Globe: The War in Yemen


In the lamentable modern history of the Arab world, Yemen might prove to be the most woeful case. Years of infighting, turmoil and failed infrastructure have led to Yemen to being amongst the most poverty-stricken states in the Arab world. In 2014, the poverty-stricken nation was once again plunged into a brutal civil war – a war that for the most part the world has ignored.

Through the fighting, blockades and disease outbreaks, Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The actual death toll from the conflict is unknown, but statistics from 2016 suggest that more than 10,000 have died in the conflict. Though many have died in the massacres and indiscriminate bombings, most have perished from the blockade-induced cholera outbreak that stands as the worst in Yemen’s modern history.

Like much of the turmoil in the Arab world – specifically the civil war in Syria – the Yemeni civil war was a result of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Protests and calls for reform echoed throughout the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria to Yemen. Through the Arab Spring, Tunisia found a path toward democracy, Egypt experienced a coup and Syria and Yemen found themselves in civil wars. The war in Yemen is being fought between two factions: the Houthis – a Shia rebel group, and a Saudi-led coalition in support of the old Yemeni government.

Yemen has been a nation in turmoil for decades. Once an otherwise prosperous part of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was first plunged into chaos in 1962 when army officers sized power in the northern region of Yemen – an action that sparked the first civil war. In 1967, British troops pulled out of South Yemen (which the British inherited after defeating the Ottomans in the First World War) creating two separate Yemens – a North and a South. North Yemen would be ruled by a more religious government and South Yemen would be controlled by a Marxist government loyal to the Soviet Union.

In 1990, Yemen is united under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Four years later, secessionists from the South clash with Northern forces in what would be Yemen’s second civil war. Ten years later – after years of corruption and feelings of marginalization – a new faction, the Houthis, a sect comprised of Shia Muslims (which account for around 40 percent of Yemen’s population), began fighting Saleh’s government in 2004. Sporadic fighting occurred for six years until the Arab Spring of 2011. In 2014, the sporadic fighting erupted into an outright war.

The Houthis quickly captured the Yemeni capital Sana’a and the Saleh regime fled into neighboring Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, however, quickly demonstrated that they were not prepared to govern their newly won territory.

As this was happening, the Saudi’s were observing with apprehension. The Houthis were a known ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch rival. Lessons form Israel’s experience with Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, provoked Saudi Arabia to form a coalition to rollback the Houthis. Israel had to endure years of missile attacks from Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia did not want the same coming from their border. In 2015, after assembling a coalition that consists of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, the Saudi-led coalition launched a campaign against the Houthis.

The war in Yemen must be framed within the context of the larger geostrategic battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Though American analysts found that Iran does not have direct command over Houthi forces, it is well known that Iran is an enthusiastic arms supplier of the Houthis. The weapons supplied by Iran have been utilized to attack Saudi-allied ships off the Yemeni coast, and recently, Houthis launched in Iranian missile into Saudi territory – an action Saudi Arabia has stated to equivocate to an “act of war” by Iran.

The Saudi war effort has proven to be a disaster for Yemen. Though the Saudi government has claimed that the air campaign effectively ended within a month of it beginning, the bombing has only escalated; with the result being a stalemate. The Houthis were effectively defeated in the southern part of the country, but still hold territory in the northern half. In order to root out Houthi resistance, Saudi Arabia has instituted a blockade on northern Yemen that has suffocated the people from food and medical attention. That combined with the bombing of hospitals and the Houthis looting the treasury has destroyed the civil service and medical apparatus of Yemen, and has resulted in one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern history.

The international community, particularly the West, has had lukewarm responses to the war in Yemen. There are a multitude of speculations as to why that is; the Yemeni war is occurring concurrently with the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has killed 40 times more people than the Yemeni war. And unlike the Yemeni civil war, the Syrian civil war has also sparked a refugee crisis that has spilled into Europe. It would almost seem that geography is the deciding role. But there are other factors; the US and Britain have been willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi-induced disasters.

This is likely because Saudi Arabia is an ally against Iran and can be used as a tool against Iranian influence. Others have speculated more economic ties, such as the arms trade between the US, UK, France and Saudi Arabia. With little international pressure on Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi reluctance to accept a peace deal, the war is expected to continue without an end in sight.