Yemen has been witnessing divisions, turbulence and poverty for long. The most prominent has been the North-South division of the country which is not merely geographical but is characterized by differing socio-economic and political expectations and roles. Although the formal division was addressed through a political union in 1990, the inhabitants of southern part have long accused the northerners of discrimination and unfair control over resources and sought separation from the north regardless of the unification. However, it was believed that certain regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were allegedly involved in training and strengthening security forces in the southern part and emboldened them to demand for independence for their geopolitical ambitions – trade routes through the port of Aden to the rest of the world.
External actors have historically influenced the internal political developments within Yemen. For long, the northern part came under the rule of monarch and the southern part was ruled by the British unleashing violence for years between the Saudi-backed remnants of the monarchy and the Egyptian-backed republicans until unification in 1990. The desire for independence among southerners pushed the country into a civil war in 1994 closely on the heels of the political union.
However, the union was restored and sustained by a military victory of the north over the south and Ali Abed Allah Saleh who became the first President after the country’s unification could sustain his rule until 2011. Saleh was allegedly shrewd enough to manipulate the country’s tribal system to avert rebellion against his long-years of corrupt rule. Instead of working on the internal weaknesses of the Yemeni economy, Saleh relied more on external aid to run his rule. However, the aid was rarely used to improve the conditions of masses For instance, by allowing American drone aircrafts to kill alleged al-Qaeda targets on Yemeni soil, the leader reportedly received around tens of millions of dollars in American aid. On the other side, the UN Security Council found after his removal that he had amassed between $32bn and $60bn through corruption during his 33 years in power.
The country further plunged into turbulence when many democratic protesters of the country imbued by the larger democratic movement which swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 known as Arab Spring launched months-long campaign aimed at ending the undemocratic and corrupt rule of Saleh. However, the ruler’s aspiration to cling to power and protesters’ resolve to dislodge him resulted in military clashes between the government forces and tribal militias and contributed to the country’s anarchic conditions. Then Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, replaced Saleh first through an internationally-brokered deal and later was elected as President in February, 2012 amid violence in the southern part of the country (he was in fact the only candidate to have contested for the Presidential post for a two-year transitional period). While initially the 2014 presidential elections were postponed until 2015, the country’s degeneration into a civil war has precluded such possibility till now. The beginning of the ongoing civil war in the country can be traced to September 2014 when the Houthis, a group of Shia rebels of the north not only took over the capital city of Sanaa but forced the internationally recognized government of Hadi to go on an exile in Saudi Arabia.
The unaddressed demands of the southern people kept the country’s unity and leadership weak and contributed the exponential rise of rebels in the north such as the Houthis who not only shared a sense of economic and political injustice, many view in their rise an ambition to revive Imam’s rule. The Houthis are part of the Shia Zaidi, a branch of the Shia Imamiya of Iran who ruled Yemen for more than one thousand years until 1962. The group took advantage of the prevailing disorder arising out of the grievances of the southern people. It is noteworthy that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – the south’s de facto government had called for protests against President Hadi and demanded the resignation of the prime minister blaming his government for high-level corruption and misuse of state funds.
Long-years of civil wars, corrupt rule, failure of the leaders of the north to share a sense of justice and equitability among the people of the south and growing disaffection with the government’s policies and power struggle in the north have largely been responsible to send the country into an abyss. These internal dynamics of the civil war have come in contact with external factors in the form of jostle for influence among regional powers and added more complexity to the civil war.
The Houthis allied with Yemen’s ousted dictator Saleh to remove Hadi from power notwithstanding the fact that Saleh’s long years of undemocratic and corrupt regime contributed to the rise of many disgruntled groups in Yemen including the Houthis. The Houthis and the Yemeni government had been in confrontations since 2004 although much of the fighting was confined to the Houthis’ stronghold, the Saada province. Since 2015, the group has not only been able to extend its sway around much of the country’s south, they have also asserted their control over many provinces in the north as well.
Saudi Arabia which not only shares a border with Yemen but was witnessed exerting influence over the political developments in the country historically, formed a coalition of Arab states including Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal in its attempts to roll back the territorial gains made by the Houthis and extend its own influence. This time, Yemen has become a site for competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Middle East just as Syria became another site for the geopolitical rivalry between the two powers. Saudi Arabia and its supporters have been accusing Iran of arming the Houthi rebels although Tehran has denied such charges.
The US, UK and France although have not been directly involved in the conflict as warring parties, they have been supplying the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and the US President Donald Trump under his presidency resumed the $500m defence sale to Saudi Arabia which was cancelled by the previous Administration due to concerns over civilian casualties. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently remarked: “Coalition airstrikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen”.
Previously, the US defence secretary James Mattis assured the American support for the Saudi-led coalition even while he maintained at the same time that America’s goal was to keep “human cost at an absolute minimum”. Amid Saudi Arabia’s allegedly controversial role in the widely publicized killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there has been increasing moral pressures on the arms supplying countries to discontinue such supplies and push for resolution of the conflict. However, there is still much ambiguity whether moral imperatives can outweigh geopolitics and economic gains. President Trump’s remarks on Saudi Arabia’s defence purchase amid Khashoggi controversy are pertinent in this context: “If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China… Think of that, $110 billion. All they’re going to do is give it to other countries, and I think that would be very foolish”.
So long as the parties to the conflict believe that the outcome of the war can be determined by military means and bring geopolitical gains, there would be lesser incentives for political resolution of the conflict. The powerful countries would do well in throwing their weight behind the UN effort to broker peace talks between allied Houthi rebels and the government notwithstanding the fact that such effort of the UN could not yield results in the summer of 2016.
While civil war in Yemen has been a continuous phenomenon, this time it has pushed the country into a humanitarian catastrophe. As an indicator of poverty, the country’s ranking in the Human Development Index based on yardsticks such as life expectancy, education and standard of living in 2015 (during beginning of the civil war) is revealing which placed Yemen at 168th position out of a total of 188 countries. Humanitarian conditions have worsened further as the civil war escalated. According to the UN’s recent estimates the civil war conditions in Yemen have pushed more than 22 million out of total population of 29 million to dire need of humanitarian assistance and around 18 million of people are not sure of their next meal. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief has remarked that already, more than 8 million people are “facing pre-famine conditions, meaning they are entirely reliant on external aid for survival”.
Escalation of war has not only pushed more than 3 million Yemenis out of their homes, many have sought refuge in other countries as well. The continuing war has already taken a huge toll on children as around 50,000 children died tragically in a single year- 2017. Even while most of international relief aid has been supplied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Saudi-led coalition has resorted to air, land and sea blockade to roll back the influence of the Houthis which has been blocking supplies of essential commodities such as food, medicine and fuel to the needy masses.
This has in turn generated conditions of famine in the country whose food imports are as high as around 80 percent. Further, as per the estimates of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition have been largely responsible for majority of the reported civilian deaths as the figures ascribed around two-thirds of the reported cases of civilian deaths to the coalition. At the beginning of 2017, the death toll crossed 10,000, with at least 40,000 wounded. The Houthis have also allegedly taken a huge toll on civilians with their siege of the city of Taiz and were also allegedly involved in carrying out a missile attack on a Turkish ship delivering wheat.
The intervening powers need to take a major responsibility in bringing a political breakthrough to the Yemeni crisis. The external powers, for long, strengthened the Yemeni leaders both in economic and military terms without ensuring whether the assistance benefited people and addressed the historical grievances and now they are supplying arms to the war without caring much about its impacts on civilians. It is high time that they corrected the past mistakes.