Before it became the poorest nation in the Middle East, before the death toll reached 100,000, before 10 million would be at risk for famine, before 20 million experienced food insecurity, Yemen was a nation of beauty and treasures. From birthing the coffee Mocha to establishing the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Yemen’s captivating history has unfortunately been forgotten and substituted with a far bleaker one.
Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, Yemen was already facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Several failed global aid operations over the last few years, and the relentless civil war has made the present desolate for Yemen. Despite Yemen reaching the attention of today’s global audiences, online petitions won’t save a country already on the brink of extinction. Much of the public is aware of the dreadful situation in Yemen, photos of starving, malnourished children have surfaced on everyone’s social media feed, yet many are uninformed on the events that led Yemen to be the country it is today.
“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost” (Charlie Chaplin).
Sectarianism may be the one reason why Yemen has continued to be entangled in an unforgiving war. For decades, hostility existed between the North and South of Yemen, but today it has spiraled into a proxy war that has been manipulated by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East since the 2011 “Arab Spring.”
The 2011 “Arab Spring” was a wave of anti-government uprisings that erupted in several Arab Muslim countries during the spring of 2011, hence the name. First, in Tunisia, the movements spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, and several other countries. Yemen’s demonstrations called for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for 33 years and was reported to have stolen 32 billion – 60 billion through corruption during his time as president. As Saleh took from his own country, 40% of the population lived on less than $2 a day.
From the beginning of 2011, protests gained momentum throughout the country, the southern city of Tazi became the core of the demonstrations. As the months of demonstrations went on, Saleh’s government begun to respond by attacking protesters and killing them. On March 18th of 2011, an estimated number of 50 protesters were killed by Saleh security forces when they opened fire in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. This prompted many government officials from Saleh’s administration to leave, including Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the army’s 1st Armored Division, who chose to support and protect the protesters. General al-Ahmar’s decision was significant since he was the highest-ranking officer in Yemen and his decision added pressure for Saleh to resign.
Despite the loss of support and intense pressure to step down, Saleh refused to leave since he believed the country was in safer hands with his administration. Without a military supporting the government, new militias began to take over throughout the country. In the North of Yemen, Houthi rebellions gained footholds, and in the Southern region of Abyan, al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces took charge.
The Houthi’s are a group of Shia militants who have for years clashed with Saleh’s government and supported the uprising against his administration. While the AQAP is an Islamist militant group active in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, they are considered the most active branches of al-Qaeda. Both groups would play a significant role in the future of Yemen.
In April of 2011, Saleh agreed to a deal organized by the Gulf countries that would remove him from power and begin the transition to a new government. However, Saleh backed out of the deal last minute, which triggered a series of attacks throughout the country. In June of 2011, Saleh would be seriously injured in a bombing and would travel to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment; he would not return until September of that year. Two months later, Saleh would finally sign a deal in exchange for immunity, and Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi would become Yemen’s new president. Hadi is still Yemen’s current president as of today. It is estimated that security forces and Saleh supporters killed 2000 demonstrators during the 2011 demonstrations.
Collapse of government
Some political analysts would argue that Hadi was the reason for today’s Yemen, suggesting that he was ill-prepared to handle Yemen’s severe troubles. Since taking power, Hadi struggled to solve the early signs of a population facing malnourishment and poverty. The AQAP forces in the south, along with Houthi forces in the north would have Hadi’s government fighting for not only Yemen’s future, but it’s present.
Hadi initially intended to be in power until the 2014 presidential elections as his administration would draft a new constitution hoping to restore peace in Yemen. Yet, the Houthi’s forces in 2014 had other plans for the country as they quickly took over government strongholds in the capital of Yemen.
Before the capture of Sanaa (Yemen’s capital) by Houthi forces, Hadi’s administration would announce the decision to raise fuel prices to avoid an economic collapse. This decision would prompt thousands of Yemenis to align with the Houthi rebels and join them in a fight for a new government. Promises to redirect savings made from subsidy cuts into welfare payments for the poor were delayed by over six months. Thus, thousands, including Sunni Yemeni’s joined forces with Shia Houthi’s, to fight for a mutual goal, a better Yemen.
In late January of 2015, Houthi forces would capture not only government buildings but also the presidential palace. Hadi would resign and be placed on house arrest. The Houthis would dissolve the parliament and announce that a five-member presidential council would form the transitional government. However, Hadi would escape house arrest only a few weeks after being arrested and withdrew his resignation. Afraid for his safety, Hadi pleaded for international military intervention against the Houthi forces. Hadi’s wish would come true but at an unforgivable cost.
A Saudi Arabia- Iran proxy war
At the start of the war, Saudi Arabia’s government claimed that it would only last a few weeks; it has now been five years. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, along with a coalition of Sunni Gulf states, began an air campaign against the Houthi forces. Backed by US intelligence support, the mission was to obliterate Houthi forces from the region since they were believed to be supported by Iran and reinstate Hadi’s government. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t get along. For decades, the two countries have been fighting for regional power. Why may you ask? Religious differences. Sunni and Shia are the two main branches within Islam. The two groups are very similar, fundamentally but differ in a few practices. According to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations, about 85% of roughly 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are Sunni, while 15% are Shia.
The sectarian nature of the Middle East today, as the maps above illustrate, is the playbook for how foreign policy works in the region. Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt support reinstating Hadi’s presidency, while Shia governments like Iran and Iraq support the Houthi Forces.
According to Fatima Alsmadi, an Al Jazeera Studies Centre’s Iran specialist, the war in Yemen is not a sectarian one like the media reports. In fact, it is a war for regional dominance. “Some Saudi media outlets tend to portray the conflict in sectarian terms, i.e., Sunni vs. Shia, in order to gain support from the predominantly Sunni Arab population and to lend legitimacy to its actions. The conflict essentially remains a political one for power and influence in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and its Arab and Western allies)” (Fatima Alsmadi).
The human cost
Iran may be winning the war in Yemen, as Houthi Forces bomb Saudi oil facilities and advance into Saudi-led territory, but the Yemeni people are the ones losing. Over 100,000 were reported to be killed at the end of 2019 by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). More than 85,000 children under the age of 5 have died from starvation since the start of the war in 2015. 80% of the population (24.1 million) need humanitarian assistance and shelter. The largest cholera outbreak in history is currently taking place in Yemen, as 2.2 million cases have been calculated. At one point, it was so deadly that it was “killing one person nearly every hour.” And now there is perhaps no country more susceptible to COVID-19 than Yemen right now. As the United Nations and World Health Organization battle the pandemic globally, support for Yemen is nonexistent. A shortage of testing kits and a collapsed health system has led Yemen with two decisions if help isn’t given, death by war or disease.
- UN World Food Program. Provides food to 12 million, as well as support to malnourished mothers and children. In April, WFP halved its food rations, providing families with food every-other-month rather than monthly, due to low funding. Donate here.
- Médecins Sans Frontieres. Yemen’s healthcare system collapsed years ago. Yemen is one of MSF’s largest in-country programs, with 2,200 staff. It also pays the salaries of 700 Ministry of Health staffers. Yemen is facing a COVID-19 epidemic at a time when half the country’s healthcare facilities are non -operational.
- UNICEF. COVID-19 has significantly hurt vulnerable children by closing the services they depend on. Unicef provides water, nutrition, education and protection to vulnerable children. Donate here.
- Mona. This local group buys food and supplies locally and distributes it to displaced families, which bypasses the blockade surrounding Yemen. It was founded by a Yemeni journalist, along with two Canadian and Danish activists. Donate here.
- Baitulmaal. This smaller organization provides meals, antibiotics, medical test kids, and hygiene kits to people in need. It’s well-rated on Charity Navigator. Donate here.
- Islamic Relief USA. With over 3,000 volunteers and staffers in the country, this group does what needs to be done, including accessing water sources, fixing solar panels, and distributing medical resources to healthcare services. It also helps other organizations deliver their aid, and is well-rated on Charity Navigator. Donate here.
To contact Mohamed Eltayeb, (firstname.lastname@example.org) / (Twitter)
Credit for featured image: The Destruction of Yemen