Yemen. Atrocious Record of an Endless War

As the Yemeni people face the fifth year of their internationalised civil war, what has changed in the past four years?

Residential building bombed on August 25, 2017 in Sana’a.
Mohamed Al-Mekhlafi/Human Rights Watch

To start with, a few figures: more than 60,000 people have been killed by directly war-related actions throughout the country, most of them by air strikes from the coalition. Thousands more have died from malnutrition-related diseases, including more than 85,000 children under 5. More than 20 million Yemenis are now “food insecure,” a euphemism for chronic hunger and 15 million of them are on the verge of starvation. In 2017 more than a million cases of cholera were recorded, but there were “only” 380,000 cases in 2018. Millions are without income, thousands are in exile in the region.

Launched with fanfare on 26 March 2015 and intended to last weeks, if not days, the Saudi-led “Decisive Storm” offensive now has a number of off-springs, with equally inapt names. While current rhetoric suggests it is little more than part of the anti-Iranian regional struggle, it is worth remembering that it was officially launched to restore President Hadi to power after he had lost the capital Sana’a to the then Huthi-Saleh alliance.

A Persistent deadlock

The coalition has “liberated” about two thirds of the country’s land, home to one third of its population, but use of the term “liberated” is questionable as the Huthis never had a foothold in these areas. One example: the battle for Aden in 2015 was between former President Saleh’s forces and southerners, and was won thanks to UAE-supported ground troops of various nationalities. The Mareb region, where resistance to the coalition came from Saleh’s forces, is now the stronghold of Saleh’s former close ally, Vice-President Ali Mohsen. Since autumn of 2015, the overall military stalemate has only been significantly broken in the Tihama plain along the Red Sea coast, where the coalition reached Mokha in 2017 but failed to make significant progress towards Hodeida till well into 2018. Then, Saleh’s nephew Tareq brought his well-trained forces in support of the coalition, reaching the outskirts of Hodeida, now the most publicised military front. Elsewhere the stalemate largely persists. Most recently the failure of the coalition to take up the opportunity for a major breakthrough in the fight between the Hajour tribes and the Huthis raises serious questions about its real strategy and intentions.

After two series of failed UN supported negotiations in 2015 and 2016, it took 27 months and the murder of a single Saudi journalist by agents of his government, for international pressure on the Saudi regime to bring about hastily convened negotiations in Sweden in December 2018. Lack of adequate preparation was evident in the texts agreed and has since been confirmed with the gradual collapse of its main element, the Hodeida cease fire, intended to prevent a cataclysmic coalition offensive on the city and port, and ensure withdrawal of both sides’ forces to enable the food and fuel imports needed to save the lives of millions. Even the agreement on the exchange of prisoners is failing to materialise.

Disintegration in the process of completion

Divided between “liberated” and rebel Huthi controlled areas, the Huthi movement has an almost exclusive iron grip over the people and resources where it rules, particularly after killing their former ally, ex-president Saleh, in December 2017. The situation is different in the “liberated” areas where President Hadi’s internationally recognised government is notable by its absence: what governance exists comes from local potentates who rule larger or smaller areas, with greater or lesser commitment to the welfare of their populations. The country which was at great risk of internal disintegration before the war, has now reached a level of fragmentation which will be extremely difficult to repair.

In the southern and eastern governorates some security is provided by armed militias composed primarily of extremist fundamentalist Salafi elements recruited, trained and financed by the UAE, under the names of “Elite” forces or “Security belts.” In addition to implementing the UAE’s anti-Islah agenda under the guise of combating AQAP, some of them have been involved in anti-Houthi offensives elsewhere. The UAE also support the Southern Transitional Council, one of many southern separatist factions, financing public relations companies which organise its leaders’ visits to various western capitals where, regardless of popular wishes, they promote southern independence thus worsening the country’s disintegration.

Yemen’s economy, weak at the best of times, has collapsed: in 2013, 54% of the population were below the poverty line, now more than 80% are. Mechanisms for household survival have changed dramatically: pre-war, the 70% rural Yemenis lived from agriculture and livestock complemented by casual labour in towns and cities, as well as remittances from the million or so eking a living in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Millions more, rural and urban, depended on state salaries, however inadequate for survival, while others in the private commercial and industrial sectors.

The new war economy has an entirely different base: most income is war-related and fuelled by payments from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and international humanitarian cash payments from the World Bank and others. Smuggling, “customs” charges and “taxation” of goods in transit are rife throughout the land. This benefits “war lords” on all sides. For ordinary citizens the most reliable source of income is the participation of young men and boys in military units (whether Huthi, southern, official army or other). These are the only “jobs” which ensure regular payments and enable young men to support their families, raise their own status and, of course, perpetuate the fighting.

Women’s role has also increased, through involvement in many community and political activities, thanks in part to greater access to funding from internationally supported institutions. Women and youth have increased their authority within the household. However, for women in particular, this has also increased their vulnerability to gender-based violence both at home and beyond.

The “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” since 2017

For decades now, Yemen has dependent on imports for 90% of its cereal staples. Starting from an extremely low base, the war has brought catastrophe. Systematically described by the UN as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” since 2017, there is no doubt of the gravity of the crisis or its worsening, regardless of the reliability of the figures provided. While most discussion focuses on the constraints to the delivery of humanitarian aid, the majority of imports is provided by the private sector, whose difficulties are even greater. Though the UN now describes some districts as being in “catastrophe” conditions, famine has not been declared for various reasons, including the impact this would have on the reputation of UN humanitarian institutions at a time when it raised nearly USD 3 billion in its humanitarian appeal for 2018 and is calling for USD 4.2 billion in 2019.

The humanitarian crisis is also an opportunity for now dozens of international non-government organisations (INGOs), operating in Yemen: in many cases, they are earning significant sums to do little more than act as intermediaries subcontracting larger or smaller Yemeni organisations. State and international funders justify these procedures by their lack of confidence in the competence of Yemeni institutions, a concern which should apply equally to the INGOs.

One “seeks peace” by selling weapons

Direct and acknowledged US involvement remains focused on Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Its air strikes have been fairly successful, killing AQAP leaders and significantly reducing its activities, in the short term at least. US support through arms sales, technical and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has become an issue in the US Congress following the murder of Jamal Khashoqji and consequent concern about the morality of the US-Saudi alliance. It enabled the new Congress to pass resolutions opposing the war in Yemen, for the first time in history using the 1973 War Powers Act. The war in Yemen has now become part of US domestic political debate between Congress and the Trump administration, but practical support for the coalition is unlikely to be interrupted. However, the differences between the Trump and Obama administration policies are fewer than might be expected. Both have given priority to close relations with the Saudi and Emirati regimes at the expense of the fate of millions of Yemenis. Another shared convergence between US and Saudi-Emirati (and incidentally Israeli) strategies is the obsession with Iran, the current incarnation of evil, since the Trump administration removed North Korea from this position.

With the exception of the Iran element, much the same can be said about Britain. In addition to historic support for the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Britain has the additional problem of highly volatile post-Brexit economic prospects, which prevents it from taking initiatives which might jeopardise future GCC investments. However, as the “pen holder” at the UN Security Council, Britain is actively involved, claiming to seek peace while, of course, continuing to sell weapons worth multiples of the amount it provides in humanitarian and other assistance. France is pursuing a similar approach. Other European states, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have taken more humane approaches to the Yemen crisis and, at least, reduced arms sales to Saudi Arabia, if not the United Arab Emirates.

Regardless of western governments’ support for the intervention, public opinion in these countries is increasingly opposed to this war due to hundreds of casualties from air strikes on civil sites (hospitals, markets, weddings, funerals) and daily images of starving children on public and social media. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia are a major focus of concern, which brings us to the Saudi-led coalition.

The Emirates in the background

Officially composed of 9 countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the only decision makers. Asserting it as Saudi-led enables the UAE to stay in the background and suffer less reputational damage from the worsening public relations disaster of the war, despite its involvement in secret prisons and torture of Yemenis in the areas under its influence. The internationalisation of what was a civil war started at the initiative of now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a mere two months after he became minister of Defence and his father King in Saudi Arabia. Although the war is now entering its fifth year and the expected rapid victory is long forgotten, it has not damaged his position. On the contrary, he is now in firm control at home and is next in line for the Saudi throne. Only the assassination of Khashoqji dented his international image as a youthful reformer, a “breath of fresh air,” a perception not shared by millions of Yemenis suffering his aircrafts’ bombs or anti-immigrant policies, let alone the thousands of Saudis imprisoned for questioning his wisdom or the hundreds whose wealth has been effectively nationalised under duress.

Meanwhile, the UAE which for years successfully promoted an image of a benign permissive regime, has now introduced additional repressive laws on freedom of expression, which verge on the ridicule when, for example, an unfortunate British football fan is arrested for wearing a T-shirt promoting a team participating in [and ultimately winning] the Asian Football Cup in Abu Dhabi; he presumably had not been told that any indication of support for Qatar could lead to a long jail sentence. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE the increasingly repressive laws are likely to persist beyond the war in Yemen.

Peace is not in our time

I hope I am wrong, but it is unfortunately rather likely that, a year from now, we will publish an article with no significant changes other than increased figures of death and destruction. The current unravelling of the Stockholm December 2018 agreement demonstrates that none of the decision makers involved in the fighting is ready to bring the suffering of millions of Yemenis to an end. However justified with respect to its relevance for the humanitarian disaster, the UN’s focus on Hodeida is unlikely to prevent the coalition from renewing its military offensive there, while it also distracts attention from other features of Yemen’s political dynamics which might provide better routes to at least reduce the fighting. As the impact of the Khashoqji murder fades, US administration pressure on the Saudi regime to end its intervention in Yemen will ease, and the UAE will pursue its strategy worsening the country’s disintegration. Meanwhile millions of Yemenis enter a fifth year of suffering, hunger, disease, starvation, ground fighting and aerial bombing and the international community watches.