The situation in Yemen has become worse since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015. Schools, funerals, and hospitals have been destroyed by the Saudi-led bombing campaigns with weapons from the U.S and the U.K that have caused havoc in the Middle East’s poorest country.
But there are also divisions in Yemen itself which have been going on for decades when the two countries of the Yemeni Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen merged together in 1990 under President Ali Abdallah Saleh. There is the Northern side of the country which is known as the Yemen Arab Republic. On the other hand, the southern side of the country was known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Bombing campaigns have been conducted daily, and now there is a Cholera epidemic in addition to looming famine.
Many experts believed that this conflict would get worse, and so it did. The Cholera epidemic is “expected to surpass 600,000 by the end of the year, which means one in every 45 Yemenis could be affected. It’s estimated that some 1,800 have already perished.”i The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) have all spoken about this catastrophe, but unfortunately, many global leaders have remained silent. Humanitarian wise, the situation in Yemen is extreme, but two-three years in, this crisis has turned into a sectarian conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels.
So far, the Yemen crisis has had a ripple effect in the region, especially on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the conflict will also add onto the refugee crisis. Unfortunately, if the status quo continues, the world will look back in shame because it is, what ICRC President Peter Maurer has called it, a “man-made humanitarian catastrophe.”ii
The Arabian ‘Vietnam’?
Many of the problems that are plaguing Yemen could have been solved by the Yemenis themselves. There are also social divides between Yemen and Saudi Arabia that have been going on for decades.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has sent billions of dollars of financial aid to Yemen that the Yemenis did not really take advantage of such as rebuilding infrastructure, providing healthcare, as well as building roads and highways. The Saudi argument for conducting the coalition in Yemen has been to protect its southern border from any Houthi influence and to convince the Houthis to get rid of their weapons along Saudi borders.
The Saudis are also worried about Houthi scud-missiles firing over into Saudi territory, which is a threat to Riyadh’s national security. The Saudis do have a legitimate argument regarding their national security. Yemen is a threat to Saudi Arabia because Riyadh shares a border with Yemen, but the ongoing Saudi bombings of schools, hospitals, and most importantly, innocent civilians have left Yemen in a devastating situation. Yemen has throughout history, never really had a strong, central Government, and there have always been feuds between tribes that are affecting the Yemeni people.
War is not necessarily a great solution to bring security to Saudi Arabia. For example, when Iraq invaded Iran in the 1980’s, this did not bring security to Iraq and you can say the same thing for the Saudi operation in Yemen which will not bring security to Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been planting the seeds of insecurity through their support for a radical, puritanical ideology called Wahhabism.
The Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for not only targeting terrorist sites, but they have also been responsible for targeting thousands of Yemenis, destroying almost half of Yemen’s infrastructure, millions are displaced, over 10,000 people have been killed, and 600,000 Yemenis are struggling with a cholera outbreak in the war-torn country. This is not exactly the right direction for Saudi security, but diplomacy must be the way out of this quagmire.
According to a former Iranian diplomat Hossein Mousavian, “Saudi Arabia, supported by the US army, has flown more than 120,000 sorties over Yemen to attack the poorest Arab country.”iii Saudi Arabia is not the only country involved in the heinous atrocities going on in Yemen, but the United States along with the United Kingdom have also sold arms to Saudi Arabia to contain the Houthi influence.
Without these arms sales, the sharing of intelligence, fuel, and force, then it could be possible to say that Saudi Arabia would not even have invaded Yemen. In an editorial times article published by the New York Times, the Saudi-led coalition could have been prevented without U.S support for two reasons; “One is that the Saudis and their coalition of mostly Sunni Arab partners have yet to learn how to identify permissible military targets. The other is that they simply do not care about innocent civilians.”iv
It is also important for Congress to realize that the Yemen situation is more than just strategic and geopolitical interests, but it is about the humanitarian consequences that are facing this war-torn country.
The Bargaining Chip
There have been divisions in Yemen, and Riyadh feels threatened by Houthi rebels in the south. The Cholera outbreak in Yemen is taking a toll on the Yemeni people. Cholera is a disease that spreads through contaminated water and it is a virus in water that can be treatable. Currently, this is not treatable because humanitarian relief is hostage to a political situation.
In addition, there is no willingness from both sides of the conflict to feed the hungry, resolve the spread of Cholera, and take care of the children, but none of this is happening because everyone is holding the humanitarian situation as a political chip to bargain at a table where no one is talking about peace. There is talk about victory, winning, moving forward, but this is not exactly the right way towards a political solution.
Both sides, including the Saudi-led coalition have neglected the suffering of the Yemeni people, and now, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia would have taken a part of this if the conflict did not happen in the first place, but at the same time, actions speak louder than words, and Yemen is just a thorn on Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region.
Yemen is heading in a downward spiral, the war is only exacerbating the suffering and making conditions a lot worse, but at the same time, we have to remember that the former government of Ali Abdallah Saleh was an ally of Riyadh. The Saudis gave him the money knowing full well that when it was not spent wisely, it was only going into his pocket and not to the Yemenis. The war could have ended earlier if there was the will for a political solution, but there is no political solution and that is the problem.
The Blame Game Continues
The political problem is the main obstacle to any peaceful settlement in Yemen. There are not one, but two central governments in Yemen. Each side of this conflict is hurting each other. Saudi Arabia and others in the coalition are committing war crimes in Yemen as a violation of international law, and the Houthis are also committing crimes in Yemen.
In essence, the country is falling apart and the world is watching this quagmire collapse; there is no rule of law, and the internationally recognized government continues to reside outside Yemen. At the end of the day, discussing complete victory is not the direction the Yemenis want to take, and the focus should be on humanitarian efforts to make sure that the Yemeni people are provided with the basics of clean water, food, shelter, and electricity. It is possible to end this war if the humanitarian efforts increase, and for the bombing campaigns to stop killing innocent Yemenis.
Being a Zaidi is also different from being a Houthi. A Zaidi is a follower of Zaidism, which is a sect of Shia Islam which originated in the 8th century and it has been present in Yemen for many years. The Houthi movement (originally the ‘believing youth’ movement), originated in 1992 in the Saada Governate by two brothers that promoted the Zaidi revival in Yemen.
The Houthis main goals were to prevent Saudi intervention in Yemeni affairs and to contain Saudi influenced ideologies such as Wahhabism from spreading into the country. The problems not only in Yemen, but throughout the Middle East is confusing your religious ideology with your political ideology, and hence, the fighting continues.
What is going to happen short-term is a continued maneuverability on both sides where there will be no peace in sight, and with the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman preparing to take power in Saudi Arabia, the person waging the war in Yemen, he could very well be the next king of Saudi Arabia. MBS wants to see the Yemen war end in complete victory and that is unfortunate.
i. “ICRC president condemns ‘man-made humanitarian catastrophe’ in Yemen” July 25, 2017 Swissinfo https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/cholera-epidemic_icrc-president-condemns–man-made-humanitarian-catastrophe–in-yemen/43359012
ii. Yemen: ICRC president visits country, decries, “needless suffering”” July 23, 2017 International Committee of the Red Cross https://www.icrc.org/en/document/yemen-war-cholera-icrc-president
iii. War not bringing security to S. Arabia: Former Iranian diplomat” July 29, 2017 The Iran Project http://theiranproject.com/blog/2017/07/29/war-not-bringing-security-s-arabia-former-iranian-diplomat/
iv. Editorial Board, “America Is Complicit in the Carnage in Yemen” August 17, 2016 New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/opinion/stop-saudi-arms-sales-until-carnage-in-yemen-ends.html