THE CONFLICT IN YEMEN: KEY PLAYERS AND TENSIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

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In 2019, a United Nations report stated that 24 million people in Yemen were in need
of humanitarian aid, out of a population of 28.5 million. It is almost inconceivable
that a country could be in such a poor state that 85 percent of its population would
require help just to survive, but it is the truth. Yemen is one of the least developed in
countries in the world and is categorized as a failed state. Every day the Yemeni
people are faced with the harsh realities of war. Shortages of essential resources, aerial bombing of civilian locations, poverty, corruption and human rights violations
are rampant throughout the country.

Officially called the Republic of Yemen, it is the second largest sovereign State in the
Arab Peninsula, and is a member of the Arab League and the United Nations. The
country has a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years. The Sabaeans, an ancient civilization of South Arabia used to call Yemen their home. The Himyarite
Kingdom ruled this region in the second century, Christianity arrived in the fourth
century, followed by Islam in the seventh century. Throughout the course of history, it
has been notoriously difficult to administer this region with efficiency.

How and why did this war start?
The war that we hear so much about on the news started in the year 2011. In 2010, an
uprising took place in Tunisia, which then spread to other Arab states. This uprising
started when people got tired of oppressive regimes, poor living conditions and lack
of basic necessary resources. A series of uprisings, protests against governments and
armed rebellions broke out across multiple countries, which came to be referred to as
the Arab Spring. Heads of State in Egypt, Libya and Yemen were deposed. When Ali
Abdullah Saleh, the authoritarian president of Yemen got deposed as a result of the
Arab Spring, power went to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2011.

The Hadi government failed to set up an efficient interim government, having to deal
with insurgent attacks by jihadists, separatists and Saleh loyalists, corruption and
poverty. Citizens of the country gradually became disillusioned with the Hadi
government. It was around this time that support for the Houthi Movement began to
rise in Yemen. The Houthi Movement, also known as the Ansar Allah, was an armed
political movement that started in the 1990s in northern Yemen who claimed to fight
for the Zaidi Shia minority. With the failures of the government in tackling the
country’s problems, the Sunni population also started to put their faith in this Movement. The Houthi rebels managed to capture the largest city in Yemen – the
national capital Sana’a. Rebel forces infiltrated and captured Sana’a in the Battle of
Sana’a in 2014. This battle lasted for 5 days, from 16-21 September, 2014. It ended
with the Houthi forces capturing the government headquarters on 21 September, and
the consequent fall of Sana’a. The Houthi group dissolved the Parliament and
declared an interim revolutionary government led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. President Hadi retreated to the city of Aden and declared that he was still in charge, proclaiming Aden as the new temporary capital of Yemen. When the Houthi forces
started expanding their sphere of control, they caught up to President Hadi, who then
fled to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) in March, 2015 to evade Houthi forces and seek asylum. This was a crucial moment, as it contributed directly to the Yemeni Civil War, which
started with a group of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, undertaking military
excursions into Yemen to fight the Houthi forces. The involvement of Saudi Arabia
was a turning point for the conflict in Yemen, which is continuing to this day.

Saudi involvement, civil war and the ensuing devastation
On 26 March, 2015, a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia announced that they had
commenced military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen. Countries like UAE, Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, among other countries, were part of this coalition. This
group carried out multiple airstrikes, shelling and ground attacks throughout the
country against the Houthis, leading to countless deaths among both Houthis and
civilians. In October, 2016, Saudi-led coalition warplanes launched an attack on a
crowded funeral procession, killing at least a 100 people and injuring more than 500. These numbers include children as well. According to the Joint Incidents
Assessment Team’s findings, this attack was based on faulty information, which
claimed that this was a gathering of Houthi leaders. The Saudi-led coalition has been
responsible for innumerable civilian casualties, loss of property, natural resources and
devastation throughout the country.

In 2017, a ballistic missile was launched towards Riyadh. Consequently, the Saudi-led
coalition tightened the blockade around Yemen, claiming that this was an effort to cut
off arms supply from Iran to the Houthis. Food prices rose a result of this blockade, pushing more people into a state of poverty and food insecurity. In the same year, the
alliance between Saleh, the former president of Yemen, and the Houthis collapsed and
in the ensuing battle to take control of the capital ended with former President Saleh’s
death.

The war was in a stalemate at this point, with people having no idea when or how it
would end. To break this deadlock, the Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive
against the port city of Hudaydah in 2018. This city is strategically important as it is
situated along the Red Sea and is the fourth-largest city in Yemen. It was captured by
Houthi forces during the uprising. The UN warned that destroying this port could
cause massive famine throughout Yemen, since it was a lifeline for almost two-thirds
of the population. However, this battle became another stalemate after six months of
combat. The parties involved met and negotiated a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange
at Stockholm, Sweden. As a result hundreds of prisoners have been released, although
the forces have not been completely redeployed from Hudaydah. This has given rise
to some concerns that the truce might fall through.

In September, 2019, there was an aerial strike against Abqaiq and Khurais, which are
oil fields in Saudi Arabia. This led to a disruption in almost half the Saudi oil
production, and around 5 percent of the world’s oil production. Even though the
Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, the US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran. Speaking of western powers like USA, they have been receiving a lot of flak for being
involved in arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which has been indirectly contributing to
the turmoil in Yemen. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS took advantage of the
mayhem happening all over the country to seize territory and conduct lethal attacks of
their own.

The human cost of this brutal conflict
When the war first began, Saudi Arabia claimed that it would not last more than a few
weeks, but it has been continuing for the past five years, with no end in sight. The
human cost of this long drawn-out conflict has been too high. The war has cost
thousands of lives, and even led to a major cholera outbreak with about 2.2 million
suspected cases. Almost 20 million Yemeni citizens do not have access to adequate
health-care and 18 million have no access to proper sanitation and drinking water. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, almost 2 million children
suffer from acute malnutrition. Yemen has 3500 medical facilities, but only half are at
full-functioning capacity now.

Human rights violations have been rampant all over the country throughout this war, with all parties being involved in some kind of aggression against civilians. Amnesty
International has claimed that there have been fighting in residential areas, leading to
collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties. Armed forces have also been
using unguided rockets and anti-personnel mines. These attacks violate international
law, according to Amnesty International. Yemeni and Saudi Arabian civilians have
been indiscriminately fired upon by soldiers. In March 2017, Houthi forces fired a
rocket at a mosque, killing around 22 pro-government protesters. The United Nations
World Food Programme (UNWFP) released a statement accusing the Houthis of
illegally stopping and seizing food rations and selling them on the open market, often
to those who are not entitled to receiving these aid packages.

Non-state actors have been involved in acts of aggression too. Militant groups like the
Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been carrying out devastating attacks against civilian
and government targets. The Islamic State has been responsible for a bombing two
mosques in Sana’a in 2015, killing around 140 people. They have also carried out car
bombings, suicide bombings at government facilities, and executions of Yemeni Shia
citizens.

The al-Qaeda terrorist group has been taking advantage of the turmoil to capture cities
from groups loyal to the government and establishing bases and boot camps in these
areas. They are suspected of using the situation to gain more recruits.

With the coronavirus pandemic now in full swing all over the world, there have been
warnings from the UN that the death toll could reach staggering heights, exceeding
the casualty numbers due to the war, disease and famine of the last five years. To sum
up, this is the worst humanitarian crisis ever to happen in the history of Yemen.

Is this the new cold war?

Areas of Control and Conflict in Yemen. Source: Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, May 2020 The Houthi Movement was a Shia majority movement who stood against the disenfranchisement of the Shia minority in Yemen. When they captured the government and started expanding their area of control, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and other primarily Sunni countries got alarmed and started a war against them. Iran, a Shia majority country, has been suspected of providing weapons and logistical support to the Houthis. Groups like the Islamic State are followers of radical Sunni ideology, and have been responsible for attacks in Yemen as well. Saudi Arabia has a history of collaborating with and funding non-state terrorist actors. Saudi Arabia enjoys American support, while Iran enjoys Chinese and Russian support. This region has become a playground for proxy groups funded by the nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. These nations, along with non-state militant actors have been exploiting religious and sectarian sentiments in this region for years now. This so-called Middle Eastern cold war is being on fought on geopolitical, economic and sectarian fronts, for establishing dominance over this strategically important area. The involvement of countries like USA and Russia have drawn parallels to the Cold War of the twentieth century – the nuclear arms race between western countries like USA and UK, and the eastern bloc dominated by the USSR. To proclaim the Yemeni Civil War as a cold war of the twenty-first century would probably not be a far-fetched notion. It has all the hallmarks of being a cold war – fought between two powerful nations indirectly, i.e. proxy wars and funding non-state actors, division of a region into two blocs, i.e. the Shia-dominated countries and the Sunni-dominated countries, puppet governments (Saudi Arabia is essentially in control of the Yemeni President Hadi, and subsequently the elected government of Yemen), non-stop espionage and crushing national revolutions.

What does this war mean for the rest of the world?

Trise in insurgent activities in this region as a result of the civil war has become a cause of concern for western powers. There are fears that these insurgent groups will launch deadly attacks against western countries, with Yemen as their base. Yemen is a region of strategic importance to a number of Arab countries, due to its proximity to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Much of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Gulf of Aden. This conflict is a part of the regional struggle between the Shia-ruled Iran and the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. These are two key players in the Middle East and what happens here could very well shape the future of the entire region. History has shown us time and time again that when two powerful nations with differing ideologies, religious or otherwise, engage in war, the rest of the world does not stand idly by. Nations choose sides based on political agenda, regional and demographic influences as well as national faiths and sentiments. Millions of people die. Those of us who forget history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of past generations. When people forget about the horrors of war, the suffering inflicted and the countless lives lost, they tend to become more vocal about conflict, unaware of the disastrous consequences this may have. The Middle East is the primary supply of conventional fuel to a large number of countries. Wars have been fought over the rich oil reserves in this region and wars are being fought for the same reason right now. If the conflict in Yemen does not reach a peaceful conclusion and countries outside of the Middle East start getting involved more directly, then the war will escalate. Petroleum refineries and reserves will be attacked, leading to fuel shortage. This in turn will raise prices, skew currency exchange rates and negatively affect the global economy. Unless the civil war is resolved through peaceful negotiations, the rest of the world will feel the consequences. There will be more violence and we will not be able to stop it, and we will suffer for it.