A history of civil war and conflict has hampered Yemen’s development and created many social issues. However, Yemen’s current civil war which has been raging since 2015 has created a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. With intense fighting over the port city of Hudaydah, through which two thirds of the nation’s supplies flow, amongst disruption to other supply routes, the conflict has led to acute food insecurity. According to the UN, 9.6 million people are “one step away from famine”. Food insecurity is only worsening, with this number being a 14% increase from last year. If a solution to the conflict is not found and it continues to worsen, one of the worst famines in history will likely unfold. The conflict has also led to the collapse of Yemen’s health care system with nearly half of all medical facilities being out of action, creating a situation in which Covid-19 has ravaged the nation with the national death rate being 27% based on testing. This is five times higher than the global average.
The conflict has also had a tragic direct impact on civilian life; an estimated 12,600 civilians have been killed as a direct result of fighting. This includes a horrific incident in August of 2018 in which a bus full of children on their way home from a trip with the local mosque was struck during a Saudi air raid on Dhahyan market. The bus was destroyed and at least 26 children were left dead. Reportedly, the blast did not even leave body parts for grieving families to recover.
Importance to the West
Not only is the Global West witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis in recent years, but it is also facing serious geopolitical threats. The power vacuum and humanitarian disasters that have developed in the wake of the conflict have created a breeding ground for extremism. At the start of the crisis, AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) seized significant territory. While they have since lost some of that territory, Yemen remains a power base from which they are capable of carrying out attacks in the Global West. For example, they were responsible for the infamous Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 that left 12 dead. Not only are they a security risk to the West, but AQAP’s domestic branch, Ansar al-sharia is responsible for the oppression of, and various brutal attacks against local populations. While in early 2020, Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s leader was killed in a US drone strike, extremism and AQAP’s structure remain in Yemen. Until a stable and democratic state of governance is achieved in Yemen, the various factors that are propagating extremism cannot be addressed.
Furthermore, the conflict is a manifestation of regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A worsening of the crisis would therefore threaten the stability of the Middle East leading to further humanitarian issues in the region as well as having implications for the West’s security, access to oil and migrant flows.
Yemen’s oil reserves may be modest, but the civil war is still having a significant impact on the global oil trade. Yemen is a geographically strategic part of the global oil trade due to its position by the strait of Bab el-mandeb through which a significant proportion of the trade passes. Instability in Yemen therefore makes the oil trade less secure and so, less profitable. However, oil is also driving the conflict as having a friendly Yemeni government which interferes with your rival’s oil shipments and not your’s is key for oil producing nations around the Arabian Peninsula. It is therefore also desirable for Western governments to have a Yemeni government that is influenced by Middle Eastern nations from which they source their oil.
While there is some media attention towards the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen, albeit not enough, there has been very little attention paid to the details and causes of the civil war that underlies Yemen’s problems. Without understanding this, little can effectively be done to address the humanitarian crisis and the implications that the conflict has for the global community. Furthermore, Western governments that have backed the Saudi-led coalition cannot be properly held to account.
The origins of the conflict lie in a historical geopolitical and religious north-south divide. Despite the population being almost entirely Islamic, there are still significant sectarian divides. While Sunni Muslims are the majority, there is also a large minority of Zaidi shiites concentrated in the north west of Yemen. From the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 until a military coup d’état in 1962, Zaidis dominated the governance of an independent Northern Kingdom of Yemen. The 1990s then saw the turbulent unification of Yemen under a new president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. During these decades, Zaidi dominated areas of the North, such as the Sa’ada region, faced economic neglect, political discrimination and attempts at Sunnification. From this, Ansar Allah, a political and military movement, formed with the aim of championing Zaidi identity and opposing corruption and political marginalisation under Saleh. In 2004 Saleh’s military forces attempted to arrest, but subsequently killed, Ansar Allah’s leader. This provoked the group to take the name of its late leader (Al-Houthi) and begin the Houthi Insurgency in Yemen. Had Saleh managed to resolve Houthi tensions at this point then the civil war in 2015 would likely have been averted.
The Houthi Insurgency saw sporadic conflict, focussed in Sa’ada and surrounding regions, between the Houthis and Government forces until a wave of anti-authoritarian and anti-corruption protests in 2011, backed by the Houthis, saw Saleh resign. For many this was seen as an opportunity for a more liberal government to step in and for the conflict between the government and the Houthis to end.
However, as was the case in many states during the Arab Spring, attempts at forming an effective post-regime government were dysfunctional. Saleh’s vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, formed a transitional government. Hadi secured a two-year term as president in the 2012 elections and began the transition process with the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The Houthis believed that the NDC’s proposal of a six-region federal state was aimed at weakening them geopolitically as it gerrymandered their influence and deprived their home region of Sa’ada of a sea border and natural resources. They also saw the NDC’s agreement as not far reaching enough on issues such as corruption and sectarianism which they campaigned against. Furthermore, the NDCs agreement extended Hadi’s term, which many saw as illegitimate as he was the sole candidate in his election, by 1 year. And so, in late 2014, they withdraw from the negotiations and moved to capture Sana’a, the nation’s capital. In an ironic turn of events this move was supported by the former president Saleh and security forces loyal to him as he attempted to re-enter Yemeni politics. In early 2015 they captured parts of the region of Aden, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis proceeded to attempt to take control of Yemen’s government by dissolving its parliament and declaring a Revolutionary Committee as the leading authority.
To Saudi Arabia, a Shia controlled state on its southern border, capable of encouraging and supporting Shia elements within its own borders was a threat they could not tolerate. The Houthis are also backed militarily by Iran whose Shia religion and aggressive foreign policy has made them a major regional opponent of the Saudis. And so, in March of 2015 Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Sunni Arab nations in support of Hadi and his forces, beginning an air raid campaign against the Houthis. The Houthi-Saleh alliance responded with a series of missile strikes against Saudi Arabia. Thus, a large-scale civil war between the Houthis and Hadi’s internationally recognised government began.
Since 2015 the conflict has evolved to become increasingly complex. In December 2017 Saleh’s already confusing storyline experienced yet another plot twist as he ended his alliance with the Houthis, calling instead for talks with Saudi Arabia and ordering his forces to attack Houthi militants. Saleh’s side switching was however short lived as he was almost immediately assassinated by Houthi forces. Saleh once famously compared ruling Yemen to “dancing over the head of snakes”: after over three decades of ruling Yemen and being the key figure in the civil war, the snakes had finally bitten. His death forced the Saudi-led coalition to commit to backing Hadi, as it consolidated Houthi control and thus Iranian influence in the North.
Yemen’s North-South divide has also seen other significant developments. Yemen’s period of unification in the 1990s was extremely rocky. Both sides went in hoping to be able to dominate government. It was however Saleh, former president of the North, who succeeded in doing so. His rule favoured the North, leading to a brief civil war in 1994 after the South declared independence but was swiftly crushed by Saleh. In 2007 southern secessionism re-awoke after Saleh’s forces violently dispersed mass protests around Aden against the economic and political marginalisation of the South. In response to this the Southern Movement formed with a loose military and political infrastructure that allowed it to carry out a series of protests. The power vacuum of the civil war gave the Southern Movement an opportunity to expand its influence as it allied itself with Hadi in order to push the Houthis back out of Aden. However, by 2016 the Houthis had effectively been pushed out of the South. With their common enemy gone and their conflicting goals for the governance of Yemen, cracks inevitably formed in the Southern Movement-Hadi alliance. In 2017 the political organisation of Southern Separatists expanded massively as President Hadi dismissed Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, governer of Aden, Yemen’s interim capital.
His dismissal sparked massive pro-separatist protests in Aden, showing Zoubaidi’s popular support and giving him the authority to create the Southern Transitional Council (STC). While the STC presented an alternative to Hadi’s government in the South, it initially expressed a willingness to cooperate with the Saudis. Importantly though, the formation of the STC meant that southern separatists now had a political organisation, including a parliament representing all southern regions, with the capability of forming an independent South Yemen government. The STC also had the ability to pursue an independent state as it received the military backing of the UAE who sought to step out from under the wing of their more dominant ally: Saudi Arabia. The UAE’s backing of the STC is motivated by both economic and political interests as influence in southern Yemen gives the UAE investment opportunities, allows for more secure routes for its oil shipments and also allows it to combat the political influence of Al-Islah, an adversarial Islamist political party with a role in Hadi’s government.
With both sides having the military backing of powerful international interests and Aden being strategically key to their contrary aims for the government of southern Yemen, conflict was inevitable. In 2018, tensions between Hadi’s government and the STC came to a head as the STC threatened a coup unless Hadi sacked his entire cabinet whom the STC accused of corruption. Hadi’s refusal led to an outbreak of protests and fighting in Aden that left the STC in control of the majority of the city. A new front to Yemen’s already complex civil war now existed as Hadi and the STC spent the next two years fighting bitterly over Aden.
There was however a flicker of hope in late 2019 as Saudi Arabia successfully brokered the Riyadh Agreement, a power sharing deal between Hadi and the STC. This has since turned out to be no more than just a flicker, as in April of this year the STC pulled out of the deal, declaring self-rule in the South, due to its delayed implementation. This declaration of self-rule was however just as fruitless as attempts at a deal as it was only supported in the governorate of Aden. And so, they re-joined the Riyadh agreement in July before once again abandoning it in August. With Hadi and the STC locked into a fight over Aden they cannot effectively attempt to push the Houthis out of Sana’a and the North, and neither can they properly control Yemen’s extremist elements as IS and Al Queda continue to harass all three sides of the conflict. Moreover, Yemen’s geopolitical significance gives the conflict further inevitability as its importance for the War on Terror, the global oil trade and regional influence in the Middle East has tied in the powerful and adversarial international interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by Western powers and its Arab coalition. And so, Yemen’s complex civil war continues to rage with no end in sight. All the while the suffering of its people continues to spiral out of control towards unprecedented humanitarian disaster.