YEMEN: A FORLORN TALE
Uncovering the origins of the crisis that took the world by storm this year, and viewing its effects via several angles.
“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” - Howard Zinn
Yemen is a country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is the second-largest Arab sovereign state in the Peninsula and houses a population of approximately 28 million. The war ridden country has been termed as a failed state: a country unable to project authority over its territory and peoples, as well as unable to protect its national boundaries. Yemen's constitutionally stated capital is the city of Sana'a, which has been under the control of Houthi rebel groups since February 2015. However, the capital is disputed between Sana’a as well as the city of Aden, which is controlled by the Southern Transitional Council since 2018. Its executive administration resides in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Yemen’s history of instability
The Republic of Yemen was established in May of 1990 after the reunification of Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). Though formally a multi-party democracy, its first 20 years were led by President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, head of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and president of North Yemen for 12 years prior to the unification.
The opposition was a coalition of the unlikely: Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) was an alliance of six parties, including Islah, an Islamist/tribal party, and the Yemeni Socialist Party, formerly the ruling party of South Yemen. A separatist sentiment in the south has existed since reunification, which made the marginalised population feel displaced from Yemen’s economic and political life. In 1994, tensions between some of the political parties in the North and the South culminated in a brief civil war which was quickly won by the northern faction. This resulted in the exile of separatist leaders, forceful retirement of military officers and redistribution of land and property belonging to the south.
Some of the retired officers began leading peaceful protests in the 2000s and, in 2007, created the Separatist Southern Movement (also known as al-Hirak). More alarmingly, in the northern governorate of Sa’dah, members of the Zaydi Believing Youth (ZBD) movement were also challenging Saleh’s rule. The ZBD members belonged to the minority Shia sect of Islam and ruled North Yemen for decades before being ousted in the 1962 revolution.
Agitated by the uprisings, President Saleh in 2004 sent government forces to arrest the movement’s leader, Hussain al-Houthi, setting off a series of clashes in Sa’dah. Al-Houthi was slain the same year but the rebel group continued under his name to battle Yemen’s government off and on for six more years. In the last of these incidents, President Saleh set out to crush the rebellion with an “iron fist,” and used tactics that caused civilian collateral damage. Ultimately, a ceasefire was reached between the Houthis and the government in 2010.
Origins of the Current Crisis
The ongoing Yemeni proxy war is a convoluted outcome of deceit, name calling and severe violence on the part of the political leaders belonging to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen.
A series of anti-government protests, officially termed as the Arab Spring of 2011, provided the opportunity for many of these groups and grievances to coalesce. In Sana’a, demonstrations led by students and activists grew as leaders stepped down in Tunisia and Egypt. Protests spread throughout Yemen with support from JMP, the Houthis and the Southern Movement collectively.
The movement hit a turning point on 18 March when official forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens. Human Rights Watch confirmed almost 225 deaths and over 1000 non-fatal casualties caused due to firearms.
Inside members were horrified by the government’s retaliation, and there were mass resignations among the ruling party, including General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was designated as the “second most powerful man in the country”. Months after this instability, President Saleh agreed to a deal designed with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that transferred his post to the then Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, provided that power be shared among the Congress and JMP political parties.
Origins of the Crisis: The Battle of Sana'a
Stripped of his power, Saleh, in 2012, decided to ally with the Houthis (who earlier aspired to run him out of power) where he contributed funding and elite military units. Today’s civil war was set off when the Houthis, with Saleh’s support, took control of Sana’a in the fall of 2014 and then seized the presidential palace the following January. Hadi resigned, fled to Aden, but ping-ponged back to reassert his power.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia (in support of President Hadi) and believing the Houthis to be closely affiliated with Iran— began leading airstrikes against Houthi targets.
2014 marked the advance of the Houthis into the capital and thus began the armed takeover of the government that unfolded over the following months. The rampage began on 9 September 2014, when pro-Houthi protesters marched on to the cabinet office and were fired upon by security forces, causing seven deaths. Almost a week later, the crashes escalated, leaving 40 people deceased in an armed confrontation between the Houthis led by military commander Mohammed Ali al-Houthi and supporters of the Sunni hardliner Islah Party when the Houthis tried to seize Yemen TV.
Within 20 days, the capital city fell under siege to the Houthi rebels, marking the end of the current government. The people of Yemen are now under a bitter, foreign rule of the Houthis.
A war which was predicted to last weeks has stretched itself to over 4 years, and has wreaked havoc to the country and the people it houses. Families who lost their jobs in the public service are forced to share a bowl of rice as their meal of the day. People who were well off now languish on the streets and rummage through the garbage for a morsel of food. However, in this crisis, the children (almost 12 million in number) persist to be the worst affected. From adolescents to toddlers, children are maimed and wounded; majority of them suffer from malnourishment and often die of starvation. More so, with the arrival of the pandemic and the closure of schools and hospitals, the children have lost access to basic education and healthcare.
A Comatose Economy
Yemen’s war-shattered economy is predicted to hit an “unprecedented calamity” due to large cuts in aid, slowing remittances, a weakening currency and the coronavirus pandemic, as per the United Nations. U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock also urged donor states to inject foreign currency into the central bank, and disburse and increase humanitarian funding to avoid “total economic collapse”.
Unfortunately, the Houthi rebel groups have turned their backs on foreign intervention and have refused almost half of the aid provided by the United Nations. The outcome of this blockage is loss of billions of dollars worth of aid, something that 80% of Yemen’s population is reliant upon.
“The Yemeni Rial weakened in recent weeks to around 620 to the dollar in the north and 750 in the south, and could hit 1,000 by the end of the year”, Lowcock stated to the United Nations Security Council.
Since the war-ridden country relies heavily on food imports, U.N also forebodes widespread famines in Yemen due to its crumbling economy. “Food prices have risen by 10 to 20% in some areas just in the last two weeks. Without new hard currency injections, this will only get worse,” Lowcock added. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Yemen was worth 27.59 billion US dollars in 2018, according to official data from the World Bank and projections from Trading Economics. The GDP value of Yemen represents 0.02 percent of the world economy.
Effects of the Pandemic: 2020 as the worst year for Yemen
Laden with conflict and despair at every corner, Yemen was already a warzone prior to the spread of the deadly virus. With a collapsed healthcare system, and no access to basic sanitation facilities, Yemen is critically vulnerable to a rampant outbreak of Covid-19. While the official number of infected persons is stated to only around 1700 with 485 deaths, independent aid officials believe the statistics are much higher.
Violence is the largest driver of forced migration,creating refugees who leave the country and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The volume and destination of forced migration depend on many factors including conflict type and the characteristics of neighboring countries. Many conflicts create more refugees than IDPs and civil wars with foreign interventions are more likely to drive mass-exodus migrations out of the country.
In Yemen, the displacement has been overwhelmingly internal. As of October 2017, approximately 190,000 Yemenis sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
With the current ongoing emergent situation in the country, it is no surprise to know Yemen’s ranking on the Human Development Index: 168th out of 177 countries.
Failed conclusions and a hope for betterment
Albeit some progress from U.N. backed peace negotiations, diplomats have failed to bring an end to the conflict. December 2018 talks in Stockholm called for:
1. a cease-fire in the vital port city of Hodeidah
2. the exchange of more than fifteen thousand prisoners, and
3. the creation of a joint committee to de-escalate violence.
However, this had little success in implementation. Divisions within the Saudi-led coalition have dampened hopes for a broader resolution, especially after the August 2019 seizure of Aden by UAE-backed separatists. The situation deteriorated further the following month, when the Houthis claimed responsibility for a missile attack on oil facilities owned by Saudi Aramco. UN monitors concluded that the Houthis did not carry out the attack, which the coalition blamed on Iran.
The friction between Hadi’s forces and the Southern Movement appeared to die down with the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, but tensions soon resumed. The STC pulled out of talks on implementing the deal in January 2020, and its March declaration of self-governance in Yemen’s south all but killed the accord, prompting fears that the country would split along the lines of its pre-1990 borders.
Even if the coalition can set aside its divisions in the face of the coronavirus, the underlying causes of Yemen’s conflict will continue to prove difficult to resolve: Political factions are unlikely to compromise on the distribution of power, and militias will be reluctant to give up their arms. A lasting solution will require major diplomacy in appeasing the three factions: the Houthis, Hadi’s government, and the STC, each of which has unique interests and internal divisions. Any new government, meanwhile, will need significant foreign assistance to fight terrorist groups, rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure, and address immense humanitarian needs.
Sources: Illustration by Upasona Nandi
and Council of Foreign Relations
Statistical Image: United Nations Office for the co-ordination of Humanitarian affairs via BBC