Crisis in Yemen: Re-examining international involvement

March 8, 2019

At a High-Level UN Pledging Event this past February, donors promised $2.6 billion to support humanitarian efforts in Yemen. Wracked by civil war, famine and disease, the country has been struggling with a humanitarian crisis that the UN has called ‘the worst in the world’. 

The main donors at the event were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but other donating states included the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany, and the United States of America. With eighty per cent of the Yemeni population in need of some form of humanitarian aid, these contributions are desperately needed. Yet the event and its donors – some of whom are direct parties in the conflict – raise questions about national and international involvement in Yemen. 

the country has been struggling with a humanitarian crisis that the UN has called ‘the worst in the world’

The ongoing conflict on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula may be traced back to 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings against unemployment, food insecurity, and corruption forced Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to transfer power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. When the new presidency proved unable to address these problems, Houthis, a primarily Shia Muslim movement that emerged in the 1990s, took advantage of the political situation and began capturing Yemeni territory. By March 2015, the Houthis had seized Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, forcing Hadi to flee abroad. 

Believing the Houthis to be an Iranian-backed movement, Saudi Arabia began leading a coalition of other Arab states in a military campaign to restore the government under Hadi. Since 2015, the coalition (backed by the US, France, and the UK) has regularly employed air strikes, ground troops, and blockades in an effort to destabilize the Houthi movement, but these actions have, in many ways, exacerbated the crisis and its impact on the population of Yemen. Furthermore, jihadist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda have exploited the conflict by taking control over regions in the south of the country. 

‘eighty per cent of the Yemeni population in need of some form of humanitarian aid’

Although the UN has attempted to broker peace between the fighting parties, these attempts have proven unsuccessful thus far – after four years, the war is still ongoing, and the human cost continues to rise. While the number of casualties directly related to the fighting is unclear, estimates lie somewhere between 6,000 and 60,000 people. More than 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes, and about 20 million people have no access to food. This malnourishment has made people, particularly children, more vulnerable to disease, resulting in a mass cholera outbreak. Since April 2017, there have been more than 1.2 million suspected cases and 2,500 related deaths.

In light of these figures, the pressing need for international aid and assistance in Yemen becomes clear. However, the current military and financial efforts by foreign countries raise some red flags. As previously mentioned, the main donors at the pledging event, which include regional and Western states, are also parties in the armed conflict. Thus, the motivations and long-term goals of these states require re-examination.

apart from a few vocal observers, the international community has refrained from intense public scrutiny into the possible violation of humanitarian laws

For one, Yemen borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, both of which are important bodies of water for the international oil trade. Additionally, one could argue that Yemeni soil has become a battleground for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two states with longstanding religious and political tensions. Most pressingly, however, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has received criticism for its air strikes and blockades that have resulted in higher casualties and exacerbated the food crisis – but apart from a vocal observers in the media, the international community has refrained from intense public scrutiny into this possible violation of humanitarian laws. 

Something must be done to address food insecurity, insufficient healthcare, and corruption in Yemen, and financial resources are essential to provide relief to Yemenis as the conflict rages. However, these humanitarian efforts can only offer a short-term fix. The conflict in Yemen must be re-examined and addressed with regards to national interests (as opposed to international stakes) in order to effectively establish peace. Only then can stable government and basic services like water supply, food production, and healthcare be implemented in Yemen in the long term.  

— Alexandra Beste

Image by Hiro Otake on flickr.com