The Yemen Crisis: An Overview

Samuel Ching
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Mother and 6-year-old son in a hospital in Hodeida, a Red Sea port city. Source: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

As our attention to the Middle East appears confined to Saudi Arabia’s alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi and to the Islamic State (IS), not many seem to notice that Yemen, in the southernmost of the Arabian peninsula, has continued to be a living hell for its people for the past three years.

United Nations officials have called the Yemeni Civil War “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” And, as it happens, it was already the poorest country in the Middle East before the war.

One child dies every 10 minutes. 17.8 million people, 60% of the population, don’t know when their next meal is coming. The country is suffering from the largest cholera outbreak in world history, with more than 1.2 million suspected cases since April of last year. And GDP has slid by half since 2014 (see graph below).


Nominal GDP of Yemen in USD. Source: World Bank.

So, what happened?

The Yemeni civil war is part of the wider Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East. It first broke out 3 years ago, when the Houthi tribe in Northern Yemen, which believes in Shia Islam, complained of marginalisation in the country. Previously, Yemen had experienced the Arab Spring and its authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand power over to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However, Hadi’s reign was seen as disappointing as he battled with various issues in the country, from corruption and food insecurity to attacks by Al-Qaeda. The Houthis took advantage of this and took control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a and other cities. Since then, the Yemeni government has been fighting against these rebels; so far, the Houthi controls a significant part of western Yemen, including Sana’a (see map below):


Iran, the leader of Shia Islam in the Middle East, is alleged to have provided military support to the Houthi rebels, from its Revolutionary Guard to short-range ballistic missiles (the latter according to US officials). Saudi Arabia has been long engaged in a proxy war with Iran due to the Sunni-Shia conflict, and fears the Houthis’ victory would threaten its own dominant position in the Middle East. Along with 8 other mostly Sunni countries, Saudi Arabia backs the internationally recognised Yemeni government. The US, UK and France provided logistical and intelligence support to this coalition, too.

Subsequently, Hadi fled from Yemen and remained in exile, while his government remains in operation. Taking advantage of this chaos, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of Islamic State (IS) conducted deadly attacks and seized part of the south. The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), who reluctantly supported the Yemeni government in the war, called for Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghar to resign this January, citing corruption and mismanagement; this caused an infighting among the coalition and further complicated the situation.

The result is a recorded death toll of more than 6,800 and a further 10,700 injured since 2015, according to the UN, although it is believed the number of deaths is much higher. Most of the casualties were caused by Saudi-led air strikes in areas like residential areas (60), marketplaces (11) and civilian boats (11), according to a report commissioned by the UNHRC; it said these may amount to war crimes.

Around 75% of the population require humanitarian assistance, with 11.3 million requiring immediate assistance in order to survive. More than 3 million people had to move homes, with 2 million still displaced. Many government employees have not received any wages for months or even years.

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Ruins in Aden. Source: BBC News.

The biggest threat to Yemeni civilians is famine, which has multiple causes. Yemen relies heavily on food imports. In part due to a lack of freshwater, it can only grow 5% of the wheat it consumes. Since the war began, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a naval blockade on Houthi-controlled areas, which were responsible for handling 80% of the country’s imports. Unsurprisingly, commercial imports plunged by 30% from this May to August. The Houthis exacerbated the problem by charging taxes on goods passing through the areas they control. Combined with the 300% depreciation of the Yemeni currency, Yemen’s inflation rate currently stands at a staggering 41.8% (see graph below).

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Yemen inflation rate, average consumer prices. Source: the IMF, World Economic Outlook (October 2018)

The UN has expressed its concern regarding the situation and said military action should not be the solution to the Yemeni conflict. Pledges worth 2 billion dollars were made towards UN humanitarian action in Yemen by 40 member states and organisations last year. The UN, however, has acknowledged obstacles in implementation, such as movement restrictions and attempted interference and harassment.

Other parties have adopted a more long-term approach to stop Saudi-led civilian attacks. Early this year, Norway and Germany ceased to export arms to the UAE, and additionally to Saudi Arabia for Germany. Last November, in a major blow to President Donald Trump, Congress voted to advance a legislation that would suspend American military support towards the coalition, amid journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. It is unclear whether America’s withdrawal from the war can also help pressure Saudi Arabia and its allies to be more ‘humanitarian’ when conducting air strikes, but it is true that Saudi Arabia has always been afraid of Iran’s potential dominance in the Middle East and has a strong motivation to stop this from happening.

It seems the only solution to this humanitarian crisis is to arrange some sort of peace agreement between Sunni Yemen and Shia Houthi. A good sign came when, in November, the Houthi leader announced a ceasefire at all fronts at the request of the UN. In December, the UN convened in Stockholm for a round of peace talks between the warring parties. Obviously, we cannot take a successful agreement for granted. The Houthis already had a no-show in earlier peace talks in Geneva in September, saying that the Saudi-led coalition blocked them from travelling to Geneva. And even if the peace talks can proceed successfully, a resolution that is too strong-worded, but nevertheless potentially most effective, can prompt protests from the coalition and therefore stall the peace-making process. Indeed, it is hard to strike a deal that ensures two opposing sectarian groups are able to co-exist peacefully within the wider Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict in the Middle East.

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Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy for Yemen, after meeting the Houthi Revolutionary Committee’s leader in Sana’a in November. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA. Credit: The Guardian

In essence, whether a good deal can be struck depends on whether the warring parties value a victory over the war (and hence greater influence in the Middle East) as opposed to the loss in international reputation (followed by potential economic or political consequences, e.g. sanctions) caused by the humanitarian crisis ensuing from the conflict. If a good deal can be struck, it seems this is the best way to end the Yemeni conflict. After all, a bad deal is better than no deal.

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