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In Yemen, the war goes on and on and on...

As people in Europe get ready for their end of year celebrations, more than 20 million Yemenis are getting ready to face the next disaster coming their way: mass starvation.

Hani Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. A Yemeni girl who suffers from chronic malnutrition, is fed by her mother at a hospital in Saada province, northwest of Sanaa, Yemen. October 2016. Hani Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

As people in Europe get ready for their end of year celebrations, including much over-eating and partying, more than 20 million Yemenis are getting ready to face the next disaster coming their way: mass starvation. 

The acute shortage of basic staples, wheat and rice, as well as other basics of Yemeni diet, such as cooking oil, tea and sugar is about to get much worse. Other than some locally produced wheat (less than 10 percent of actual consumption) and other staples like sorghum and maize, the population, rural and urban alike, depends on imports for their very survival.

It has been demonstrated internationally that most famines are not due to actual shortage of food but to poverty, otherwise known as lack of cash, to purchase it. However, in this case, absolute shortage is the prospect.

Why is an absolute food shortage on its way?

To answer this question, we need to examine a decision taken by the internationally recognised regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Until earlier this year, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) was the one institution that functioned with the tacit approval of both sides of the conflict. Given the almost total lack of income from the usual main sources (oil exports and foreign assistance), its reserves shrunk to less than one billion USD by the summer, as it continued to pay the basic salaries of civil servants and military/security staff on both sides in the current war. 

Against the advice of most of his international supporters (IMF and World Bank in particular), on September 19, Hadi announced the transfer of CBY headquarters from Sana’a to his regime’s ‘temporary capital’, Aden. The CBY has no funds, its Aden office lacks competent trained staff (who are still in Sana’a or have been dismissed), and prospects of filling its coffers are seriously in doubt given that the move was not approved by funders. 

For the people, this has two implications: first the main source of income for over a third of the population has dried up as state salaries have not been paid, despite frequent assertions that distribution of cash will start within days. Staff demonstrate everywhere on a daily basis to demand payment as they simply no longer have money to buy food. 

the coalition is ensuring profits for the smugglers at the expense of legitimate commercial companies.

The second and most frightening aspect is that the CBY is now unable to provide the letters of credit or guarantees commercial importers need to purchase food on the international market. Hence, the two to three months food purchase cycle is currently interrupted. 

By end January 2017 the food crisis will worsen dramatically. It is likely that, by that time, only food smuggled in from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will reach the areas under the control of the Saleh/Huthi faction. 

The irony of this should not be lost: on the one hand, the Saudi-led coalition is bombing the country AND keeping a tight control (some call it a siege or a blockade) over ships bringing in essential supplies, after having disabled cranes and destroyed other essential communication infrastructure, including bridges and roads.

On the other hand, at the moment, much (and soon most) of the food and fuel supplies arriving in the Huthi/Saleh controlled areas are smuggled mainly from Saudi Arabia and other states involved in the coalition. Some might say that the coalition is ensuring profits for the smugglers at the expense of legitimate commercial companies. 

Military progress?

Assuming that not all smugglers are Hadi’s friends and officials, why then did he decide to move the CBY? Hadi can’t possibly have been unaware of the impact this would have on the Yemeni people for whose welfare and safety he claims to be fighting. 

Like all Yemeni leaders before him, he talks about ‘the great Yemeni people’ while his actions clearly contradict the respect implied by this assertion. The military stalemate may explain his actions: in the 21 months since the war became internationalised, the Saudi-led coalition supporting his regime made significant progress in the first six months, basically regaining control of Aden, most of the southern governorates (formerly the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) as well as the central northern area around Mareb. 

However, since around September 2015, they have made no further progress. There are a number of static fronts, where movement is reminiscent of the trench warfare during the first world war, although, thankfully with a far lesser death toll. These include the border area on the Red Sea coast (Midi, Haradh), most of the Taiz governorate and particularly the city of Taiz itself, al Baidha governorate, and Nehm, about 50 km east of Sana’a. 

Even in the Mareb governorate, the only part of the former Yemen Arab Republic under its control, there are districts still controlled by the Saleh/Houthi faction. In plain English, there is a military stalemate.

Diplomatic efforts

Efforts to solve the crisis and end the war have systematically failed. The Kuwait negotiations mediated by the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould al Sheikh Ahmed lasted from 21 April to 6 August 2016, achieving nothing.

On 25 August, the US took a leading role with a meeting in Riyadh where US Secretary of State Kerry met with senior officials from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK, thus indicating clearly who the main players are: no Yemenis were involved.

This group now officially known as the quartet, or gang of four, has led attempts at negotiations and is managed in the field by the unfortunate Ismail. Success has been equally elusive, despite serious efforts by Kerry in coordination with Oman, the only GCC state out of the coalition, and seen by most as a welcome neutral force.

Kerry announced a ceasefire to start on 17 November. But this simply failed to materialise. The next one, declared unilaterally by the coalition forces, to last 48 hours starting on 19 November remained completely unnoticeable on the ground, where air strikes continued as before, during and after this non-event. If any negotiations are currently taking place, it is certainly a well-kept secret. 

There is no doubt that Ismail is trying to do something, but the extent of his influence is demonstrated by the simple fact that after the end of the Kuwait talks, the Saleh/Huthi delegation remained stuck in Oman for two months. 

The UN was unable to fulfil its elementary responsibility of returning the delegation home, as it could not get clearance for a plane to fly to Sana’a, whose airspace is under the control of the Saudi Arabian regime. The Saudis are still keeping Sana’a airport closed.

The likelihood of a solution in the final days of the Obama administration is minimal, regardless of Kerry’s concerns. As for prospects of US policies and involvement under Trump, readers are advised to read "Trump and the Yemen war" by Adam Baron and Peter Salisbury.

Demands of the Yemeni warring parties

On the internationally recognised side, other than the move of the CBY discussed above, the main recent development has been the extraordinary ‘official visit’ of President Hadi to his temporary capital in Aden. This must be a first in history: a president making an official visit to his own capital. 

He arrived on 26 November and, to widespread surprise, is still there on 12 December, having been on a three-day trip to the UAE in between. He had been out of Yemen for well over a year, living in luxury in a Riyadh palace.

His reluctance to engage seriously in any negotiations is partly due to the fact that all proposed solutions include his handing over power to a vice president agreed to by both sides, and himself remaining a mere figure head, i.e. the same formula which was used to oust Saleh through the GCC sponsored 2011 agreement. 

However, he could take heart by simply noting that Saleh is not only still alive and well, but also now one of the most important political players in the country’s struggle. Hadi’s determination to stay president is in clear contradiction with his statement when he was elected in 2012 that he would not stay president one single day beyond the two-year term for which he was elected. 

So what happened? Has he followed the example of so many other and became addicted to power and the rewards of corruption? Has he forgotten everything he said about bringing a democratic regime?

On the other side, shortly before the collapse of the Kuwait talks, the Saleh/Huthi alliance announced the formation of a Supreme Political Council (SPC) to replace the Revolutionary Committee set up by the Huthis on 6 February 2015 when they suspended the constitution. Although Saleh supporters formed half the negotiation delegations, and indeed the most experienced, in Sana’a all authority previously rested with the Huthis.

The 10-person SPC allocates half the positions to Saleh supporters, thus formally strengthening his position vis à vis the Huthis in the difficult alliance between the two groups. Given that the SPC has been unable to evict the members of Huthi Revolutionary Committees[1] from state institutions, the balance of power between the two groups remains unclear.

When it was formed, the SPC stated that it would shortly form a government of national salvation. This was delayed again and again and was finally announced on 28 November. The delay was attributed to differences between the two factions on the distribution of portfolios, and/or reluctance to make a move which would further alienate the international community and complicate peace negotiations.

This gives most important ministries to Saleh allies (PM, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Planning, Finance), while the Ministry of Defence has been given to a leading member of the Republican Guards who is formally a Huthi, but the Republican Guards are known to be aligned to Saleh. 

Given their ideological objectives, the Huthis insisted on controlling the education ministries, something really important to transmit their ideology in the long-term, but pretty irrelevant in the short-term. This indicates that they believe they will be around for a while and are not about to be defeated.

Future prospects

With military and political stalemates, Yemen’s internal situation is paralysed. Can the international forces involved make a positive difference? The EU is actively involved in political discussions and also in development and humanitarian work. The UN has demonstrated its weakness. The end of the US administration term is unlikely to achieve much. 

The UK is the ‘pen holder’ at the UN Security Council; it has recently systematically failed to submit a new resolution though drafts have circulated. A helpful move would be a resolution able to break the deadlock created by UNSC 2016. This explicitly calls for the restoration of Hadi to power, thus ignoring the reality of a divided country, the real balance of power or, indeed, his discredit.

Britain appears to be more focused on pandering to the GCC states to ensure their continuing contribution to the British economy and finances post-Brexit.

It should be replaced by a more even-handed resolution, making realistic demands: the exclusion of the major players on both sides from Yemeni politics, including mechanisms for the restoration of peace, and the establishment of a regime that gives a role to all Yemenis. 

Instead of concentrating work on its possibly positive role at the UNSC, Britain appears to be more focused on pandering to the GCC states to ensure their continuing contribution to the British economy and finances post-Brexit. This strategy means that exporting arms to the GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia takes priority over helping to bring peace and a viable state for millions of poor Yemenis.

The judicial review of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, due in January, may help increase popular awareness. It is unlikely to prevent further arms deals, worth BPD 3.3 billion, officially ‘compensated’ in the government’s view by the increase of humanitarian aid to BPD 100 million, an impressive one percent of the value of the arms sales!

Meanwhile the people continue to be killed and maimed by the bombs. More than 10 000 have been killed this way.  In addition, people are dying from starvation: more than seven million are severely undernourished, i.e. starving, while another seven million or more are just undernourished, i.e. hungry. 

Food will stop arriving in the country within weeks. So readers are welcome to support the current appeal of Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), finance MSF which is doing an excellent job providing medical care, or help in other ways they can, or at the very least informing others of the situation. 

Keep Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and others in your thoughts at least while you are celebrating!


[1]  Local revolutionary committees are composed largely of uninformed and uninterested youth who ‘supervise’ the work of civil servants and other officials in all state institutions in Sana’a, under the guise of controlling corruption and upholding the revolution. In practice they merely impede work and can bring to a standstill the already limited functionality of administrations.

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state will be published by Saqi books in October. Meanwhile you can still read Why Yemen Matters, Saqi books 2014


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