What’s happening in Yemen?

It has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the last century. Yemen is currently battling a five-year-long civil war, one of the worst famines in 100 years, as well as outbreaks of both cholera and COVID-19.

Although millions of Yemeni people have no access to basic human necessities such as food, water and shelter, many humanitarian organisations have had to reduce aid or leave the country entirely due to financing issues.

The origins of the Yemeni Civil War

The civil war has raged since 2015 and continues to plight the nation today.

Its roots lie in the aftermath of an Arab Spring uprising in 2011, in which pro-democracy protesters tried to force President Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 33-year authoritarian rule. Instead of resigning, he responded with economic concessions.

Eventually, he was replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, one of his deputies, in November 2015, as part of an internationally brokered deal.

At this time, the nation was presented with various threats to its stability, including a separatist movement in the south of the country, the continuing loyalty of certain government personnel to the ex-president Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

The Houthi movement (part of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority), took control of the northern Saada province and its neighbouring areas in rejection of Hadi’s constitutional and budget reforms.

With support from many Yemenis, regardless of their Islamic denomination, the Houthis and personnel loyal to Saleh took control of the country in early 2015, forcing the newly-instated President Hadi to flee.

Given concerns that this group was backed by another Shia power, Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states formed a coalition and began a series of airstrikes in hopes of defeating the Houthi movement. 

When Houthi factions retaliated with their own airstrikes, the UAE and Saudi Arabia claimed these attacks were orchestrated by Iran to put pressure on Saudi officials hoping to make Iran renegotiate their nuclear deal and end regional interference.

What is the aftermath of this?

At the start of the war in 2015, Saudi authorities forecast that it would last only a few weeks. Five years of military stalemate have since followed.

In August 2015, Hadi’s government established a temporary government seat in the city of Aden, in a southern province of Yemen, but it struggled to provide basic services and security to the Yemeni population.

Militants from al-Qaeda in the Gulf States and local chapters of the rival group Daesh have taken advantage of the chaos by seizing southern Yemeni territory.

In November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition reinforced a blockade on Yemen, leading to substantial increases in the prices of food and fuel, thus forcing more people into food insecurity.

In June 2018, the coalition attempted to break the stalemate by launching a major offensive on a port city Al Hudaydah which is the principal lifeline for almost two thirds of Yemen’s population. The UN stated that the port’s destruction, and subsequent inability to deliver basic necessities, would cause massive loss of life due to famine.

Due to these escalating concerns for the civilian population in Yemen, ceasefire talks took place in Stockholm in December that year, where an agreement required the coalition to move their forces out of the port city, amongst other measures involving prisoner exchange. As of February 2020, this has still not happened, and the ceasefire was broken within minutes of its agreement.

In January 2020 there was a sudden escalation in hostilities between the Houthis and coalition-led forces, despite this power-sharing deal which was agreed to in November last year.

What has the human cost of the civil war been?

As of October 31st 2019, the death toll of the civil war stands at over 100,000, with more than 12,000 citizens killed in direct attacks. More than 23,000 fatalities were reported in 2019 alone, one of the deadliest years of the war.

Thousands more civilians have died from preventable causes, including malnutrition and disease. Save the Children estimated that approximately 85,000 children with acute malnutrition died between April 2015 and October 2018.

An estimated 2 million children are acutely malnourished, including almost 360,000 children under five years old.

24 million people, some 80% of the population, need humanitarian assistance. Roughly 20 million people need help securing food, of which half are considered to be “one step away from famine”. The same number of people have no access to healthcare, with only half of the country’s medical facilities fully operational.

Approximately 18 million residents cannot access clean water or sanitation.

In 2016, one of the largest cholera outbreaks in history took place, resulting in more than 2.2 million suspected cases as of November last year.

More than 3.65 million have been displaced from their homes as of December last year.

To make matters worse, estimates stand at around 138,000 people from the Horn of Africa made the journey across the Red Sea to Yemen last year in search of employment in the Gulf states, entirely unaware of the civil war taking place.

Coronavirus in Yemen

Funding cuts have already led 75% of UN programmes to reduce operations in Yemen or leave the country entirely. UN officials in Yemen are currently facing a shortfall of $150 million and have been forced to cut support for supplies for health centres, trauma care, and the treatment of terminal conditions.

“Very simply put, I just don’t have the funding to sustain lifeline programmes,” explained Altaf Musani, the UN agency’s representative in Yemen, to The New Humanitarian.

The World Food Programme has halved food deliveries and UN-funded health services have faced cutbacks in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.

Thirty out of 41 major programmes will be forced to close down completely as COVID-19 overwhelms what is left of Yemen’s collapsed health system. Yemen has 902 confirmed cases of the virus and 244 deaths, as of the date this article was written.

What is the UK’s role in all this?

The British government plays the dual role of diplomatic advisor on Yemen at the UN security council as well as military adviser to the Saudi-led coalition in Riyadh.

Many UK diplomats claim that the government not only has influence over Saudi military strategy but they also are able to manipulate its diplomatic thinking due to their role as arms supplier.

The UK, alongside the US and France, has been continuously supplying weapons and military support to the Saudi-led coalition. Of the two camps in the war, the coalition is responsible for the highest number of reported civilian fatalities, mostly from airstrikes.

Despite a court of appeal finding that the British government’s arms export policy toward Saudi Arabia to be unlawful, no outcome has appeared since. The government has been banned from issuing new arms licences to Saudi authorities and was instructed to look at its past involvement, yet no statements or progress ensued.

In September of last year, the government in fact admitted to issuing new licences to Saudi Arabia. Since then, what little news the press has received in terms of British aid — or more aptly, reparations for their part in the conflict — is that the UK has pledged £18m in aid to Yemen for 2020. This represents less than 10% of what it provided last year.

To learn more and donate, visit Yemen & How to help.