Yemen: war without end?

Summary: Yemen is facing a dire humanitarian crisis but with some armed groups profiting from the war there is still no end in sight.

Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis including the fastest growing cholera epidemic ever recorded, the world’s largest food emergency and widespread population displacement. 7 million people are reported to be facing famine. On Saturday, following the interception of a missile fired toward Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced the temporary closure of all Yemeni air and sea ports prompting a 60 per cent overnight jump in fuel prices and a 100 per cent rise in the price of cooking gas. Humanitarian flights to and from Yemen have been put on hold, and the coalition has asked UN personnel to tell all ships arriving at the sea ports of Hudaydah and Saleef “to leave.” Meanwhile in Riyadh President Hadi, his sons and advisors are among those reported to have been placed under house arrest as part of the ongoing purge.

“It has been shocking to see the terrible impact of this man-made conflict” said UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock in a press release. “I am concerned about the increasing levels of interference in the work of the humanitarian agencies, including delays in granting and denial of visas, delays of essential equipment and supplies at the ports, bureaucratic impediments affecting NGOs and preventing essential assessments of needs so that we can target our assistance most effectively…In the absence of substantial progress on all these points, the already dire situation will continue to deteriorate. The human suffering, already extreme, will grow and grow.”

The problem is there is no incentive to stop fighting. “All the armed groups, the guys with guns, the politicians in Sana’a and Riyadh, they are actually profiting from the war” Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury quotes a Yemeni researcher as saying. “Diplomats from the West look at the war and the humanitarian crisis and they think they must want it to stop. But big money is being made and if the war ends the money stops. So why stop now?”

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article that considers the current situation in Yemen. Helen has spent the past four decades researching Yemen and worked in the country for fifteen years. She is currently Associate Researcher at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS and was the 2016 Sir William Luce Fellow at Durham University. The editor of the Journal of the British-Yemeni Society, she is also a regular contributor to Oxford Analytica’s briefs and openDemocracy. Her new book “Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state” was published last month.

Yemen: war without end?

In the context of the stunning arrests and other changes in Saudi Arabia on 5 November the missile launched by the Huthis on Riyadh’s international airport and the helicopter crash near the Yemeni-Saudi border which killed some senior officials including Mansour bin Muqrin bin Abdulaziz passed almost unnoticed beyond those immediately concerned with the war in Yemen.  However, this is the first time that a modified Scud missile (named Burkan 2) has reached Saudi Arabia’s capital, over 1000 km from Sana’a and been so close to causing serious damage and loss of life in the Saudi capital itself.  In addition to massive bombing of various locations in Sana’a,  Saudi response has been to close all Yemeni air and sea space, thus completing the blockade of the country, as well as announcing significant rewards for the capture or information on the whereabouts of leading Huthi personalities (note, Saleh-connected leaders are not included in the list).  As usual accusing Iran of being the supplier of the weapons, they ignored the fact that the Huthi-Saleh faction have a significant supply of Scuds which they have modified to increase their range.

Alongside the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, announced in Riyadh rather than in Beirut, and also accusing Iran of responsibility, observers are led to wonder to what extent these increasingly strident accusations against Iran are intended for the international community which, with the notable exception of Trump’s White House, has been sceptical of Saudi Arabia’s claims of the extent and intensity of Iranian involvement in both Yemen and Lebanon. Even Trump himself, in his call to Salman, concentrated on his financial interests and only offered to sell Saudi Arabia more weapons!

Regardless, this incident is unlikely to bring the war in Yemen closer to an end.  The war has now been going on for 32 months since the initial air strikes of the Decisive Storm operation.  Military and political stalemate are the order of the day: since September 2015,  i.e. more than two years ago, the only significant change at the military level has been the fact that the Saudi-led coalition, whose stated objective is to restore President Hadi to power, has managed to take Mokha port near the southern end of the Red Sea. Taiz city remains deeply contested between different factions on each side, while nothing has happened elsewhere.  The last set of negotiations between the officially recognised parties to the war ended in failure in August 2016; and they excluded numerous important groups and factions which are active participants in the war.  Since then the UN Special Envoy and other diplomats have been on numerous and equally fruitless trips around the region.

The vast [about 75% of the country’s territory] ‘liberated’ areas are home to only about 30% of the population and largely ungoverned, with a wide range of forces, including jihadis, controlling different smaller and larger areas.  As the 50th anniversary of the end of the British rule looms the older generation is reminded of the fragmentation which prevailed during British rule of Aden and the Protectorates.  In the south security, where it exists, is provided by local Salafi forces trained, deployed and paid by the United Arab Emirates who also contribute to weakening the internationally recognised government by openly supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC), run by the former governor of Aden who was dismissed by President Hadi in April, in alliance with his close colleague, still officially head of Security in Aden, and a local Salafi leader. What is pretty universally acknowledged is that Hadi’s government controls little more than a small area of Aden around the presidential palace where Hadi himself hasn’t been seen since late January.  Meanwhile, Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar (former close associate of Ali Abdullah Saleh) and his Islahi colleagues, control the Mareb area, i.e. the only part of the former Yemen Arab Republic which has been ‘liberated’.

The coalition is basically a Saudi-Emirati affair with other participants providing troops or other material support, but with no role in decision-making.  Tension has gradually increased over the period with Saudi Arabia primarily involved in airstrikes throughout the country, but providing no ground troops beyond those Sudanese units which they finance and which operate on the northern border area of Yemen. Saudi Arabia also supports Ali Mohsen whose Islahi base is composed of northern tribesmen and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood.  This is clearly not to the taste of the UAE which considers anything remotely connected with Muslim Brotherhood as an enemy far worse than Jihadis or Salafis of any other hue.  Tensions also focus on the issue of southern separatism:  UAE assertions that its seeks to restore a united Yemen under the internationally recognised government are given the lie by its actions on the ground which clearly favour southern separatism.  Its military and even humanitarian interventions are almost exclusively concentrated within the borders of the former PDRY;  the security institutions and elite forces it supports are deployed exclusively in these same governorates, and politically its support for the STC is contributing to tensions between these various forces and Hadi’s Presidential Guard around Aden airport.

This complex set of conflicts and rivalries in the coalition, within Yemen and beyond, partly explains the continuation of the war.  In addition there is clear evidence of collusion between the supposedly warring parties when it comes to supplying the country with the multiplicity of basic goods needed, whether fuel or basic food supplies.  Despite an internationally agreed mechanism to control shipping and ensure that food supplies reach the ports and thus the population,  only a small fraction of what is needed is actually allowed through as coalition ships prevent many ships from landing, even when they have been cleared.  As Yemen is dependent on imports for 90% of its staples and over 70% of its overall food supplies, as well as all its fuel now that both production and refining capacity have been reduced to insignificance,  it is unsurprising that since the beginning of the year it has been said that 7 million people are at risk of famine.  Many of these are probably dead by now.  The reason people are surviving, even with great difficulty, is due to smuggling, which has reached the stage of being the main form of trade and involves all the participating factions, to the greater profit of their leaders.

The result is that there is no prospect to an end of the war. Yemen now holds world records for having the worst humanitarian situation: up to 21 million people are hungry,  about 7 million close to death, the cholera epidemic is another world record, with close to 900 000 people affected; 16 million people are lacking clean water, the economy has collapsed and suffering is the norm for almost the entire population.  But the profiteers leading the different factions, the smugglers and the arms traders have no incentive to find a solution and are successfully doing their best to prevent a solution being found.  While the Saudi-Iranian proxy war claims may serve the more extreme propaganda of both these states they leave millions of Yemenis addressing daily threats to their existence from war, famine, disease and death.

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