More than ever before, Yemen’s population is at risk of massive starvation. This Middle Eastern country, the poorest of the region, has already experienced the greatest outbreak of cholera in modern history. Over one million inhabitants have caught the disease. Yemen is labeled by the UN as the: “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”: three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people suffer from food insecurity and 8.4 million are at severe risk of famine. Last year, 50,000 children died of starvation. With the ongoing Saudi-led coalition’s attack on the port of Al Hudaydah, humanitarian aid can no longer reach the population in need. This attack could potentially alleviate or worsen the humanitarian crisis.
Indeed, the humanitarian crisis is the result of the civil war in Yemen. This civil war broke out in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring in the region. Civil protests led to the end of the two-decades-long dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh the following year. His former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the only presidential candidate, succeeded him. However, the country soon appeared once again deeply divided. To the old division between the North and the South was added the additional threat of Al Qaeda. Already relying on imports for basic food supply before the war, food soon became insufficient. The conflict was exacerbated in 2014, when Houthis, Shia Muslims belonging to the Zaydi sect, began capturing the north of the country, when they reached the capital, Sana’a; President Hadi fled to Aden.
In 2015, former president Saleh formed an alliance with the Houthi rebels and fomented an insurgency that would eventually control the capital, Sana’a. President Hadi resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia. This is when Saudi Arabia decided to intervene. Indeed, Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy group potentially surrounding its territory. A Saudi-led air campaign began, with the help of other Sunni Arab states as well as political and logistical backing from the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Today Saudi airplanes have carried out over 100,000 combat missions. The UAE are providing fighter jets and Special Forces to enforce the blockade along the coast. Yemeni militias and 7,000 Sudanese paramilitary forces are carrying out operations on the ground. For its part, the Houthi army is 100,000 fighters strong, and launching missiles at Saudi territory, including the capital Riyadh.
The Saudi-led coalition is united against the Houthis. However this coalition doesn’t necessarily envision the same end game in Yemen. Saudi Arabia believes Yemen should remain as one, while the United Arab Emirates have for a long time discussed the possibility of a new secession between the North and the South, which was effective until 1990. However the South lacks resources and its leadership is divided, which allowed Islamist movements to establish themselves as an alternative. Al Qaeda became popular in this region, not because of its ideology, but because it was providing the basic public services that the government failed to provide to the population. The civil war took a turn against the Houthis when Ali Abdullah Saleh had a change of heart and declared for the Saudi-led coalition in December 2017. Perceived as an act of treason, he was killed by the Houthis before he could flee the capital and take shelter in Saudi-controlled territory. The nephew of the late President Saleh is now trying to become a political force in the region. A political solution is made even more complicated by the UN Security Council resolution 2216, which proclaims that Hadi is the legitimate president. In Aden, the Hadi presidency is unpopular, accused of being corrupt and profiting from the war. Government services collapsed. The town is in ruins and food is lacking. President Hadi himself is still residing in Riyadh. In 2015, Aden’s population fought alongside the government forces against the Houthis. Earlier during the year, Aden rebels raised an insurgency to oust its Prime Minister and call for secession.
So far the international community was happy to let Saudi Arabia lead the way in Yemen. However Saudi Arabia is accused by human rights group of targeting civilians. In October 2016, the Saudi coalition hit a funeral, killing 140 civilians. Last April, an attack on a wedding killed 20 people. The UAE forces are accused of sexual assault on Houthi prisoners. After 2 years of fighting, at least 6,200 people have been killed, and 2,8 million Yemenis displaced. In 2017, Saudi Arabia blockaded the ports, preventing food, medicines and vaccines from entering the country. The argument was that the ports were used by Iran to deliver arms to the Houthis.
Currently 80 percent of the food, water, and fuel are entering the country through the Al Hudeydah Port, under Houthi control. Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates are trying to regain control of this vital port. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, expressed his concern that this military move might “take peace off the table”. While the UN attempted to negotiate a ceasefire between the two parties, the Saudi-led coalition rejected the idea and requested a complete withdrawal of Houthi forces from the area. Already, the UAE announced that the coalition has seized most of the airport. If everything goes as planned, the port will soon no longer be controlled by the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the United Arabs Emirates would then organize a massive humanitarian operation across the country. However the aid would need to go through the frontlines and the Saudi airstrikes have destroyed basic infrastructure to reach starving Yemenis. If the attack on the city drags on, the population will be left with no food nor medicine.
Today the risk of mass starvation is greater than ever. At the same time, only the end of the civil war could permanently end the humanitarian crisis. However, the political solution in Yemen is still uncertain and the Saudi-led coalition is more and more contested.
Hélène Dieck received her PhD from Sciences Po, Paris, France. She was previously responsible for elaborating military doctrine at the French Ministry of Defense and served as a visiting researcher at the RAND Corporation, Washington, DC. She currently works as a migrant welfare specialist at Qatar Foundation and recently publishedThe Influence of Public Opinion on Post Cold War U.S. Military Interventions (Palgrave, 2015).