Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and one of its most frequently forgotten. How did Yemen disintegrate so tragically and so completely? Like many other Middle Eastern conflicts, the answer lies in colonial division, sectarian tensions, and the Iranian-Saudi proxy war being waged with US and British support.

Before examining the history in detail, here is a reminder of how horrific the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is:

  • The UN has verified >7,700 civilian deaths in Yemen, although ACLED (a respected crisis mapping project) estimates 12,700 civilian fatalities and over 112,000 violence-related deaths. Save the Children believes 85,000 children have died April 2015-October 2018 from malnutrition.
  • Nearly 24 million people, over 80% of Yemen’s population, require humanitarian aid, including 14.3 million (50%) in acute need, meaning they cannot support themselves without it.
  •  67% are food insecure, 25% of Yemenis are at risk of famine, while 238,000 individuals are facing catastrophic levels of hunger, according to UNOCHA.
  • 3.3 million people remain internally displaced.
  • 17.8 million people lack safe water and sanitation.
  • Only half of all health centres are functional; most equipment is non-functioning or obsolete. The UN is planning for a situation in which half of the Yemeni population contract COVID-19 and 30,000-40,000 people die.

Under colonial rule

The colonial rule of Yemen began in the 1530s when the Ottomans extended their influence southward from Hejaz, capturing the city of Sana’a.  They were, however, unable to control the mountainous highlands, the home of the Zaydi Shi’ites since the 9th Century, whose frequent skirmishes wore the Ottomans out. In 1832, the British Empire seized the strategic port city of Aden for use as a coal depot. Through treaties with desert tribes to the east of the Aden Protectorate, the British effected the partition of Yemen into north and south.

By 1918, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed. Zaydi imams began ruling the entire northern area outside British control in an imamate known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. It persisted for 44 years until an Egyptian-backed, Arab-nationalist military coup overthrew it in 1962, plunging North Yemen into civil war. Arab nationalists prevailed and, throughout their rule, they politically marginalized the Zaydis, sowing the seeds of the current conflict.

In the south, a four-year uprising, known in Britain as the Aden Emergency, began in October 1963. It succeeded in ending British rule in 1967. With Soviet support, the new Marxist People’s Republic of South Yemen was founded.

Post-colonial politics

Despite their shared goal of unification, North and South Yemen entered a protracted conflict in 1972 that lasted for over fourteen years. 1986 proved the turning point when a failed coup d’état further weakened South Yemen amid the USSR’s disintegration. This allowed the leader of the more populous, stronger North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to take the presidency of the United Republic of Yemen, declared in 1990. South Yemen’s leader, Ali Salim al-Beidh, became vice-president.

Tensions nonetheless remained, and a truly unified politics wasn’t sought. Despite a last-ditch attempt at ‘Peace and Accord’ mediated in Jordan in 1993, al-Beidh withdrew from Sana’a to Aden and was dismissed by Saleh in May 1994. Al-Beidh then declared a new southern state backed by Saudi Arabia, triggering a three-month civil war that delivered Saleh a crushing victory. From 1994 to 2011, Saleh would rule as president, courting crises, in what he described as “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

Under both Arab nationalist rule and Saleh’s presidency, the Zaydi – who make up about 50% of Muslims in Yemen – felt marginalized, after having been politically independent for a millennium. The Zaydiyyah is a Shi’a sect which originated with the claim that Zayd bin Ali – great-grandson of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin – was the rightful successor of the Ummah because he had fought the corrupt rule of the Umayyad Caliphate. For Zaydis in Yemen, aggrieved at the misrule and corruption of Saleh, parallels must seem to echo down the ages.

Yemen and the War on Terror: The response to American interventionism

Radicalized by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2000 al-Qaida attack on USS Cole in Aden, a group of Zaydi men from the northern Saada Governorate, formed an insurgency group to seek political representation. Although officially named Ansar Allah (‘supporters of God’), the group is known as the Houthi after its first leader, Hussein al-Houthi. The group adopted Hezbollah as their inspiration and the words “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam” as their slogan. Saleh’s forces fought the Houthi on six occasions 2004-2011 but otherwise dismissed the threat the group posed.

Meanwhile, a protest movement, known as the Southern Movement, began seeking secession from the Republic of Yemen in 2007 in Aden, frustrated with the South’s relative stagnation under Saleh.

The Arab Spring to the present day

The Arab Spring in February 2011 was a watershed for Yemen. Mass protests erupted demanding the end to unemployment and corruption. These escalated to demand Saleh’s resignation. The situation became violent after Saleh’s troops fired on protestors and, after a bomb exploded in a mosque, injuring Saleh, he capitulated. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi – a Sunni – became acting president while Saleh underwent surgery in Saudi Arabia and then became interim president once Saleh reluctantly agreed to transfer power in November 2011.

To the Houthis, Hadi was no more agreeable than Saleh. His unification plan, finalised in 2014, involved dividing Yemen into six provinces, which the Houthis branded gerrymandering after their two were made landlocked. The end to subsidised fuel in August 2014 – one of the only social goods impoverished Yemenis had – was, therefore, the spark that lit the pyre of civil war.

Calling for mass protests in Sana’a, the Houthis mobilised large swathes of northern Yemen’s population, ostensibly over ending corruption, reintroducing fuel subsidies and calling for Hadi’s resignation. The protests, however, fomented the unrest which allowed Houthi forces to storm Sana’a on the 21st September 2014. The Yemeni army did not intervene at the Houthis’ insurgency, nor did they as the unrest escalated in January 2015 when the Houthis seized the presidential palace. Hadi escaped to Aden, resigning and branding the Houthi takeover a coup.

Former President Saleh then made an unexpected move by declaring an alliance with the Houthis, his forsworn enemy. Many argue, however, Saleh had been organizing the rebels behind-the-scenes for some time, a key reason why the army hadn’t resisted the Houthi coup in Sana’a. Alongside Saleh, Saudi Arabia accused Iran, predominately Shi’ite, of backing the Houthis, something Iran denies despite public evidence, including the cheap Iranian oil flowing into Yemen.

By February 2015, the Houthis had declared control of Yemen, pushing southward without much resistance. They captured Taiz – Yemen’s third city – on the 22nd March and advanced on Aden and Al-Hudaydah, a vital port on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait through which much of Saudi Arabia’s oil flows. As President Hadi fled to Saudia Arabia, the Houthi’s commander boasted he would invade Saudi Arabia from their homeland province of Saada, which is pressed up against the Saudi border in the mountainous north.

The Saudis responded with war, condemning what they and the Gulf Council (eight, mostly Sunni, Arab states aligned with Saudi Arabia) called a coup threatening their national security. The same night that President Hadi fled, the 25th March 2015, the Saudis began airstrikes on Yemen under Operation Decision Storm. On the ground, troops from the Saudi-led coalition managed to retake Aden in July 2015 but have been locked in a stalemate ever since near the walls of Taiz, which, like almost all the territory of former North Yemen, currently remains under Houthi control.

The cause of famine

From 2016 onwards, the port of Al-Hudaydah became the conflict’s pivot, beginning with the coalition’s embargo on shipments of aid supplies to Houthi-controlled areas. An estimated 80% of Yemen’s humanitarian aid was flowing through Al-Hudaydah at this point. The embargo triggered starvation, acute malnutrition and the world’s largest cholera epidemic, causing more than 2.2 million infections and 4,000 deaths. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBC reports that the blockade has not been lifted. Al-Hudaydah became an active battleground in 2018, with armed troops still present despite the fact both sides signed a UN agreement in Stockholm in 2019 agreeing to UN governance of the port. As with the airstrikes, the UNHCHR condemns the Saudi-led embargo a violation of international humanitarian law.

It’s hard to see an end to the fighting. In December 2017, the Houthis shot Saleh in the head days after he attempted to pursue a diplomatic resolution with Saudi Arabia, and the situation has only escalated since. In March 2018, the Houthis fired rockets at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, killing one man and injuring two others. In March 2019, a drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing plants caused fires that halved Saudi oil production. Although the Houthis claimed responsibility, Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK, France and Germany believe Iran was responsible. The Iran-Saudi proxy war for influence in the Middle East has reached new heights over Yemen. Nor is the COVID-19 pandemic proving an opportunity for reconciliation: the Houthis aren’t upholding the ceasefire declared by the Saudis in April 2020 as they argue that the aid embargo hasn’t be lifted.

Amidst the proxy war, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also become directly involved in Yemen, splintered from the Saudi Gulf Council in a bid for greater regional power. In January 2018, the UAE began supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a recent incarnation of the Southern Movement, which – as in 2007 – is fighting for secession from Hadi-Saudi forces. In April 2020, the STC declared self-rule of Aden and, on the 21st June, the Yemeni island of Socotra.

Five players, none of whom want the same outcome, are currently operating in Yemen’s desert battleground: Hadi’s government forces propped up by the Saudi-led coalition; the Houthis, who control most of north Yemen; the UAE-backed STC; UAE-backed, anti-Houthi, anti-Hadi forces, not part of the STC; and small pockets of insurgency by ISIL and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Western complicity

Throughout the airstrike campaign – which continued unabated for five years until the Saudis declared a ceasefire in April 2020 due to COVID-19 – Saudi Arabia received arm-sales and logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France. According to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (UNHCHR) office, these drone strikes contravene international humanitarian law. “Residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities” have all been targeted.

The UK and US governments are both complicit in these war crimes. US President Donald Trump vetoed a March 2019 Senate resolution that banned US support to Saudi Arabia. As of the 7th July 2020, the UK government has decided to resume licensing the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, contravening a 2019 Court of Appeal case that ruled the sale illegal. Both countries are choosing Saudi influence over innocent Yemeni lives.

Concluding thoughts

The situation in Yemen is the world’s tragedy. The partition of Yemen into north, south, and unrepresented highlands was a product of colonial rule and corrupt post-colonial leaders when they put their power ahead of true unification and reconciliation. Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US, UK and UAE are today part of a proxy war that is destabilising the Middle East and mutilating a defenceless, innocent population in the name of ousting the Houthi.

Amnesty International have commented how “gross human rights violations, including what could amount to wars crimes are being committed throughout the country”, and most sadly of all, there is no end on the horizon.