Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East before the outbreak of war in 2014 between the Houthi rebels and government forces. Since then Yemen has experienced the largest outbreak of cholera in the modern world and is on the brink of the harshest famine the world has seen for decades. Over 20 million people (out of a population of 28 million) are in need of help.
The fighting involves many groups of people and goes back many years. However, no single force is strong enough to rule the country, and the prospects of peace appear thin.
Yemen’s infrastructure has been badly damaged by a bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia, as part of an international coalition that supports the Yemeni government. US and British military advisers help the Saudis to choose targets, and provide them with missiles and smart bombs, although many of these appear to miss their target.
The Houthis, a group of Shia rebels, are the main target. In 2014, with the help of Iran and a former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis moved out of northern Yemen into the south and took control of most of Yemen. The president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, fled—first to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia. At his request, the Saudis entered the conflict and helped push the Houthis back to the north of the country.
Coalition forces have targeted factories and warehouses storing food. They have also held up shipments of oil. The lack of fuel has shut down water-pumping stations, so people have had to use dirty sources. Cholera has spread, and the medicine to treat it is also been held up by port closures.
During the first six months of war, some 40 health centres were hit by the coalition forces. Amnesty International has accused the coalition of deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals, schools, markets and mosques, and of using imprecise weapons, such as cluster bombs.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting. This compares with about 400,000 in Syria, which partly explains why Yemen has had little media coverage compared with Syria. In addition, there was a wave of Syrian refugees into Europe which also heightened attention. However, many more Yemeni people have died from a lack of food and medicine, rather than directly from war.
Some of the origins of today’s war date back to the 1960s—a civil war in the north and an uprising against British colonial forces in the south. Leaders in the north turned to religious leaders for their legitimacy, whereas those in the turned towards Marxism and the Soviet Union.
During the 1994 Civil war, Mr Saleh’s northern forces were victorious. The Zaydis, a Shia sect, which accounted for about 40% of the population became marginalised and from these developed the Houthis. Over time they became opposed to Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious influence and Yemen’s alliance with the USA on the ‘war on terror’. Between 2004 and 2010 hundreds of people died in fighting between government forces and the Houthis.
Following the Arab Spring, opposition to Mr Saleh’s rule came to a head in 2011. He stepped down as president in 2012, and was replaced by the then vice-president Hadi. The Houthis were still opposed to the government and boycotted the 2012 elections. Although the UN established a power-sharing deal between the government and the Houthis, the latter did not join. The Houthis did not have a plan for ruling Yemen. However, it was not just their lack of interest in ruling Yemen that led to the current crisis but the involvement of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis organised a coalition that included Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, and they began striking Yemen in March 2015.
Both the Saudis and the Houthis have created misery in Yemen. The Houthis allegedly looted some $4 billion from the central bank, resulting in the government having to close schools and hospitals. Many civil servants were unpaid.
Yemen is seen by some commentators as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia (supporting the government) and Iran (supporting the Houthis). Iran appears to be arming the Houthis, just as the USA and the UK is supplying Saudi Arabia—the USA with $110 billion of ‘beautiful arms’ (Donald Trump, 2017). The war has also been a bonanza for Britain’s defence industry. The USA and UK have not only provided Saudi Arabia with arms, they have also prevented other countries from putting pressure on it.
On 5th December 2017 the former president Saleh was assassinated by Houthi rebels, in response to his switching sides and seeking peace with Saudi Arabia.
Thus, the situation in Yemen is catastrophic, hazardous, complex, and paradoxical. Some companies are making money out of a situation where cholera and malnutrition are affecting the lives of millions of people. Despite this looming humanitarian crisis, little is being done (or being allowed) to help the Yemeni population.