North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

After six years of war, what is happening in Yemen?

More than 80% of Yemenis live in poverty, yet international donors such as the UK are withdrawing aid

Helen Lackner
7 May 2021, 12.00am
A Yemeni government fighter fires at Houthi fighters in Marib, 28 March 2021
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REUTERS/Ali Owidha

Two months ago, with the war in Yemen entering its seventh year, the UN secretary general, in his appeal to funders at the annual pledging conference, reminded everyone that “More than 16 million people [in the country] are expected to go hungry this year. Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions. The worst hunger is in areas affected by the conflict.”

Yemen today has a population of 30 million people, with three million currently displaced. They are either hosted by relatives or in camps and informal settlements where they are dependent on humanitarian supplies since there is no employment and they are far from their lands. Another million have returned home after various periods of displacement.

More than 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas, and half of them depend heavily on agriculturally related activities. But the war has also encouraged many urban people to return to their villages.

So, why are people dying of hunger?

Yemen’s agriculture has for decades been unable to feed its population, which explains why Yemenis migrated to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – and earlier to the UK, US, South-East Asia and East Africa.

The situation in Yemen worsened significantly in the past three decades due to the water crisis, as well as other aspects of global warming, neo-liberal development policies and rapid population growth. In 1990, when the Republic of Yemen was established, it had 11 million people.

These factors have reduced the country’s self-sufficiency in grains (sorghum, maize, millet and wheat) to, at best 30%, with full self-sufficiency only for poultry, fruit and vegetables. Thus, the country depends on imports for 90% of its food, including staples such as wheat, rice, sugar, or tea.

Prior to the war, almost half of Yemenis were living in poverty, a figure which has now risen to more than 80% as a result of the collapse of the economy since the full-scale war started in 2015.

In 2014, the World Food Programme assessed that more than 40% of the population was food insecure, an 'UN-speak' euphemism for hunger. So given this situation and six years of war, it is little surprise that in 2021, the number rose to 54%.

Shrinking aid

A few hours after his appeal to funders, António Guterres, the UN secretary general, expressed ‘disappointment’ at the low level of pledges, a mere $1.7bn, less than half the $3.8bn called for.

In March 2021, it was announced that the UK had reduced its contribution to Yemen by 60%, leading to widespread outrage at home given the expected impact of the cuts in worsening Yemenis’ living conditions.

In 2020, the UN appeal achieved less than 50% of the amount requested, by comparison with 87% of the far higher amount sought in 2019. The significantly reduced contributions of Saudi Arabia and the complete absence of any from the UAE in 2020 explain this: the two nations had financed more than half the amount received in 2019.

While there are political reasons for Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s reductions, the amounts they have contributed in the past are mere fractions of the sums they spend on advanced weaponry used in Yemen, causing widespread death and destruction.

In March 2021, it was announced that the UK had reduced its contribution to Yemen by 60%

The drop in humanitarian assistance has intensified the suffering of the Yemeni population. The amount of food and cash received has fallen, in many cases by half, and the number of beneficiaries has dropped from 14 million in 2019 to nine million in 2020.

These factors weaken people’s resilience and resistance to disease, as well as increasing the rates of malnutrition. In turn, this leads to added demands on medical services, which are the second most severely affected sector by the reduced funding.

Medical staff, who have only very occasionally received their state salaries (which are insufficient for a reasonable living standard at the best of times) for more than five years, had relied on the complementary payments from the humanitarian organisations. Due to lack of funding, these have been mostly stopped, meaning staff are now deserting the 50% of still-functioning medical facilities. These facilities are also running out of supplies, in addition to being under frequent military attacks from the various fighting groups.

Most food and medical supplies arrive through the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, which has been under effective blockade for years. Fuel ships are also systematically held up by the Saudi-led coalition in agreement with the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG), ensuring a constant fuel crisis in the Huthi-controlled areas. This fuel is needed both to transport goods and to operate water-pumping stations and the multiplicity of private electricity generators that have replaced the state structures destroyed in the course of the war.

The humanitarian situation continues to be described as “the world’s worst” by the UN. One indicator that this is correct is the new trend of Yemenis leaving to seek refuge across the Red Sea.

After an initial exodus of refugees in 2015-6, most Yemenis chose to stay at home, while Ethiopians and Somalis continued to migrate into Yemen in hope of reaching the GCC. This has recently changed, with a major drop in arrivals, but also with a new flux of Yemenis leaving. March saw the third boat of Yemeni families this year arrive in Somalia’s Puntland.

Fighting escalates

Since early February, military action has focused on the renewed Huthi offensive threatening the city of Marib, about 170km east of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. This offensive, which began in early 2020, has recently reignited in intensity, with significant numbers of Saudi airstrikes preventing the Huthis from covering the remaining short distance of open ground that separates them from the city, though they have already occupied some of the more than 130 settlements of displaced Yemenis.

The importance of Marib is clear from the violence of the fighting. Anti-Huthi forces have depleted other fronts to strengthen the resistance in Marib, including contributions by groups whose relationship with the IRG is difficult, sometimes involving open hostility.

The Huthis persist despite very heavy losses on terrain unfavourable to their forces and equipment. But why is Marib so important and how come the Huthis are in a position to threaten it?

Marib is the only major city under the full control of the IRG. The Huthis may opt to bypass the city to reach the oil production facilities and take control of the road linking Saudi Arabia with the nearby governorates of Shabwa and Hadhramaut, which would then be within their reach. But taking Marib would increase their strength in any possible future negotiations.

Who are the Huthis?

The battle for Marib also raises the question of the rise of the Huthi movement: starting as a small dissident group in the far north of Yemen at the end of last century, Ansar Allah as the movement calls itself, now controls more than two-thirds of the country’s population living on about one-third of its territory. And militarily, it is on the offensive on different fronts.

The Huthis are Zaydis, a Shi’a faction whose theological differences are minimal with the country’s majority Sunni Shafi’i population, and the two groups lived in reasonable harmony for centuries.

The movement is fundamentalist and rose in opposition to the autocratic regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen from 1978 until he was ousted in 2011. Saleh’s regime encouraged the emergence of Salafi, ie Sunni, fundamentalism in the Huthi region, while neglecting its need for development investments.

Most food and medical supplies arrive through the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, which has been under effective blockade for years

Following six wars between the Huthis and the Saleh regime between 2004 and 2010, the popular uprisings and revolutions of 2011 prevented the re-emergence of a seventh.

The Huthis participated actively in the uprisings, and remained in encampments in Sana’a well into 2013. While the transitional regime established by the GCC Agreement of November 2011 faltered and failed to address the problems of Yemenis at large, Ansar Allah gradually expanded its control beyond its governorate of origin.

By 2014, the Huthis had allied with their enemy, former President Saleh, who had retained his position as head of his powerful political organisation. Between them, they were able to bloodlessly take over the capital in September 2014, and eventually oust the transitional regime, establishing a ‘rebel’ government in February 2015.

This alliance was one of convenience and certainly not of shared worldviews. By the time the Huthis killed Saleh in December 2017, he had lost hold of the military security apparatus. Since then, the Huthis have been in full and exclusive control of most of the Yemeni population, upon whom they have imposed their authoritarian rule and retrograde social practices.

Ansar Allah’s success is based on a combination of factors. First and foremost, its declared mission of opposing the ‘forces of aggression’ rings true among Yemenis whose attitude to Saudi Arabia is, at best, ambiguous; Yemenis believe in their country’s right to independence and object to Saudi arrogance, something thousands of them have suffered as migrant workers in the Kingdom.

Second is the efficiency of Huthi repression, as they do not hesitate to imprison, torture and impose heavy prison sentences on dissidents or, indeed, anyone who might have assets that they covet. A recent fire in Sana’a’s Immigration detention centre, started by guards firing tear gas canisters at protesters, which killed at least 45 Ethiopians and wounded close to 200, is an example of Huthis disregard for basic human rights.

Their social conservatism is another element that finds echoes among significant proportions of Yemeni men.

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Furthermore, the group succeeded in manipulating tribal rivalries and thus enlisting tribal leaders while actively indoctrinating youth for decades.

Finally, the Huthis main ideological position, that sada (people claiming descent from the Prophet) have an innate right to rule, gains them support among this social stratum throughout the country and is not universally opposed by supporters of other groups.

Militarily, while the outside world insists on calling the Huthis ‘Iran-backed’, the unfortunate truth is that their successes are due to the military skills and experience they have gained over the past two decades, while most of their weaponry is ‘acquired’ from the anti-Huthi forces.

Iran’s support for the Huthis is real but limited to supplying, and training in, advanced technology for the newly developed drones and modifications to older missiles. Politically, for Iran, supporting the Huthis is a very cheap and easy mechanism to aggravate its main rival in the region, Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to Saudi Arabia’s hopes and intentions for its operation ‘Decisive Storm’, launched on 26 March 2015, Iranian involvement and presence in Yemen have increased in the past six years. Similarly, Saudi leaders’ belief that the war would be won within weeks would seem laughable today, were it not for the six years of suffering and destruction for Yemenis.

Biden-inspired ‘push’ for peace

Yemen re-emerged in Western headlines in the earliest days of Joe Biden’s US presidency: on 4 February, when, in his first foreign policy speech, Biden announced that ending the war in Yemen was a diplomatic priority “to impose a ceasefire…and restore long-dormant peace talks.” The US would “end all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” but would also “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

The implementation of this policy is unclear at a time when the Huthis are lobbing drones and missiles on Saudi Arabia almost daily. Should coalition airstrikes stop in Marib, the IRG would most likely be defeated within weeks. The newly appointed US special envoy is now on his fourth trip to the region and is facing increasing criticism about his approach.

Although fitting into Biden's overall policy of renewing US participation in international organisations, the Biden administration’s decision to operate within the framework imposed by the UN Security Council presents a major hurdle.

The Security Council’s Resolution 2216 of April 2015 effectively demanded the Huthis surrender and withdraw to their pre-2014 positions. Yet since then, they have taken control of millions of people and large areas of the country, thus totally rejecting this demand.

Calls for the replacement of this resolution with a more realistic one recognising the reality on the ground have for years been widespread in civil society and among observers.

The Saudi regime proposed a ceasefire, which is likely to have the same fate as last year’s – namely to have no impact on the ground

However, the ‘pen holder’ on Yemen at the Security Council is the UK, which prioritises good relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the welfare of 30 million Yemenis.

This can be explained by Brexit: the current Boris Johnson government relies on investments from these states to plug the financial and economic abyss expected from the country’s departure from the European Union. Therefore, alienating Gulf leaders at the UN is not considered an option. Here, the incoming US administration should stand up to the UK, as it has considerable influence on both the UK and the UN Security Council.

Following the Biden administration, the Saudi regime proposed its own ceasefire, which is likely to have the same fate as last year’s – namely to have no impact on the ground. As expected, it was immediately rejected by the Huthis.

Reading the ceasefire agreement confirms the Huthi assessment that it offers nothing new as it repeats Resolution 2216 as the basis for negotiations. Furthermore, its proposals for re-opening Sana’a airport and access to Hodeida port are both conditional contrary to Huthi demands for a full end to the blockade.

Yet again, millions of long-suffering Yemenis hope for an end to the fighting but each disappointment worsens despair. Yemeni distrust of their ‘leaders’, whether military or political, national or foreign, has certainly been confirmed by events.

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