something symbolic. And he also mentioned when he described the beginning of the war that the U.S. was providing - had been consulted, first of all, by the Saudis and their coalition and also was providing intelligence, targeting assistance and some logistics. So it was clear that the U.S. had given a green light for this war and was also participating in some way.

GROSS: And you mentioned that several people you spoke to whose neighborhood was bombed said they saw American markings on a bomb.

WORTH: Yes. That's easy to find in Yemen. It seems that a lot of the ordinance, you know, the bombs being used, are American, which is not surprising because the Saudis have been buying American weaponry for a long time. I actually saw kind of an outdoor - they called it a museum of bomb fragments that have been laid out in the sun next to the ruins of the university up in the city of Sahdah (ph).

And it was remarkable. There were really hundreds of them, and some of them had large, large pieces, some of them smaller. Some of them unexploded, which was a little bit nervous-making for me, and most of them just fragments. And they were mostly American. There were some British and there were some, to my surprise, Brazilian.

GROSS: So do we have military troops in Yemen?

WORTH: We have a small number, I believe, of advisers, special forces, things like that. Early in Trump's term, there was a raid which got some publicity in which an American service member was killed doing an anti-al-Qaida raid. But for the most part, no, we don't have people stationed there.

GROSS: So what is the American stake in the outcome of this war in Yemen?

WORTH: Well, initially, the Obama administration, back in 2015 when this started, was reluctant to get involved because it seemed like an unwinnable war. Essentially, it was a proxy war. The Saudis were upset about the Houthis, which is this group that had just taken control of Yemen a few months earlier and which is in fact an ally of Iran and has taken, has been given Iranian weapons. But first of all, the Saudis don't have a substantial land army. They were not planning to go in and take over the country. They were just planning to bomb it. And it's very hard to win a war like that. In a sense, it seemed like an expression of Saudi anger at Iran, a desire to teach Iran a lesson, rather than a realistic plan for winning a war and reshaping Yemen.

But the Americans didn't feel they had much choice. They really needed the Saudis to be on board for the Iranian nuclear deal, which was being negotiated at that time. And to openly break with the Saudis and say, no, we're not going to support your war would have been very difficult. The Saudis said at the time that this is an existential thing for us. They felt very threatened because they had an Iranian (unintelligible) right up on their border. And so the Americans felt that they had to go along. And they assumed at the time that this wouldn't be too damaging a war, too long-lasting a war. And that assumption turned out to be wrong.

GROSS: This is a very confusing equation for me to process. So America wanted a nuclear deal with Iran. So in order to get this deal with Iran, America had to help the Saudis in fighting a proxy war with Iran. So isn't that confusing?

WORTH: It is confusing. Essentially, the Obama administration felt that the important thing was to deal with the nuclear issue. The Saudis felt that if you do that, you allow Iran to continue all of its regional activities supporting Hezbollah, supporting various forces in Syria. And, of course, also supporting the Houthi militia, which is right next-door to the Saudis in Yemen. They felt that we were trading, you know, security or some security on the nuclear front for more danger on every other front. So this was a bad deal for them, they felt. On the other hand, they didn't have a very good solution, as this war has proved, to dealing with Iran.

GROSS: So how has the equation changed with the Trump administration?

WORTH: The Trump administration has continued to support this war, but essentially without any visible reluctance up until now. They have provided the same kind of support, although the Pentagon has given signals. Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, has made it pretty clear that he's uncomfortable with this war. And so in certain ways, the level of support has gone down. The Pentagon was concerned from the very beginning about the civilian casualties and the looseness with which the Saudis were doing this. They were dropping their bombs from too high an altitude, and that made them less accurate. And because the U.S. was initially supposed to be helping them to be more accurate, this made us look bad.

GROSS: The Trump family's pretty close with the Saudis. Jared Kushner seems to have formed a close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince. And now the crown prince is implicated in the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the death and dismemberment of Khashoggi. So again, this really kind of complicates the whole equation.

WORTH: It does. And it's certainly put a big spotlight on the Saudis. But it's very unclear how this is going to translate into a different policy. There are a lot of people who are now talking about Yemen, and I suspect that after the midterms there's going to be some new efforts in Congress to try to withdraw American support from this war. But it's not clear how that's going to go.

One of the things that was interesting, you saw a few weeks back, after the death of Khashoggi, Lindsey Graham, who has become kind of a right-hand man to Trump, made very strong comments about it. He seemed very angry about what appeared to be the very much state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi. So that's a voice that may count with Trump, but whether that'll actually amount to sanctions on the Saudis or any kind of strong pressure is still not clear.

GROSS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are trying to get a ceasefire in Yemen by the end of November, and they're asking a U.N. envoy to negotiate a peace deal. What are the odds of any of that succeeding?

WORTH: You know, it's really hard to say. And precisely, I think, because of what you just mentioned, that the question is, where is Trump on all of this? I think as far as his views about all this, he's pretty much an empty vessel. So the question is, who is influencing him, really? Jim Mattis seems to have taken a back seat. Trump has said he thinks Mattis is sort of a Democrat and may not trust him as much as he did earlier in the administration. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, has essentially been given the file on the Middle East and especially on the Gulf - on Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which are the two powers that are leading this war in Yemen.

But Kushner has learned, as far as we know, most of what he knows about the Middle East from MBS, and also from Mohammed bin Zayed, who's called MBZ. He's the leader of the United Arab Emirates. So Kushner's not really in the position to tell them what to do. It remains really unclear who is really in a position to give them the kind of guidance that might end this war.

GROSS: So the Saudis are fighting the Houthis in Yemen. Who are the Houthis? Is this a religious group? Is it an ethnic group? Like, who are they?

WORTH: The Houthis are basically a militia that turned into a larger political movement. They happen to be Zaidi Muslims, which is a subset of Islam, but they're named for their founder, whose name was Hussein al-Houthi. So that's where they come from. They're from the northwestern mountains of Yemen. And they started off as a small group which was fighting an insurgency against the government of Yemen. And they just grew more and more powerful over the years and attracted allies.

And then after the uprisings in 2011 across the Arab world, the Arab Spring, the Houthis were able to take advantage of that because they had always been anti-government. But unlike the street protesters, these guys had a lot of military power. They had been fighting the state. They were very effective. They had a lot of weapons. And so essentially they were able to seize that moment to gain a lot of allies and move into a position where they eventually just took over the country.

GROSS: And so the Houthis are Zaidis. Is the Zaidi branch of Islam closer to the Iranian Shia Islam than it is to the Saudi Sunni Islam?

WORTH: Well, maybe the best way to frame it is this - about a third of Yemenis are Zaidis, and the rest are mainstream Sunnis. And in the past, there was never any conflict between those two. They were never seen as being, you know, necessarily in friction. But what happened, starting a few decades ago, was that the Saudis became anxious that the Zaidis - because they were not - they weren't Shiites, but because they were not Sunnis - would somehow affiliate with Iran.

And remember; Iran had had this big Islamic Revolution in 1979. So the Saudis, fearing that the Zaidis would become an Iranian proxy, started to step up their promotion of their own hard-line intolerant strain of Islam - which is often called Wahhabism - in Yemen and especially in the areas where the Zaidis were along the border there.

And instead of creating a lot more, you know, Saudi-style Muslims in Yemen, what they got was a backlash where the Zaidis felt that their religion and their way of life was under attack. And there was a kind of revivalist form of the Zaidi religion that grew out of that, and that's where the Houthis come from. They're this kind of revived, energized form of Islam, which eventually grew into a militia movement.

GROSS: So when the Saudis started pushing Wahhabism in Yemen, did that help push the Zaidis toward the Iranians?

WORTH: I think it did, slowly at first. The Houthis were politically aligned with Iran, but initially, there wasn't really any sign that they were getting weapons from them or had any, you know, deals with them. That was always what they were accused of. And back in 2008 or '09, I wrote a piece saying that, you know, this is a prediction that's going to, you know, be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's basically what happened.

The Houthis realized that because they were against Saudi Arabia, you know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Their bond with Iran strengthened, and the Iranians recognized it, too. The Iranians began to supply money and weapons to the Houthis, and they sent trainers to help them out militarily.

GROSS: So the Houthis have a slogan or a motto or a war cry. I'm not sure how to describe it, but would you repeat it for us?

WORTH: Sure. It is, God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curses on the Jews. Victory to Islam.

GROSS: OK, that has a lot of appeal in America and to all Jews (laughter) so...


GROSS: It's hard to say, like, who - who are the good guys in this fight? And whether there's a good-guy team or not, the larger point is it's a human catastrophe. But before we get to the scope of this human catastrophe, is there a good-guy team here?

WORTH: I don't think there is a good-guy team. But I think it's pretty clear that even - you know, even anyone who's worried about the Houthis as a political force - you know, these guys have only been made stronger, I think, by this war for the past 3 1/2 years. I don't think there's a good guy, but some people think that the Houthis are just flexible enough that one can deal with them, one can make some kind of political settlement with them.

GROSS: So I want to talk with you about your trip to Yemen, but first, we're going to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Worth. And his article about Yemen and his recent trip there is in The New York Times Magazine. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Worth, and he's a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. His latest piece is called "How The War In Yemen Became A Bloody Stalemate - And The Worst Humanitarian Crisis In The World." And the article is based in part on his trip to Yemen in late September. Give us a sense of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which the U.N. says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in the past century.

WORTH: Well, the thing to realize about Yemen is that it's - even before this, it was the poorest country in the Arab world. It's a beautiful country. And that's what often gets left out. It's got these magnificent twisted mountain peaks, these huge deserts and then unexpected areas of beauty and lush valleys in the south. But the people have always lived very close to subsistence, especially up in the highlands where there's almost no water.

The capital of Yemen, Sanaa, was projected years and years ago to be the first city on Earth - major city on Earth - to completely run out of water. So then you add to that, you know, a multi-year bombing campaign, and it's just catastrophic. And you start to see evidence of this as soon as you arrive in the country, even in the south, where there have been battles and you know, destroyed houses, pancaked roofs.

It gets to its worst when you get up to northwestern Yemen, which is the heartland of the Houthis, and the city - the major city up there, Sa'dah, is just incredible. Everything has been destroyed. Every building, you know, the post office, the university, the university bookstore - everything is flattened. And it's very easy to find, you know, human evidence of this. There's internally displaced people along the roads, and the hospitals, most of which are now nonfunctioning, are packed with people who are desperate - wounded people from the war, especially large numbers of women with babies who are suffering from malnutrition. So it's just - even for someone who is used to being in a third-world country, what's happening there is shocking.

GROSS: Why did you want to go to Yemen, considering the risk?

WORTH: It's a country I've been going to for a long time. I started going there about 12 years ago. And I think, again, what gets missed in this is it's a beautiful, fascinating place with a very, very distinctive culture. You know, modernity tends to homogenize countries, and that hasn't happened so much in Yemen. It's got this incredible medieval architecture that looks like drip castles. You don't find anything like it anywhere else. It's got this amazing landscape.

And it has a wonderful social tradition. Yemenis spend much of every afternoon sitting around, chewing khat - which is this leafy green plant that's a stimulant - and they drink tea, and they talk. And it's very easy to make friends there. So especially for a journalist, it's kind of a magical place. You know, you really form bonds with people very quickly, much more easily than I could do in other countries. So I kind of fell in love with the place. And then I had a lot of friends there.

When this war started, I was hearing constantly about what was going on. I hadn't been there. This trip that I just took was the first time I'd been there in more than four years. So I wanted to know - I'd been wanting to know for years what was going on from the ground because it's very hard to say if you're not there what it's really like. And I also felt that the issue was just not getting the kind of coverage it deserved.

GROSS: Do you have a lot of friends in Yemen who've been killed?

WORTH: I do, yes. Some - a few in bombings, mostly in assassinations.

GROSS: Because they were opponents of the Houthis or the Saudis.

WORTH: Sometimes, you don't even know. I mean, one friend who was killed by gunmen, who we think were actually Al-Qaida - you have to remember that before this war started, and even in the early phase, there was a lot of chaos.

GROSS: What was the risk level to you in this trip?

WORTH: I was mostly worried about the south because South Yemen, which is mostly controlled by local allies of the Saudis and the Emirates - those are the two main parties in the coalition in this war. It's loose. It's a checkerboard of different kinds of factions. And it's hard to know who you're dealing with. Once you cross the border into the Houthi areas, it's more like a police state - not an efficient police state, but you know who's in charge. And so I had gotten, you know, the equivalent of a visa from the Houthis. I had the paperwork. And once I crossed over into their areas, everybody respected that. And I didn't have any trouble getting around. And I wasn't worried about my safety.

GROSS: So you traveled with a terrific and very brave photographer, Lynsey Addario. And she's been in a lot of war zones. She's been kidnapped and continued to do her work. What was the understanding between the two of you about what you would and wouldn't do, what risks you would and wouldn't take?

WORTH: Well, first of all, Lynsey was the ideal traveling companion not just because she's a great photographer but because we've worked together in a number of countries in conflict. So we were used to working together. We talked a lot about it. We went over all the safety protocols. We had to persuade The Times first that this - that our plan was safe. And Lynsey and I just agreed that at each stage, we would sit down and talk about what we knew and whether the next piece was rational, you know, whether we could go forward without risk. She and I both have children. You know, and we're not going to take any crazy risks.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Worth. His article about the war in Yemen was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We'll talk more about what he witnessed on his recent reporting trip to Yemen after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Worth. His article about how the war in Yemen became a bloody stalemate and led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. The article is based, in part, on his reporting trip to Yemen in September. He's a former New York Times Beirut bureau chief.

Your article opens at a graveyard where you meet a boy who goes there nearly every day. Tell us the story of this boy and why he goes off into the graveyard.

WORTH: This is a boy who goes to the same school as the children who were killed in this bombing, which was a terrible, catastrophic bombing - took place in August. A group of schoolchildren who were on, essentially, a school picnic trip - and they had stopped at a little shop in the town of Dahyan to get some snacks. And then a bomb struck the bus and killed 44 children and 10 adults. The Saudis, at first, insisted that there must be some mistake, that they had the right information. They were sure this was an enemy target. But when the evidence just became undeniable, they acknowledged they'd made a mistake, and they apologized.

I think it especially struck home because even though a lot of civilians have died in this war, this was just such an egregious example - you know, schoolchildren on a bus getting snacks. And so if you go to that town, you see this little dedicated graveyard that's just these little graves, each one of which has a poster showing a picture of the victim. And this boy in particular wasn't on that bus because he'd done the same trip earlier. He might easily have been there, and he was fully aware of that. So he told me this story. And he said he goes almost every day to stand there at the graves of his friends.

GROSS: This is part of, like, the tragedy of this war. There are so many children being killed. And no matter what the politics of the war are, like, the human tragedy is so immense. And the children don't really have politics. They know what their parents might have told them, but they're not - I mean, they don't know enough to have made up their own mind.

WORTH: That's true. And I think that's one of the - this war is going to - long after, you know, it's not in the headlines, it's going to keep on ramifying into the lives of ordinary Yemenis and into these children, many of whom are not only suffering and dying but also not going to school.

One of the things that I found most upsetting is that the rate of child marriage has gone up dramatically since this war started. You know, this was an old tradition in Yemen that girls were married off by their families as young as 10, 11, 12. And I had reported on that in years past. And it seemed as if it was getting a little better. There was more awareness of it. And there were efforts to change the law. But now these families can't afford to keep their daughters around.

And so, you know, it's - I was told the rate of child marriage for girls is up to 65 percent. That means these girls who are too young - most of them - to have children - their bodies are not ready - are going to, you know, get raped, essentially, by their husbands. They're going to have children. They're going to be taken out of school, if they were even lucky enough to be in school in the first place. And it's just going to perpetuate this cycle of physical and psychological damage.

GROSS: So this war is a catastrophe for girls. It's also a catastrophe for boys because so many of the boys are getting forced to be child soldiers.

WORTH: Yes. Yes, that's true. And they're also, I think, just getting damaged. You know, there's so many children who've lost their parents, lost their siblings, lost their uncles. And I can't tell you how many times I talked to people who would say yes - whether it was through a civilian casualty or through, you know, fighting in the battlefront - people who had lost relatives and who would say, you know, I'm never going to forget this. This is the reason I'm fighting. This is the reason I hate the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Americans, by the way.

There's a very, very strong awareness there of the American role, which, of course, goes beyond reality for many of them. They don't see the Americans just being complicit in this. Many even think that the Americans are the, you know, neo-colonial puppet master who told the Saudis to start this war.

GROSS: Did you have to deal with any of the child soldiers?

WORTH: Sure. I passed a lot of checkpoints where you had these kids. You know, it's hard to know how old the kids are. In many cases, they themselves may not know exactly how they are. But you look at them and you think they can't be more than - you know, even if they've had stunted growth, they can't be more than 14.

There was one point when Lynsey Addario, the photographer I was with, was at a checkpoint. And she, actually, at that point - I wasn't with her at this time. But she was with a Houthi official that was with the office - pretty high up - office of the presidency of their supreme council, so this guy matters. And they're stopped at a checkpoint. And Lynsey said the kid at the checkpoint couldn't have been more than, like, 10 or 11 years old. And the Houthi official goes up to him and shows me his badge. But the kid says, no, no, you can't come through; I don't know who you are.

And so this poor Houthi official is forced to, you know, call his headquarters and have somebody talk to this kid and - so that they can get through the checkpoint. But it's just a weird little example of how - you know, when you have an entire population mobilized like that and children, you know, wearing helmets and uniforms that are too big for them and don't know what they're doing, that's what it's like.

GROSS: And I'm sure they have arms, too.

WORTH: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, the arms that they can barely carry sometimes.

GROSS: There's a famine in Yemen now. And that's one of the things that is killing people, especially infants. And probably a lot of people have seen the New York Times photo of the 7-year-old who was malnourished and who died a few days after the photo was published. And you say that famine has become one of the weapons of the war. Who's using it? And how are they doing it?

WORTH: Well, the coalition has an economic embargo on Yemen. And in theory, this is, you know, to prevent the Houthis from getting the weapons that they need. But in effect, it is worsening the impact of this war in all kinds of terrible ways. I mean, for instance, essential foods and medicines, which are, in theory, supposed to be let in, often get held up. The shipments get blocked in Djibouti before they can get to Yemen or sometimes, they arrive and they've expired.

And so, you know, I spent time with the minister of health in the Yemeni capital. And he told me that so many essential medicines for diabetes, you know, even things that have nothing to do with the war, people can't get those medicines. And they're dying by the hundreds or by the thousands, in some cases, depending on the illness. And then also above and beyond what is officially blocked by the embargo, for instance, there's wheat - you know, essential because bread is a staple of life in Yemen. I have an old friend who's a wheat importer who told me that the Saudis were blocking wheat shipments in ways that weren't called for by the embargo. And he's tried to get help from Britain and other countries in stopping the Saudis from doing this.

GROSS: And there's not only a shortage of food. There's a shortage of water.

WORTH: Yes. And that is, as I think I mentioned, something that's afflicted Yemen for a long time. It's a very arid country. And people have - there are no real rivers in that part of Yemen. People have depended for a long time on groundwater. They drill down and take it from underwater flows. And those have been getting lower and lower and lower. People have to drill further and further and further to get it.

And that's also affecting the humanitarian situation because as you drill down, the likelihood of getting contaminated or salty water gets higher. And so up in the highlands, you know, people are feeding their babies this contaminated water, which makes it only more likely that they'll get sick and get diarrhea or cholera or one of those diseases and die.

GROSS: Did you witness any bombings?

WORTH: Not really. I saw one airstrike, and it wasn't close to me. I was talking to someone in the upper story of a building in the capital. We both heard this big thump. And he said, oh, let's take a look. And we went to the window. And you saw - I saw smoke rising. But it must have been half a mile away. So, you know, I think there are not very many bombings still happening in Sana'a, in the capital anymore. Most of them are taking place in outlying areas, especially up in the far northwest along the border. And the main battlefront now is in Hodeidah, which is a long way. It's in the southwest of the country. And it's a vital port, Hodeida, on the Red Sea. And that's why the battle is happening there, because the coalition wants to take that away from Houthis.

GROSS: Is that a port where a lot of ships carrying oil pass through?

WORTH: Well, the main thing about that port is that it's where 70 to 80 percent of the food coming into Yemen goes through. So the fear is that if that gets blocked, the suffering in Yemen could get much worse. The coalition knows that. And so that's why it's taken so long. That battle's been going on, you know, in various forms for well over a year. And the question has always been, you know, can the coalition take that over but allow the food aid to get through?

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Worth. He's a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. And his latest article is called "How The War In Yemen Became A Bloody Stalemate - And The Worst Humanitarian Crisis In The World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Worth. His latest article for The New York Times Magazine, where he's a contributing writer, is called "How The War In Yemen Became A Bloody Stalemate - And The Worst Humanitarian Crisis In The World." And his article is based in part on his latest trip to Yemen, which was in the second half of September.

Would you call Yemen a failed state right now?

WORTH: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, people quibble over the definition of failed state. But it's definitely - one of the strange things about being in Yemen was that, in the past - you know, many years ago when I would report about it - you know, the editors who write the headlines for our stories would always come up with some phrase like, you know, "Yemen On The Brink" or, you know, "Yemen On The Brink Of Total Collapse" or something. And what do you say about it now? You know, it's past the brink. It's no longer a functioning state.

And I think that even if there's a peace deal, the hard work is going to come after that because, in effect, it's like Somalia now. You know, it's been broken up into these little bits and pieces. And you have warlords who are earning rents in one way or another. And they don't want to relinquish what they have. It's going to be really hard to persuade them to lay down their weapons and to be part of some larger entity. And if that doesn't happen, you're going to get left with this dangerous, unstable checkerboard of fiefdoms.

GROSS: I'm wondering what it's like for you to know that you're taking great risks. And when you set off on a trip like this, you don't know exactly what the risks are going to be; you don't know what you're going to encounter. And like you said earlier, you and the photographer you were with, Lynsey Addario, decided that you would evaluate it step by step, that every step of the way, you'd say, is it safe enough to take the next step? How much risk is this piece that you were working on worth the next level that you were going to on your trip?

So while you're making all these risk calculations in your mind, you also had to be thinking about how Yemen isn't at the forefront of the minds of most Americans. And especially in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who were, you know, engaged politically were so obsessed - no matter who they were voting for or what they hoped the outcome was, they were obsessed with the election and what the outcome would be. Is it frustrating for you to write about a place that is actually very important, where it's a human catastrophe right now but you know that so many of us here in America really aren't paying that much attention?

WORTH: It is frustrating. And you know, that really, what you've just said, is the reason why I didn't go to Yemen for 4 1/2 years. Because I - I wanted to. I was, you know, in almost daily touch with people in Yemen, and I care a lot about what's happening there. But frankly, I would ask myself - you know, I've got two young children - do I want to risk my life for this story which not that many people here care about? And for years, the answer was essentially no.

But it was also, frankly, very difficult to get into Yemen at that time. But after a certain point - I really care about the story a lot. And I also began to feel - you know, I think the tide is turning. One thing that happened was that, as the Syria war began to simmer down a bit, that gave Yemen greater visibility. You know, a couple of years ago when I would talk to my editors about Yemen, I got the sense that they felt - well, you know, we already have one big Arab war that is filling everybody's consciousness to the extent that they care about the Middle East at all.

And as that simmered down a bit, people began to take more notice of Yemen and also to take notice, frankly, of the American role there. And I began to feel that the combination of, you know, this increasing human toll there and also the American enabling of what's going on there meant that it was really worth taking a risk and going to try to tell more about this story.

GROSS: Say a little bit more, please, about why you think Americans should care about what's going on in Yemen.

WORTH: Well, first and foremost, because our country is involved in this war. We gave a green light for it in 2015, and then we stood by and let it continue as it got worse and worse. And under the Trump administration, I think the relationship between Trump and these countries has made it more flagrant, our attitude - I think - and also raised this question of whether we had the ability to step in and make a difference. Did we have anyone who was willing to raise these tough questions about human rights?

And I think that question really got more prominent after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi because, you know, suddenly people were saying, who is this guy? Who is Mohammed bin Salman? Why would he do such a thing? And if he was willing to do such a thing, why is the Yemen war continuing as well? It was kind of a transition from one subject to the next. And in that very small way, I suppose, there was, you know, a silver lining to Jamal's death. By the way, Jamal Khashoggi cared a lot about Yemen, and he talked about it. I talked about it with him several times before he died.

GROSS: What was that conversation like?

WORTH: He - on the one hand, he shared the anxiety about the Houthis that a lot of Saudis do. He - you know, he would say they're aligned with Iran. This is a threat to us. But he also felt increasingly over the years that what the coalition was doing was not helping - that, if anything, it was making the Houthis stronger.

You know, one of the ironies of Jamal's death - he was often talked about as being an Islamist, and it's true that he was - he had a lot of faith in Islamist movements - I think mostly because they have tremendous support across the Middle East and the kind of democratic power. But Jamal, I think, had almost too much faith in the power of American institutions to heal the Middle East. He was for American-style elections all over the Arab world.

And he - what he told me he wanted in Yemen was some Richard Holbrooke-type figure, you know, an American diplomat, to go over there and broker a deal the way that Holbrooke brokered a deal in Bosnia in the 1990s. It's a nice idea. I think it's kind of impractical because the Americans just don't have the credibility right now to do that. But that was what he wanted.

GROSS: What else could you tell us about him as a person? I didn't realize you knew him.

WORTH: He was a very likable guy. He was kind and gentle and funny. As I said, we didn't always agree about politics, but he was refreshingly frank as well. I remember one time I was having lunch with him in Riyadh. We started talking about sectarianism and the Sunni-Shiite divide, which, as you know, is pretty stark in Saudi Arabia.

There's a lot of anti-Shiite feeling in Saudi Arabia, even though Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shiite minority. And Jamal said, yeah, you know, this is a real problem. It's wrong. It's - you know, we need to address this. We need to be more open about it. But he said, frankly, you know, I can't claim to have clean hands either. He said, you know, if my daughter were to say she wanted to marry a Shiite, I'd be upset about it. So that was - that's the way he was. You know, he was willing to admit his flaws. There was a certain humility to him, which you don't always find in that country.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Worth. He's a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and his latest article is called "How The War In Yemen Became A Bloody Stalemate - And The Worst Humanitarian Crisis In The World." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Worth. His article about how the war in Yemen became a bloody stalemate and led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. The war against Yemen's Houthis is being led by Saudi Arabia.

What's your take so far on MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who was, you know, applauded for expanding women's rights, legalizing women drivers, opening new cinemas at the same time he was cracking down on and kind of imprisoning his political opponents? And he's the architect of the war in Yemen. And he developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner. So it'd be interesting to hear what you know about him.

WORTH: First of all, I've never met him. I'm close to people who are in turn in touch with him and know him, and so I hear about him indirectly. I think part of the background of this that you need to understand is that there were a lot of people who, recognizing how dysfunctional and - the Middle East is right now, how many bad things are going on, civil wars and so forth, they're really, really looking for signs of hope. And so they're willing to take a mixed bag, and that's what he is. He has certain impulses that seem good. He wants to crack down on corruption, to sort of cut down the size of the royal family, which, after all, is a big problem in Saudi Arabia.

You have thousands and thousands of people who act as if they own the country and get all kinds of privileges. And many ordinary Saudis deeply resent that. And so if he's able to limit the size of the elite and the royal family and also to, you know, defang Wahhabism and to make it a more moderate cultural force, that's all to the good. Unfortunately, he comes with this very, very autocratic style. And I don't think anybody realized just how brutal some of his impulses were - or some of those who were his advisers, let's say - until Jamal Khashoggi's murder. And so the question now, I think, is how do you influence this guy? That's the key. How do you exercise a restraining force on him? Because if people come along with all the goodwill in the world and say, here's the right thing, you've got to do it, it's easy for him to dismiss them if they don't understand the Saudi system. They're outsiders. He can say, look, they don't know what they're talking about. They don't know what's possible here.

On the other hand, there is another category of people who do know the Saudi system, who know him well. And they are just generally not inclined to come along and say, you need to make big changes, you need to reform, you need to release political prisoners, you need to stop listening to thuggish guys who tell you to assassinate your rivals. Because if anyone is close enough to him to understand him, they're part of a system. They're probably indebted to him. The Saudis spread a lot of money around. And they're just not the kind of person who's willing to give that advice.

What you really need is someone who combines those two things, who is both interested in pushing hard for reform but also someone he's willing to listen to because they've been there. They know the country. They know what's possible. That kind of envoy. And Obama didn't have such a person, I don't think. Trump doesn't have such a person. And so then the question becomes, is there anybody in the region who, you know, let's say, in consultation with Americans or Westerners, could help to play that moderating role on Mohammed bin Salman? And I don't know that there is such a person.

GROSS: What's the U.S. stake in the outcome of the war in Yemen?

WORTH: There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that chaos in Yemen is just dangerous for the United States. You have to remember that the al-Qaida-based branch of Yemen was - has been for a long time viewed as the most threatening one because these are the guys who put bombs onto American airliners back in 2010. There was this plot to, you know - that almost succeeded, with a guy who had a bomb. If you remember, you know, that was the so-called underwear plot, underwear bomber, who tried to bomb an American airliner. And they've since then mounted similar efforts.

So there's clearly a will to strike the United States from that branch of al-Qaida. And the more chaotic Yemen is, the more free rein these guys have to continue these kinds of plots. The second thing is that the American government, like the Saudis, is very concerned about Iranian influence in the region. And if this war continues in the direction it's been going, the Houthis may in fact become closer to Iran, may receive more Iranian weapons and training, may receive more direction from Hezbollah. And so in that sense, the Americans the same concern as the Saudis.

Now, the question is, is this war an effective way to stop that? And to many people, it seems, is not an effective way to stop that. The Americans would like to prevent Yemen from being a vehicle for Iran and to prevent it from being a vehicle for al-Qaida. And that's why Yemen matters.

GROSS: And, of course, there's also just the humanitarian crisis which matters, too.

WORTH: That is - or, rather, should be a huge concern for us. And I think now, thankfully, it is getting more visibility. The question is, how long does that last? And, you know, how does that weigh against national security concerns with this administration?

GROSS: Robert Worth, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for the risks that you took to report the story for us, and be well.

WORTH: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Robert Worth's article about the war in Yemen was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. He's a contributing writer for the magazine. His story is also on The Times website. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with religion scholar Elaine Pagels about her new book, "Why Religion?," which is about how she turned to the ancient Hebrew and Christian texts that she studies after the deaths of her 6-year-old son and her husband. Check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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