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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Let’s Talk about Yemen.

Every day we hear the news about atrocities happening in Syria or Afghanistan and the death toll for which this situation is responsible. The number of people who fled from there to Europe is high and therefore the media tend to solely focus on these countries, often giving much less attention to countries which deal with a similar situation and whose people have no way of escaping to safety.

One of these countries is Yemen, which is being ravaged by an ongoing civil war fought by many different parties and actors, while the outcome of the fighting is the same: it results in an everyday suffering of those that are the most affected – civilians trapped inside its borders. Yemen has currently the greatest level of humanitarian needs in the world with an estimated number of 22 million people – or 80% of total population – being in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance.

For the people inside of the country, it is next to impossible to get out. Travelling to Saudi Arabia has been severely restricted since 1990, with a fence built between these two countries and the crossing by travelling over the sea is extremely dangerous and pricey. Countries such as Egypt or Jordan that used to be visa-free for the Yemenis no longer provide this option and people that managed to get out are not allowed to come and help out their families in need.  However, to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, let’s start from the beginning of Yemeni crisis.

Yemeni Crisis (2011-present)

According to various reports from human rights organizations, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became the first president of unified Yemen in 1990, ran a corrupt and autocratic government. When the 2011 Arab uprising protests spread to Yemen, Saleh’s political and military rivals managed to oust him. Under the pressure from domestic and international parties and by receiving immunity from prosecution, Saleh gave up his post of president and his vice-president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi replaced him.

Hadi struggled to unite the fractious political landscape of the country and protect it from the threats from the Houthi militia. In 2014, Houthis broke into the capital of Sana’a and forced Hadi to negotiate a “unity government” with other political factions. The rebels continued to pressure the weakened government until Hadi resigned along with his ministers in January 2015.  The following month, the Houthis declared themselves in control of the government, dissolving Parliament and installing an interim Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a cousin of Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Meanwhile, Hadi escaped to Aden, where he declared himself as a legitimate president, proclaimed Aden as temporary capital instead of Sana’a and called on local government officials and members of the military to support him. On 25 March 2017, a court in the Houthi-controlled Sana’a sentenced Hadi and six other government officials to death in absentia for “high treason”, which meant “incitement and assistance” to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

The Conflict’s Parties

Over the 3 years between 2015 and 2018, the conflict has spread and fighting has engulfed the entire country. As well as relentless bombardment by coalition forces from the air, there is a battle being fought on the ground between rival factions. Here is an overview of all the involved parties that are active in Yemen. On one fighting side are the Houthis, who are the most visible party involved in the conflict, because the situation significantly worsened when they took advantage of presidents’ replacement and seized control of northern part of Yemen in Saada governorate and neighboring areas. They were created in the late 1980s as a religious and cultural revivalist movement among practitioners of Zaydi Shi’ism in northern Yemen. They became politically active after 2003, opposing Saleh for backing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They gained a significant support from Yemenis after criticism of the UN-backed transition that reached far beyond its northern base. Houthis’ primary international supporter, Iran, has reportedly provided the Houthis with military support. Saudi Arabia’s perception that the Houthis are primarily an Iranian proxy rather than indigenous movement has driven Riyadh’s military intervention. The Houthis and Iran share similar geopolitical interests. Indeed, Iran seeks to challenge Saudi Arabia and U.S dominance of the region, while the Houthis are the main opponent of Hadi’s Saudi-and U.S.-backed government in Sana’a. Even though Ali Abdullah Saleh had resigned from his presidential post due to many protests against his corrupt leadership, he managed to regain the support among Yemenis who felt unsatisfied with the newly-formed government. Together with his son, he won the support of some elements of the security forces, tribal networks, and the General Peoples’ Congress (GPC) party. He had aligned with Houthis who previously opposed him and he hoped to regain a leading role in Yemen. However, in December 2017, he declared withdrawal from the coalition with the Houthis and instead sided with his former enemies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and president Hadi. Accused of treason, he was killed by a Houthi sniper while attempting to flee Sana’a on 4 December 2017.

On the opposing side, there is Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi who is the internationally recognized president. He is supported by Saudi Arabia, which has led the coalition air campaign to push back the Houthis and reinstate Hadi’s government. Riyadh fears that the Houthi control of Yemen would result in a hostile neighbor, threatening its southern border. Code-named “Operation Decisive Storm”, the intervention initially consisted of a bombing campaign on Houthis and later saw a naval blockade and the deployment of ground forces into Yemen. Hadi and Saudi Arabia are supported by a coalition of Sunni-majority Arab states: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the UAE. The coalition consolidates Saudi Arabia’s leadership over the bloc, which has split over other regional issues and signals consensus against allowing Iran to gain influence in Yemen. In practice, only UAE has significantly contributed to ground troops that enabled Hadi to return to Aden. The U.S. has also backed Saudi-led coalition, along with the United Kingdom and France. Their interests include maintaining stability in Yemen and security for Saudi Arabia’s borders, a free passage in the Bab al-Mandeb, the chokepoint between the Arabian and Red Seas through which 4.7 million barrels of oil per day transit, and a government in Sana’a that will cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism programs.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) were reported to be active in the country, taking advantage from the clash of two sides. AQAP benefits from the current situation and it established a “mini-state” that spans more than 350 miles of coastline and profits from the national oil company and port trade. Some Sunni tribes aligned with AQAP against a mutual threat of Houthis. AQAP competes with the self-proclaimed Islamic State for recruits. IS entered Yemeni scene in March 2015 with two suicide attacks, killing at least 140 Zaydi mosque visitors.

Humanitarian consequences

A report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), Zeid Raad Al Hussein, laid out a number of serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law committed by all sides. They included attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure, the use of landmines and cluster bombs, sniper and drone attacks against civilians, detentions, targeted killings, the recruitment and use of children in hostilities,  and forced evictions and displacement. As of 15 October 2017, health facilities reported 8,757 conflict-related deaths and over 50,610 injuries, and over three million people having been forced to flee their homes.

Even though Yemen has always been one of the poorest countries in the world, the challenges of poverty have rapidly escalated in March 2015, which contributed to a 75% increase in cases of malnutrition. An estimated 17.8 million people are food insecure and 16.4 million lack access to adequate healthcare. Children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers are the most affected. As of March 2017, there are currently 462 thousands of children that suffer from severe acute malnutrition and 3.3 million children suffering from moderate acute malnutrition. People are dying from otherwise simple and curable diseases such as diarrhea and fever because starvation destroyed their immune system. As a result of malnutrition, around half of all Yemeni children under five who manage to survive are stunted. In April 2017, the cholera outbreak has been recorded in the country, claiming more than 2000 lives, making it the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history.

Moreover, the restrictions on imports of fuel – essential for maintaining the water supply – combined with damage to pumps and sewage treatment facilities, also meant that 16 million people now lack access to drinking water or sanitation. The problems with access, damaged infrastructure and lack of funding have restricted the effort of humanitarian organizations to aid in the country. As of March 2017, the UN’s appeal for $2.1bilion to allow it to assist people in Yemen was only 7% funded.

As it has been demonstrated above, the situation in Yemen is more than critical. The number of people affected by this conflict increases every day and it is about time that the Yemeni civil war gets all the attention it deserves. Without the attention of international community, there is not much the local humanitarian organizations can do. Donating money and food can only do so much. This situation will not change until there is daily mainstream media coverage of the conflict, which will attract much-needed attention. Therefore, dear reader, spread the word about dying people in Yemen because there is nothing more powerful than collective effort. Next time you find yourself finding an important topic to discuss, please, do talk about Yemen.

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