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Yemen at a tipping point after 6 years of war, political failure and a pandemic

As Yemen enters a seventh year of war and unimaginable suffering, Saudi Arabia has announced a new peace plan, which suggests a UN-negotiated ceasefire and, very importantly, the partial re-opening of some sea and air ports to allow in vital aid and supplies for the millions who are starving and dying.

The Houthi rebels, who now control the majority of northern Yemeni provinces, including the capital, Sanaa, have rejected the deal, saying it offers nothing new and the Saudis need to end their air strikes and fully lift the blockade before talks can begin.

When I visited Yemen in 2014, I saw beaches packed with local families enjoying their time together, guys playing football on the sand and children playing in the waves of the Gulf of Aden.  The military checkpoints and empty hotels didn’t surprise me, since the security situation in Yemen had put foreign visitors off travelling there for some time.  But there were few indicators that the country was on the brink of entering a civil war that would draw in international powers and become what the UN has called “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”.    

Just a few months later, on 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” , to defend what it called the “legitimate government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi” against a rebel group who had taken Sanaa and forced the President to flee to Riyadh.

One month in, Saudi coalition leaders announced that the offensive had “achieved its military objectives” against the Iran-backed Houthis and they would begin a new phase labeled “Operation Restoring Hope”.  They expected this to achieve some sort of politically negotiated solution. 

Six years later, with almost a quarter of a million dead, President Hadi is still in Riyadh and Yemen’s special envoy to the UN has said that the “war is back in full force”.

The Saudi-led coalition has stepped up its air strikes on Houthi held areas in recent days, the UN reporting that grain stores in the port of Salif had been hit along with the living quarters of a food production company.  This comes after the Houthis are reported to have targeted a Saudi Aramco facility with six drones.

This tit for tat has gone on for 6 years while Yemeni children continue to die either as a direct consequence of the conflict or indirectly through disease, hunger and a complete lack of basic needs.  Both sides have been responsible for killing innocent civilians and disrupting aid supplies to the millions who need it.  

The blockading of ports means that humanitarian aid and fuel ships have been stuck waiting to dock for more than 80 days, depriving Yemenis of the energy supplies they need to transport food and keep hospitals running.

The statistics of suffering in Yemen are staggering but figures are likely to be conservative, given the difficulty in accessing accurate information.

The Yemen Data Project puts the number of civilians who have been directly killed or injured in the conflict since March 2015 at 18,500. 

UNICEF estimates that almost 250,000 have died through both direct and indirect causes of the conflict.  In addition, 1.71 million children have been internally displaced, 2 million children are acutely malnourished and 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance.

A Human Rights Watch 2021 country report estimates that 20 million Yemenis require food assistance and 10 million children don’t have access to clean water and sanitation.

Yemen, then, is one of the few countries with bigger problems than Covid 19, which for them is just another impossible burden to bear.  Covid 19 statistics are sketchy at best with the Houthi-run government on the ground in Sanaa playing down the pandemic.  Official figures at the time of writing suggest there are 3700 cases of the virus with 800 deaths, but given that testing is almost non-existent, the true picture is likely to be a great deal worse.

How the international community has let Yemenis down

The pandemic has focused the minds of the international community on more pressing matters closer to home and the economic impact has seen many countries tighten their belts, particularly around the area of international aid.  As a result, Yemen, already far from high on the world’s agenda, has slipped further down, which will have a real impact on the day-to-day suffering of millions.

The international community has and is letting Yemenis down in a number of specific areas:

In 2020, UN agencies called for $2.4 billion in funding in order to keep its Yemen operations running.  Only £1.35 billion in humanitarian aid was pledged by international donors, meaning that a third of the UN’s humanitarian programs were shut down, just at the time they were needed most.   Another UN donor conference on 1st March this year raised less than half its targeted $3.8 billion.  

The UK recently announced it would cut aid to Yemen, citing a “difficult financial context” resulting from the pandemic.   Meanwhile, Britain continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, despite a ruling by the Court of Appeal that the government had not properly assessed the risk to Yemeni civilians from Saudi airstrikes.

Oxfam says UK arms sales are helping to prolong the war as critical elements such as airborne refuelling equipment, bomb components and air-to-surface missiles are among the items exported.  While the US and Italy have cancelled sales that could be used against the people of Yemen, Oxfam have accused the UK of “putting profit before Yemeni lives.”

A UN Report in 2019 suggested that the UK was among those governments complicit in war crimes in Yemen, stating “The legality of arms transfers by France, the UK, the US and other states remains questionable” and the “continued supply of weapons to parties involved in the conflict in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.” 

However, in 2020, in a move that angered rights groups, the UN made the decision to remove the Saudi coalition from its blacklist of countries that violate the rights of children, despite the fact that children still continue to be killed and injured.

Is there any hope of a solution?

Those who see the conflict in Yemen as a straightforward ideological struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran, are wide of the mark.  It is both much more complex and much more simple than that.  For all sides, there are broad long-term strategic goals, which require pragmatic alliances.  

The UAE, for example, allied with the southern secessionists, to build a power base in the southern port city of Aden.  Iran, meanwhile, took advantage of a long-held tension that already existed in the north of Yemen between the Houthis and the Yemeni government.  

The Houthis are Zaydi Shi’a and have different beliefs from Iranian Shi’a, particularly around the Prophet’s succession, which is a fundamental ideological split.  They don’t make for natural allies, but as is often the case in Yemen, pragmatism and long-term interests have driven them together.  

So far, the arrangement is working, with Iran more than happy to keep Saudi Arabia bogged down and frustrated in an endless conflict.  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s arrogant and short-sighted assumption of a quick win has turned into a six-year quagmire with no end in sight.

With Iran’s desire for hegemonic power across the Middle East, having a foothold in such a strategic location in the region is not something it will let go of easily.  The Bab-el Mandeb strait is a stretch of water just 20 miles wide, between the west coast of Yemen and the east coast of Djibouti.  

It is the gateway to shipping routes between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, via the Suez Canal.  Its importance is evident in the history of the region, with the British East India Company capturing a small island in the strait to use as a refuelling station for ships transporting goods from India to Britain in the 19th Century.  

Saudi Arabia and its allies are not about to roll over and allow Iran such a presence on its doorstep, particularly given that their own energy interests have already been attacked by the Houthis on several occasions. But it’s not just oil that is under threat from Iran’s proxy presence.  

Saudi Arabia has 21 desalination plants along its Red Sea coast, some very close to the border with Yemen.  One of these in Al Shuqaiq city was hit by a Houthi cruise missile in 2019.  A consistent threat to these plants would be catastrophic to the desert Kingdom’s population, who rely on desalination for clean drinking water.

With Trump gone and Biden now US President, there is perhaps a little more room for optimism.  But in reality, with the stakes as high as they are, prospects for a lasting peace are slim.  Talk of political solutions makes a lot of assumptions about the reasonableness of the players.  Both have committed war crimes over the last six years, killing thousands of civilians and starving Yemen’s population through blockades and aid disruption, and both are led by regimes that have shown themselves to have scant regard for human rights.

Perhaps it will take the influence of another external power, using its economic influence to encourage a path to peace, one whose interest lies in Yemen’s stability.  China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative will rely on a secure trade route through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and Chinese leaders have already pledged investment in a post-war reconstruction of Yemen.  China has also been very careful to build relationships with all warring parties behind the scenes, whilst quietly and officially recognising the Hadi Government.

Wherever the solution lies, Yemenis need one now.  Yemen’s Oxfam Director has warned that a second wave of coronavirus is emerging and, with all of the other factors at play, the country is “at a tipping point”.   He said “millions of people are already teetering at the edge of a precipice, now covid, cholera and an intensification of the conflict threatens to push them over.”


About the author:

Pauline Canham is a freelance writer with a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity.  She has spent 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects, including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.  Her areas of interest are colonialism, counter-terrorism and the policies of the War on Terror.


On 25 March 2021, the leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, claimed the group was ready for an “honourable peace” on the condition that Saudi Arabia ends its attacks and lifting its blockade. 

Yesterday, a tanker carrying oil docked at the Houthi controlled Hodeidah Port – the first such ship to berth their this year as the Saudi-led coalition announced a relaxation to their blockade.

Photo Credit: Peter Biro

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