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Yemen’s Unending Agony – OpEd

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The people of Yemen are in desperate straits.  The vicious conflict that has engulfed the nation has led to the worst humanitarian crisis in today’s world.  At this moment the vast majority of Yemenis – four out of every five, or more than 24 million people – need assistance to survive.  Nearly a quarter of the entire population are malnourished, many acutely so.  There are two million malnourished children under five, while more than a million pregnant and lactating women require urgent treatment to survive.  On top of this, mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies have resulted in the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.

What has brought Yemen to this catastrophic state of affairs?  It all started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighbouring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The political instability was largely caused by attempts of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow Saleh’s government.

Saleh gave up the keys of office with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power.  The Yemeni military had remained largely loyal to Saleh, and through him the Houthis gained control of most of Yemen’s fighting force, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.

The prospect of Shia Iran, its arch-enemy, gaining a permanent foothold on the Arabian peninsula, right on its doorstep, alarmed Sunni Saudi Arabia.  The kingdom determined to prevent Iran from doing so.  Accordingly, in March 2015 Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

If MBS anticipated a quick or easy victory, he was to be sadly disappointed. Four years of combat have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis.  On the contrary, time seems to have emboldened them. Using Iranian hardware, they have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself.

On Tuesday 19 December 2017 the Saudi-Houthi conflict had lasted exactly 1000 days.  More than 350 high-profile figures, including generals, politicians, diplomats, celebrities and no less than six Nobel peace prize laureates, marked the anniversary by calling on the UN Security Council to act as peace brokers.

Action – far too slow for the suffering Yemenis – did follow.   In February 2018 the UN appointed a Special Envoy for Yemen, British born Martin Griffiths.  It took him ten months to achieve what had for years been regarded as the near-impossible – bringing the two main protagonists in the Yemen conflict to the negotiating table.          

The talks, held in Rimbo, Sweden, were a question of “second time lucky” for Griffiths. An attempt to sponsor negotiations in Geneva in September 2018 had foundered when the Houthis sought to trade their attendance against safe passage for some of their wounded soldiers. With such issues set aside, delegations from the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and from the Iran-supported Houthi rebels actually sat down on 6 December 2018, facing each other across tables arranged in an open square.          

The atmosphere was far from hostile. Both sides appreciated the humanitarian disaster that had overtaken Yemen’s civilian population as a result of the conflict, and seemed willing to compromise on at least some of the key issues.

Griffiths proposed that Hodeida port, through which most of Yemen’s food supplies and aid were shipped, should be brought under UN supervision, with the Houthis and the Yemen government cooperating with the arrangement.  Both parties agreed.  At a further meeting, arranged for February 2019, the two sides agreed to begin a two-stage pullback of forces in Hodeidah.  Unfortunately the Houthis failed to act in accordance with the agreement, and the deal was in danger of collapse.

When the UN Security Council met on 13 March, envoy Martin Griffiths said he was “still working with the parties to make the redeployment in Hodeidah a reality.”

“It’s clear,” British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters after the meeting, “that one party has more problems than the other at the moment,”

Though the battle for Hodeida is on hold at the moment, fighting on other fronts has intensified, particularly along the Saudi-Yemeni border around the Houthi rebels’ heartland of Saada.   Further west, toward Yemen’s Red Sea coast, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place around the Saudi border in Hajja governorate. The fact that the Houthis are defending their home turf holds meaning for all sides.  The fighting in the north could undermine hopes of a broader political process on the country’s future, even supposing the Stockholm Agreement succeeds in preventing a fight for Hodeida.

Meanwhile the UN’s continued relief effort is essential if a humanitarian disaster on a truly catastrophic scale is to be avoided.  That effort is being conducted in accordance with a Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan agreed in January 2019.  Working towards achieving five strategic objectives, the plan is aimed at helping millions of destitute Yemenis to overcome hunger, at reducing outbreaks of cholera and infectious diseases, caring for displaced families, reducing the risk of displacement, and assisting existing institutions to continue delivering basic services.

The 2019 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan has been costed at $4.2 billion.  By March 11, 2019, total receipts from contributing nations totalled just 4 percent.  The Yemenis deserve, and urgently require, better.

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Neville Teller

Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016” (2016), and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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