The crisis in Yemen: how did we get here?

  1. An outbreak of cholera has killed 2,000 people and affected the lives of 860,000
  2. A two-week blockade currently endangers tens of thousands of lives
  3. Saudi Arabia has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015

The crisis in Yemen has intensified with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reporting the number of internally-displaced people has crossed the two million mark. An outbreak of cholera has killed around 2,000 people and affected the lives of a further 860,000. To make matters worse, a recent Saudi-imposed blockade means that aid is unable to reach those most vulnerable in the country, leaving millions more at risk

Saudi Arabia introduced the blockade in retaliation to a ballistic missile, launched from Yemen by Houthi rebels, and aimed at Riyadh earlier this month. This prompted the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to declare it an “act of war”. He accused Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying missiles to the Houthis. In response – as the Guardian reports here – Iran has called Riyadh’s accusations baseless and provocative.

To understand the effects of three years of unrelenting war in Yemen is to untangle a complicated power struggle between a number of players. European broadcaster Euronews reported that the war now has around 20 million Yemenis dependent on humanitarian aid for survival.

The Arab Spring

The crisis in Yemen began with the Arab Uprising in 2011. Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets against President Ali Abed Allah Saleh in an effort to end to his 33-year rule, which was rife with corruption and human rights violations. He formally stepped down in 2012 and was replaced by his deputy Abed-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

But Hadi struggled to lead the government and transition it to stability. His government failed to contain corruption and unemployment, and the country’s security situation worsened under violence from Al-Qaeda.

A crisis point was reached when Hadi attempted to secure a loan of at least $560m from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which pressed for a slashing of fuel subsidies to raise government income. As the price of fuel nearly doubled, the decision resulted in a backlash from Yemen’s Houthis, who champion the country’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.

The Houthis, who had fought a series of rebellions against Saleh’s government during the previous decade, took advantage of Hadi’s weakness by taking control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas. Their demands included lower fuel prices and the formation of a new government.

The deadlock worsened when many ordinary Yemenis – including Sunnis – began to support the Houthis and entered the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, setting up street camps and roadblocks. In January 2015, the Houthis completed their takeover of the city when they surrounded the presidential palace and other key locations, effectively placing Hadi and his ministers under house arrest.

The following month, Hadi escaped to the port city of Aden, but was then forced to flee to Riyadh when the Houthis tried to take control of the whole country. In response, the government of Saudi Arabia launched its military coalition in March 2015, in part to restore Hadi’s government, but also because it believed that the rebels were receiving military backing from regional rival Iran.

In the years since 2015, the Saudi-coalition has received military and intelligence support from France, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. With the help of the coalition, Hadi was able to drive the Houthis out of Aden in July that same year. The government has since established a temporary home there.

A proxy war

Regional countries – notably Saudi Arabia and Iran – have intervened to support the two factions battling in Yemen, with a number of Western powers like the U.S. and the UK providing support to Saudi efforts. The motivations of the main players are as follows:

Iran – Iran is the leading power within the Shia branch of Islam, and an ally to the Shia Houthis of Yemen. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly insisted that Iran is the main financial and military backer of the Houthis. After the ballistic missile fired from Yemen came close to hitting Riyadh airport, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying missiles to Houthi rebels, which it denied. Iran is also considered to be a growing influence in regional countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – analysed here by this NATO Review piece.

Saudi Arabia – The Kingdom is a predominately Sunni state which practises the doctrine of Wahhabism. The Saudi coalition began supporting President Hadi when it launched Operation Decisive Storm in 2015. The military campaign was the brainchild of then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and received the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia wants to restore Hadi’s government, but also sees Yemen as an area of contest in its battle for regional dominance over Iran. It also does not want Yemen to fall under Shia influence.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – A militant Islamist organization primarily active in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, AQAP sees the war as an opportunity to assert itself in Yemen. According to the non-profit International Crisis Group, AQAP will emerge as the only real winner from the war.

U.S. and UK  – Last year, Reuters reported that the Obama administration offered the Saudis up to $115 billion in arms sales since 2009. To exacerbate things further, “more U.S. strikes have hit Yemen in President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office than in all of 2015 and 2016 combined,” according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

On November 13, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution explicitly stating that U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen is not authorized under legislation passed by Congress. The non-binding resolution, however, does not call for a halt to the American support.

In Britain, the Guardian newspaper disclosed that the government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia topped £1.1bn in the first half of 2017. The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office recently said in response to Yemen that Britain “remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to address its legitimate security needs”.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of U.S. military sales/ Stockholm International Peace Research Institute/ 2017

A humanitarian crisis

Three years of war in Yemen has left nearly two million children malnourished and 60 percent of the population not knowing where its next meal will come from, according to UNICEF, the World Food Programme and World Health Organization in a rare joint statement. “Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s children need immediate humanitarian assistance,” they said.

According to WHO, the Saudi-blockade, which it has partially lifted in the South, is making a “catastrophic situation even worse”. The UN also issued a statement requesting that Saudi Arabia end its blockade or millions of lives are at risk. Around 5,000 people are affected by cholera each day – an illness that would be treatable were it not for a lack of medical facilities in Yemen.

Amnesty International has described Yemen as the “forgotten war” due to the scant media coverage the conflict has garnered. One reason is because Yemen is notoriously hard for journalists to enter, since Saudi Arabia controls access to the country. Another reason, as suggested by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, is that it does not make “good business sense” for western media organisations to cover a war from which the UK and U.S. both make profits.

Go further

Here’s some of the best information we’ve found on the situation in Yemen. To contribute please SIGN UP or SIGN IN, or go to TALK to discuss.

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