North Africa, West Asia

Yemen: the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the war torn country

The 5th anniversary of the war in Yemen is a time for stock taking about the changes in the past year and prospects for the one to come.

Helen Lackner
26 March 2020
health worker checks the temperature of a man before he enters a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, March 24, 2020
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Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ PA Images. All rights reserved

As Yemenis mark the passing of five full years since the Saudi-led coalition started its offensive, they reflect on the changes which have taken place in their country during this time. Anniversaries can be happy or sad occasions, this one features unreservedly on the despair scale! When the war started, most Yemenis expected a flare up of a few weeks followed by an agreement as had been the case in previous conflicts in the past decades: few expected that 5 years later, they would be facing a war without apparent end or solution and that they would have been subjected to 20 624 airstrikes during that time, killing 18 400 civilians, according to the conservative estimates of the Yemen Data Project.

As discussed in our recent series of articles on Yemen’s hopes and expectations, 2019 witnessed lack of progress with the two major agreements, Stockholm and Riyadh. The first sponsored by the UN and primarily focused on putting an end to the coalition offensive on Hodeida port, and the second an intra-coalition attempt to solve the crisis between exiled President Hadi’s internationally recognised government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) a separatist movement supported by the UAE. Both are today, at best, on the brink of collapse. Another feature of the year was the continued worsening of the humanitarian situation and persistent barbarity of decision-makers did not make a single compromise which might have eased living and dying conditions for the population at large throughout the country.

So on this anniversary, the only element of the Stockholm Agreement which had achieved any progress during 2019, the cease fire in Hodeida, is seriously threatened by renewed fighting in many parts of the governorate including the ‘joint’ checkpoints set up by the UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement [UNMHA], leading most recently to the withdrawal of the representatives of the internationally recognised government. Other elements of the Stockholm deal have remained a dead letter. An agreement reached in mid-February this year for the release of 1500 prisoners has, predictably, failed to materialise in the past month, yet again dashing the hopes of thousands of prisoners and their families. So events in the past two months may well mark the end of the road for Stockholm.

As for the Riyadh Agreement, it never seemed likely to achieve much without active Emirati support for its official Saudi coalition ‘ally’ something which has not, to date, been noticeable on the ground, where the balance of military forces in Aden city and its immediate surroundings favours the STC’s forces including its ‘security belts.’ This is important because of the symbolic importance of Aden as the country’s ‘temporary’ capital. After the official withdrawal of the Emiratis from Aden last autumn, Saudi military and civilian staff are the only representatives of the coalition in the city.

Saudi inability to enforce implementation of the agreement has become increasingly evident through a series of skirmishes, while the STC has successfully prevented the redeployment of government forces in and around Aden. Government aligned forces are far stronger elsewhere in the country, including the southern governorates of Shabwa and Hadramaut and most of Abyan.

In January, the Huthis started major offensives most prominently in the north of the country where fronts had been static for years. They made significant progress north and east of Sana’a, taking control of all of al Jawf governorate along the border with Saudi Arabia by early March. They now threaten Mareb, the one northern area where a semblance of government control still prevails, and which has, in recent years, been promoted as a haven of peace.

There is thus a definite change at the military level from a year ago, with the Huthis stronger and the government weaker

Fighting is ongoing on other fronts including Hodeida, Dhala’ and al Baidha. Clearly the disarray of government forces resulting from the conflict with the STC in the south has contributed to Huthi progress and successes. There is thus a definite change at the military level from a year ago, with the Huthis stronger and the government weaker. Assertions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are withholding military hardware from government aligned forces, if true, would help explain the current change in the balance of forces.

The economic war has also continued throughout the year making life far more difficult for the population throughout the country. During the year, economic conflict has focused on the new banknotes issued by the Central Bank in Aden which answers to the Hadi government. The Huthis have banned the use of these notes in the areas under their control, leading to a 10% differential in the exchange rate for the US dollar: in February this year, due to the shortage of cash in the Huthi controlled areas, there, one US dollar provides YR 597 and YR 660 elsewhere.

Huthi attempts to introduce an e-currency are gradually being imposed on the population thanks to the lack of cash in a country where cash is the primary form of payment. Attempts by the UN in May last year to get the two rival Central Banks to work out a modus vivendi failed, leaving this issue to fester and worsen since then. Here again, no immediate prospect of improvement on this fifth anniversary.

Remittances from Yemenis abroad remain an essential survival strategy for millions. As the majority of senders work in Saudi Arabia, their remittances were already seriously reduced by the Saudi-isation policies in 2019. The closure of borders and other side effects of the COVID 19 pandemic will further reduce remittances this year from Saudi Arabia and beyond, as relatives out of Yemen earn less due to the world economic collapse and therefore can send home much reduced assistance. This means that thousands of families in Yemen will find their incomes significantly reduced, at a time when the cost of the basic food basket is increasing, reaching close of YR 38 000 in January this year. In addition, prices of basic medicines and other necessities are rising dramatically with this additional medical crisis.

The closure of borders and other side effects of the COVID 19 pandemic will further reduce remittances this year

Since the war started, humanitarian aid has been a major contributor to the Yemeni economy, so the decision of the UN to reduce its appeal by 25% to USD 3.2 billion this year will further worsen both people’s suffering and the country’s economy. Although much humanitarian funding is spent outside the country, on staffing, purchases, logistics etc. a total of USD 9 billion were disbursed for Yemen in 2018 and 2019. In addition to helping millions in desperate need, these funds have made a significant contribution to the coffers of the groups controlling different parts of the country even if only half of this amount reached the country.

During the past year it was revealed that senior Huthi officials and organisations affiliated to the Huthi movement were benefiting directly, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, from funds and goods coming through the humanitarian assistance programme. Moreover, unsurprisingly, cases of corruption also emerged within the vast humanitarian sector network, but also concerned some UN organisations themselves. This situation has resulted in a fundamental questioning of the humanitarian effort among funders in particular, with threats by some countries, led by the US to cut funding completely.

Cases of corruption emerged within the vast humanitarian sector network, also concerned some UN organisations themselves

These issues prevented the UN from producing its annual detailed Humanitarian Response Plan for 2020, and of organising the regular Geneva pledging conference in February. Instead, a meeting was held in Brussels on 13 February for UN institutions and major INGOs to coordinate their policies and procedures to avoid being divided by Huthi tactics in negotiations. This was followed by the announcement of a pledging conference to be held in Riyadh, hardly a neutral venue, on 2 April, which is unlikely to take place with the current world-wide lockdown.

Although UN agencies continue to repeat that 24 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, no details have been provided on the future allocation of whatever funds are pledged and received, creating further uncertainty and concern for millions. Nor has there been any explanation for the reduction in the size of the appeal, particularly given that those targeted for assistance last year were far fewer than those assessed to be needing support.

To cap it all, the COVID 19 pandemic is arriving as the latest and newest threat to life and survival of Yemenis. As has been the case for so many other issues, different factions are manipulating this crisis to worsen the situation including spreading disinformation: the Huthis and the Iranians are accusing the US of responsibility for the crisis, while others accuse them, often justifiably, of using the crisis to further their control over the population.

The COVID 19 pandemic is arriving as the latest and newest threat to life and survival of Yemenis

Huthi restrictions on movements from the areas of the country they do not control has led them to set up so-called quarantine areas which are anything but protective of the population: they are unhealthy, insanitary and will spread this and any other disease existing among the people held there. In the context of the cholera epidemic which affected almost one million people last year, such sites can only present additional danger to the health of the population. In their ongoing struggle for control over humanitarian assistance, the Huthis have accused the UN of lack of assistance in the face of this medical emergency.

Meanwhile, the COVID 19 threat is also used in the struggle between the STC and the internationally recognised government in Aden. There, this week, STC aligned individuals are holding essential COVID 19 related equipment sent by the WHO in the port to prevent government medical staff from accessing it, another example of malevolence.

A final blow on the very anniversary of the first airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen, torrential rains have caused death and destruction in the governorates of Aden, Hadramaut and Mareb, while rains elsewhere are positively replenishing water tables. Has nature joined in to mark five years of internationalised war? Prospects for peace, reduced violence, or simply improved living conditions for the population look grim.

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