Yemen: Remembering the forgotten war

Hisham al-Omeisy’s little boy came up with a gleeful challenge for his dad on the way to school the other day: race the car through the streets of Sana’a to see if they could go faster than the Saudi jets flying over the Yemeni capital hunting for targets! Recounted on social media for all the world to see, it was a vivid illustration of the reality of the war that is raging in the heart of the Arabian peninsula. And yet, the struggle remains overshadowed by bigger or more familiar conflicts elsewhere.

In March, Yemen marked two grim years since the start of the armed intervention led by Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, against the Houthi rebels who overthrew the government and turned a domestic power struggle into a wider and far more costly battle. Now though, what used to be described as a ‘forgotten war’ is attracting closer attention.

“Everyone says the conflict is at a standstill,” explains Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London. “There is a quagmire. There is no way to win it militarily. There needs to be a compromise but both sides will need to go back on what they have said before.”

The crisis will be high on the agenda when President Donald Trump, on his maiden foreign trip, flies to Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, on 19 May– as will a new $100 billion US arms package that has been quietly negotiated in the background.

Alarm is growing about civilians who are starving because of the blockade of the Red Sea port of Hodeida by the Saudis and their coalition partners. Images of malnourished children have appeared in ads appealing for assistance. With the vast majority of the country’s food imported, salaries unpaid and prices rocketing, seven million of its 28 million people are at risk. The United Nations (UN) has declared Yemen the world’s largest food crisis, as big as the crises in Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria combined. Warnings of drought and cholera outbreaks have fuelled concern about a looming humanitarian disaster. Al-Omeisy is terrified and his children are now off school.

On 12 May, the UN warned that over 400,000 people could be forced to flee if, as threatened, the coalition attacks the city of Hodeida to drive out Houthi forces. Saudi jet fighters have already dropped thousands of leaflets warning of an impending UAE-led offensive.

Initially sparse international media coverage has picked up but is still only a fraction of the attention given to Syria, where the stakes are perceived to be higher. In the six years of that war, half a million Syrians have died and 11 million been made homeless, with massive refugee flows into neighbouring countries and Europe attracting far greater attention than distant Yemen’s sharp but rapid decline. So far, the death toll of the Yemeni conflict is estimated at 8,000-10,000, but the potential for much more suffering is all too likely.

People leave the village with their belongings after Houthis captured Tubeysia village in Taiz province, Yemen on February 20, 2017
(Photo by Abdulnasser Alseddik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Causes of conflict

The crisis has crept up gradually. Yemen – Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) to the Romans – had faced worsening problems for years. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in power for 33 years when the winds of the Arab Spring swept fellow dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and inspired protests and crackdowns from Bahrain to Damascus and Tripoli.

Over his reign, Saleh, a former tank driver, promoted his own cult of personality – his moustachioed features embroidered on carpets and plastered everywhere. Sana’a’s grandest mosque bore his name. He once famously compared ruling his countrymen to “dancing with snakes.” During his leadership, Yemen’s many challenges included corrupt governance, underdevelopment and severe strains between the north and south of a country that was divided into two separate states before being reunited in 1990.

By 2010, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world, running out of both oil and water. Its population was growing rapidly (three-quarters of Yemenis are under 25-years-old) and was still divided along tribal and regional lines, with vast numbers of weapons in circulation. Jihadi terrorism, in the sinister form of al-Qaida, added to this volatile mix.

In early 2011, these factors resulted in mass demonstrations in Sana’a’s ‘Change Square’ calling for an end to the regime. The city’s quaint gingerbread-style houses and handsome stone towers echoed with hopeful chants and slogans about a better future.

The crisis will be high on the agenda when President Trump flies to Saudi Arabia – as will a new $100 billion US arms package that has been quietly negotiated in the background

However, unlike Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh was not forced from power. Instead, he was persuaded to go by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the regional body dominated by the Saudis. The fatal flaw in the GCC initiative, agreed in November 2011, was that along with immunity from prosecution Saleh walked away with billions of dollars of stolen state assets and left behind powerful relatives, cronies and supporters. In the words of the Brookings Institution scholar Ibrahim Fraihat, it was not so much ‘regime change, as regime renovation.’

The peaceful transition agreement was seen for a while as a success story contrasting favourably with the mayhem of other Arab Spring countries. It sometimes seemed, as Ginny Hill writes in her new history of this fraught period: ‘That large numbers of Yemenis…were crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.’ 

This optimism proved sadly misplaced.

Saleh was replaced in February 2012 by his deputy Mansour Abed-Rabbo Hadi. However, once in power, Hadi faced growing resistance from Houthi rebels. The religio-political movement took over the northern Saada province in protest at Hadi’s appointment.

The crisis worsened dramatically in September 2014 when the Houthi rebels entered the capital and ejected President Hadi, who fled first to Yemen’s Red Sea port, Aden, and then to Riyadh. Ex-president Saleh then aligned himself with the Houthis – who he had fought while president – in an effort to re-enter Yemeni politics. With Hadi gone, Houthis and Saleh loyalists tried to take control of the entire country.

Houthis follow a Zaydi doctrine, a form of Shia Islam. Although sectarianism had not been a serious issue with Yemen’s Sunni Muslim majority, its links to Iran (as the standard-bearer of the Shia world) now became a problem for the Saudis due to the two nations bitter strategic rivalry.

The Saudis had always seen Yemen as a security problem, not a foreign policy one, and spent millions bankrolling tribal leaders and buying influence in their unruly backyard. Yet, Riyadh’s policy hardened in 2014 with the crowning of Saudi King Salman and his ambitious young son, Mohammed Bin Salman – universally known as MBS – who was appointed both defence minister and deputy crown prince. MBS’s assertiveness won international backing when Yemen’s ejected president, Abed-Rabbo, requested help to restore the legitimate government. The backing was anchored on UN security council resolution 2216, which remains the legal basis for coalition attacks.

Britain’s complicity

Theresa May, UK prime minister, left, speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia's king, right, during their meeting at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 5, 2017

Theresa May, UK prime minister, left, speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s king, right, during their meeting at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 5, 2017
(Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

While the conflict in Yemen does have a legal basis, the moral justification for intervention is increasingly complicated. In particular, the closeness of the British government to the Saudi regime has attracted domestic scrutiny.

British officers were present in Saudi command centres when air strikes were launched in 2015. Since then, commercial interests have taken centre stage, with arms trades totalling £3.3 billion having been made between the UK and the Saudi government since the campaign began. Brexit has created an urgent need for the UK to access markets outside the EU. Saudi economic reforms and privatisation plans, therefore, offer tempting opportunities for British business. That’s why trade and collaboration were the focus of Theresa May’s visit in April, not the ugly war next door.

The UK government also justifies close ties with Riyadh by citing the need to combat terrorism –  underlined by occasional plots against western targets

But strains in this UK-Saudi alliance have been showing. In Britain, protests against the UK policy have gone beyond the usual anti-arms trade campaigners and include Conservatives like Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary. He has described the policy of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia while providing millions of pounds in aid to Yemen as “contradictory and inconsistent.” The Labour Party manifesto in the 2017 election includes a pledge to halt arms exports to Riyadh. The High Court is in the process of a keenly-awaited judicial review of government policy.

BaE, the defence manufacturer, has also faced pressure: a meeting of shareholders was disrupted by protesters demanding to know whether company employees were loading bombs onto Saudi aircraft. There was outrage in October 2016 when Saudi jets killed over 100 people at a funeral reception in Sana’a. The initial, instinctive response in Riyadh was to deny the story. Later, the Saudis admitted to a ‘targeting error.’

British ministers have repeated their support for Saudi “self-defence” in the face of cross-border attacks by Houthis. But behind the scenes unease is mounting.

“Her Majesty’s Government is in an embarrassing situation,” argues James Firebrace coordinator of The Yemen Safe Passage Group (YSPG), a forum of experts. “The question is what will be the decisive factor in the end – trade desperation because of Brexit, or humanity and some common sense about long-term stability in southwest Arabia and the need to stop fuelling the jihadis of al-Qaida and ISIS?”

Yemenis check the site of an air raid that hit a funeral reception in the Arhab district, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, on February 16, 2017
(Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

What now?

Activists have deftly used social media to display the devastating human consequences of the war – and to question western policy. “This is Jamila,” read the caption under a tweeted picture of a skeletally thin girl of about seven. “She’s one of the latest children to starve to death in #Yemen while Trump and Theresa May plan to sell more arms to #Saudi.”

On balance, the Houthis are better at handling media than the Saudis. This means the situation in Sana’a and the north has had more coverage than other areas. For instance, in Taiz, a city in the centre of the country, the Houthis are seen as the aggressors and humanitarian conditions are appalling. In the south, meanwhile, the UAE is the largest external power and regional secessionists, long resentful of the north, are advancing. These are the forgotten conflicts within the forgotten war.

For all their wealth and reliance on expensive PR companies, the Saudis have been unable to counter criticism of their conduct. General Ahmed al-Asiri, a spokesman for the coalition, was the target of a citizen’s arrest on a recent visit to London. Riyadh frames the story in a way that sounds propagandistic, playing up Tehran’s backing for the Houthis but failing to provide a ‘smoking gun’ to prove their case. UN efforts to locate this evidence have also failed. Still, Iranian propaganda hammers away at the Saudi royals and highlights the civilian toll from coalition attacks.

Diplomatic efforts by the UN have also failed, the impasse blamed on enemies who are unwilling to settle their differences and concede power. For the Houthis, the conflict is “a luxury they can afford,” according to a Yemeni economist quoted by the US-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “On the other side, Hadi knows that a peace deal might require his removal and removal of the patronage he has built around himself over the past few years.”

The policy of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia while providing millions of pounds in aid to Yemen is “contradictory and inconsistent”

Peace talks, urges the analyst Nadwa al-Dawsari: “Should include negotiations on the division of Yemen into federal regions that establish a fair balance of power and resources and address key regional grievances that have helped fuel conflict.” That is an ambitious agenda which looks unlikely to be addressed any time soon.

Still, some detect a glimmer of hope in the current tense standoff over Hodeida port – a stalemate that may perhaps provide a way for both sides to save face and climb down. The YSPG has called for the passage of a new UN resolution to reflect the changes on the ground over the last two years and underline the need for a more inclusive government to settle the underlying crisis.

Experts, though, remain pessimistic. Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a highly experienced figure in the world of international disaster relief who currently heads the UN task force on humanitarian access to Syria, summarizes briefly: “Yemen’s war is beyond senseless.”

Yemen expert Peter Salisbury sadly concludes: “We are now into the third year of the war. And it is difficult, looking at the situation on the ground, to imagine that we will not be having a very similar conversation in the fourth year.”