Although far from a media or political priority during these uncertain times, it is clear that Yemen is in a desperate crisis. The World Health Organisation has released a study showing that fewer than half of the southern Arabian country’s health facilities are equipped to deal with injuries or infectious diseases, and it is estimated that in the past year alone, as many as 10,000 children may have been killed by preventable illnesses. Save the Children estimates that 21 million people are in need of urgent aid, but for one reason and another, this help has not been forthcoming. How did the situation in Yemen get this bad, and why aren’t we doing more to help the innocent victims of this conflict?
Background to the conflict – Yemeni politics and society
Yemen became a united country in 1990, and despite having both oil reserves and the largest population in the Arabian Peninsula, it has long been the poorest country in the Arabic-speaking world. Although unification of North and South Yemen was meant to bring peace and prosperity, the country has struggled to achieve stability or reach its full economic potential, especially since corruption has preserved great inequality among the population. It dealt with a civil war and six localised wars in Sa’ada province in the north, as well as Southern Separatist and Al-Qaeda insurgencies in the south, the last of which led the Obama administration to begin a campaign of drone strikes with the government’s support. Unfortunately, these strikes actually led to Al-Qaeda strengthening their influence in targeted areas, as they were the only organisation providing government-style services to the needy population. Then, in 2012, Yemeni protestors joined their neighbours in the Middle East in protesting against autocracy and corruption, eventually forcing the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for the previous thirty years had run the country like a mafia boss, privileging and enriching members of his own clan while many other Yemenis struggled to make ends meet. Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power to his deputy, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Unrest after 2012, and the Houthi insurgency
Not everyone was satisfied with Hadi’s appointment, or the way the government was organised after Saleh left. Many of the problems they’d had before the revolution were still around, and many people felt that they had not been included in rebuilding their country’s political system as they would have liked. Hadi’s limited legitimacy, and the uncertainty created by Saleh’s departure, led to a decline in the rule of law, and increasing unrest across an already unstable country. The situation was easy to exploit, and of course someone did exploit it. In 2014, the group which calls itself Ansar Allah, but which everyone else calls the Houthis, marched from Sa’ada, where they are based, to the capital Sana’a, and forced Hadi and his administration to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Ansar Allah had led six previous insurgencies in the north of the country under Saleh, meaning its members are well-armed and battle experienced. Although they use a religious name and rhetoric, and their leaders belong to an unusual branch of Islam known as Zaidism, they are principally a political organisation with support from both Sunnis and Shias in the north of the country. There is a lot of talk about their being supported by Iran, but in fact there was little evidence of this until relatively recently. The Houthis may have the Islamic Republic’s backing in theory, but in practice they follow their own agenda.
Then what happened?
While the Houthis were taking over the northern and central regions, the lack of central government control led to localised struggles for power throughout the south, with both Southern Separatist groups such as Hirak, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, increasing their spheres of influence. This was doubtless a cause of great concern for the governments of all the Gulf states, but it was only in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah passed away and was replaced by his slightly younger brother, King Salman, that concrete action was taken. Salman, and his son and close political ally, Prince Mohammed, decided it was time to pursue a more aggressive policy in Yemen, and formed a military coalition with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain to fight the Houthi insurgency, and return President Hadi to power. Although unexpected due to King Abdullah’s more cautious approach, this was unsurprising, as Saudi Arabia and its allies had invested a lot in Hadi, and did not want to see multiple armed insurgencies in their backyards. They had the backing of the United States in terms of logistical and intelligence support, as well as a source of arms sales, and were confident they could get rid of the Houthis quickly, calling their first operation “Decisive Storm”. However, the coalition soon received criticism for hitting civilian targets including refugee camps, factories, and Sana’a International Airport. Meanwhile, a naval blockade designed to limit the Houthis’ arms supplies prevented aid agencies from making deliveries of food or medical supplies. What’s more, the operation wasn’t actually very effective, and by April the Houthis had taken much of the southern port of Aden. However, Operation Decisive Storm was declared a success later that month on the grounds that much of the Houthis’ large weaponry had been destroyed, and President Hadi was able to return to the country.
So, why is Yemen still suffering?
Because the bombing only stopped for five days, giving a tiny window for humanitarian agencies to get in and make aid deliveries, and Yemen is still being struck by Saudi airstrikes to this day. The President and his government still have very little real ability to govern, and the country is full of armed groups vying for influence, some of which support the Houthis, some of which support Hadi, and some of which support neither. Al-Qaeda is still present in the south and east, and ISIS have also claimed to have cells in the country. The Houthis are also still around, having allied with their former enemy, ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who managed to cling onto many of his business interests and connections even after leaving office. This is a relic of how he had run the country – he had cronies throughout the nation’s economy, and in every important political group. Ultimately, he would probably like to return to the presidency, but is likely also happy to pull strings from exile. While aid agencies including Doctors Without Borders are operational in Yemen, the task they face is enormous. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations estimates that 19 out of 22 governorates are severely food insecure, with up to 70% of the population struggling to feed themselves. It doesn’t help that it was a poor country before the war began; Yemen imported a huge proportion of its food, meaning that only a short blockade would have had a large effect. Children, and babies born since the war began, are some of the worst affected victims, as the malnutrition they are suffering now will probably impact their health for the rest of their lives.
Why isn’t the international community helping the people of Yemen?
For one thing, as a poor country which has been seen as a security risk for many years, the idea of crisis in Yemen is unfortunately not that shocking to anyone who has followed that country’s recent history – though of course, that makes it worse for the people who live there. For another, the conflict has been cast by the Saudis and by various media outlets as a proxy war with Iran, which makes it very difficult for anyone to intervene to stop the bombing, for fear of appearing to take a side. While Iran is far more involved in Syria than in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iranian expansion seems to be an important factor behind its insistence on pursuing an unsuccessful military campaign. Meanwhile, many British- and US-owned arms companies are making a tidy profit out of the conflict, and the lack of direct Western military involvement reduces the amount of scrutiny by the public and the media. I also think that those who could afford to donate to the charities working in Yemen might be suffering from a degree of fatigue – what with Syria, Libya, the refugee dilemma in Europe, and the end of politics as we know it, it’s easy to see why people struggle to find space for a little country like Yemen in their hearts.
If you would like to donate to charities working in Yemen, please take a look at the links below: