The country labelled by the UN as home to ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ isfast becoming the Middle East’s most dangerous conflict zone. Nicholas Nugent reports
Impoverished Yemen has been overshadowed for world attention by its powerful northern neighbour Saudi Arabia as well as the smaller but wealthier Gulf emirates, whilst its fierce civil war has commanded far less attention than that in Syria.With Yemen’s neighbours playing an increasingly prominent role in the country’s internal power struggle, there is a serious risk of the fragile, tribally based state breaking apart.
Yemen’s current problems beganin 2011 when protests inspired by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’forced the country’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Salehhad ruled Yemen since the country’s foundation in 1990 and was on the point of having himself declared ‘president for life’.
ButHadi proved even less adept than his predecessor at solving the country’s manifest problems, including separatist movements, a high rate of unemployment, food shortages and corruption. In September 2014, ShiaHouthi rebelsfrom the north of the country took control of the capital with the help of former president Saleh, himself a northerner.
President Hadi retreated to the southern port city of Aden and, when the Houthis came close to capturing that city as wellhe fled abroad, leaving an administration in the southern city. The Houthis’ attempt to take Aden was thwarted by an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia which included Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The Houthis’uneasy alliance with Saleh fell apart last year when the former president was in the process of transferring his allegiance by supportingPresident Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition in opposing the Houthis. Saleh was killed near Sana’a by his erstwhile supporters in December2017. Army units loyal to the deceased former president are now entrenched at Marib, a city to the east of Sana’a, and represent a third force of largely Sunni northerners in this fractious conflict, opposing both the Shia Houthis and exiled President Hadi, who from his exile base in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, retains the support of the United Nations.
Many Yemenis initially supported the Houthis saying they brought stability to the conflict-ravaged country, a claim that is increasingly called into question. While the Houthis made efforts to take over the entire country, using weapons provided by Iran, Saudi financing deterred many tribes from supporting the government in Sana’a and may inadvertently have encouraged them to make their own bids for power.
Notably, a separatist movement has emerged in the south which risks splitting the country along its pre-1990 borders.The Southern Transitional Council (STC) isthe political wing of a paramilitary unit trained and armed by the United Arab Emirates. It earlier supported efforts by Hadi’s government to keep the Houthis out of Aden. Now it is exerting its own power, demanding changes in Mr Hadi’s Aden-based administration.
Attempts by the United Nationsto negotiate peace between the main players in this internecine conflict have come to nought. UN humanitarian organisations, meanwhile, have taken the lead in trying to bring humanitarian relief to a country where, they say, more than 20 million people face famine. At least two million Yemenis have been displaced by three years of fighting and bombing by Saudi and other Arab forces which has caused devastation to parts of the country, destroying airports and the country’s chief port Hodeida so that neither the UN nor relief agencies are able to import urgently-needed food. The Saudi-led coalition fearsthat these ports could be used to supply arms to the Houthis.
‘Civilians are under fire on all sides, as Houthi and affiliated forces carry out sniper attacks and indiscriminate shelling, and the Saudi-led coalition continues to conduct airstrikes,’declared the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Speaking in February, he expressed particular concern at the situation in a populous southern city on the frontline between Houthis and forces loyal to President Hadi, saying:‘For the civilians in the city of Taiz, the conflict is not just escalating but inescapable.’
The involvement of foreign forces – Saudi and Emirati armies and air forces on the side of President Hadi and Iran supporting the Houthis – has added an unwelcome complexity to a war which was complicated enough, given the tribal nature of Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s supporters in the West, including the US, the UK and France, have all been criticised for continuing to sell arms to the country most blamed for causing what the UN labels ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.At least 400,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition, says the UN, while cholera and diphtheria in camps for displaced people are compounding already serious famine conditions.
Militants of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have also taken territory in southern Yemen and there are indications that Islamic State fighters dislodged from Syria are expanding the role they are already playing in lawless Yemen. Western nations,which hadbeen preoccupied with Syria, fear that a deepening of the Yemen crisis could lead to all-out war between the region’s two most powerful states, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The Republic of Yemen is a relatively young country, having been formed in 1990 by the merger of South Yemen, consisting of the former British protectorate of Aden and its hinterland, with the conservative Yemen Arab Republic in the north, which was under the sway of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The country was held together for more than two decades by former president Saleh. His departure unleashed both tribal and religious rivalries, as southerners have long harboured resentment at the north’s domination of power under the former leader.
With smaller exploited reserves of oil and gas than its neighbours, Yemen is the poorest nation on the Arabian Peninsula and one of the poorest in the Arab world. An economy that once exported coffee to the world now itself consumes its main crop of qat, a plant chewed by much of the country’s adult population to release a narcotic substance. Apart from oil and gas, the country’s economy is agriculturally based.
Another fear is that the country will simply fragment. A report from the London think-tank Chatham House says that Yemen, beset as it is with ‘a complex range of internal politics and conflicts’ more closely resembles ‘a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another… than a single unitary state’. The report says the already blurry distinctions ‘between state and non-state security and governance actors, and between the licit and illicit economies… have become ever more arbitrary’.
As reports emerge of southern warlords wanting to assert their own independence from both Sana’a and Aden, UN Secretary General António Guterres has appointeda new Special Envoy to Yemen. The UN is concerned that,until warring parties lay down their arms and start to talk, there can be little hope of alleviating the country’s humanitarian crisis, let alone restoring stable government.