Yemeni civilians have been caught in the fire of a violent civil war propagated by a plethora of international actors since 2015, creating a situation considered the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world. Though the official start of the current civil war was in 2015, violence is no new phenomenon in Yemen. Yemen has been divided dating back to the 1800s, when the Ottoman Empire exerted its power in the North and Britain in the South. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Britain’s withdrawal from the south, Yemen has struggled to figure out how to govern its population cohesively with the history of the north-south divide running so deep amongst its people. Numerous attempts at creating two separate states emerged in the 1970s and 80s as the British left the south, leading to the creation of the People’s Republic of South Yemen tied to the Soviet Union and enforcing sentiments of a divided nation.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the two sides united to form the Republic of Yemen. But tensions continued as a northern rebel group known as the Houthis emerged to fight the Yemeni forces along with the presence of Al-Qaeda which perpetrated scores of attacks and violence within the country. The Houthi movement is largely religiously motivated. The Houthis are a group who adhere to Zaidi Shi’ism and are mostly native to the northern mountainous regions. As a minority in Yemen, the spread of political Islam and increasing influence of Sunni ideology in Zaidi regions incited the Houthi movement in the early 2000s and expanded greatly from 2012 to 2015, taking over the capital city Sana’a following unrest with the spread of the Arab Spring. Al-Qaeda took advantage of the instability in Yemen to become a prominent actor, making its branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) one of its strongest groups. This is when foreign states began their involvement in Yemen, siding with the group they found to be most legitimate and foreign-imposed air strikes became a reality to civilians throughout the country.
Of the dozens of countries involved directly or indirectly in the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have been key players. Taking a closer look into the motives of each of these countries helps us better understand the seemingly senseless and unending conflict in Yemen, and how a peace process can possibly be approached.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first foreign countries to interfere in the Yemeni conflict. The Saudis first intervened with air strikes in 2015 which targeted the Houthis who had just forced out Saudi-backed Yemeni president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia formed a coalition which included the UAE, Morocco, Senegal, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan. The coalition is also supported by numerous countries including the US, the UK and France who supply it with weapons and intelligence. Saudi Arabia’s intentional role as the leading force of the coalition responsible for drone strikes resulting in thousands of civilian casualties—two thirds of an estimated 90,000 casualties according to Al Jazeera—is about more than just reinstating Hadi’s government. Most scholars agree that through the Yemeni conflict, Saudi Arabia is attempting to assert its role as a leading force in the Middle East. Deeper yet, Saudi Arabia is able to use the conflict in Yemen to participate in a proxy war with its enemy Iran, whom it has accused of supporting the Houthi movement in the north. Geographically, the Houthi rebel stronghold is in the northern regions of Yemen, which directly borders Saudi territory, posing a potential domestic threat should the instability of the region spill over the border, thus inciting further Saudi involvement.
The UAE’s involvement is equally geopolitical in nature. Though part of the Arab-African coalition, the UAE has increasingly been supporting the southern separatist’s movement, contradicting Hadi’s goal of uniting the country. This has not been a major problem in terms of its role in the coalition as the coalition is currently focused on the common goal of defeating the Houthi insurgency. But what is to happen after that goal is accomplished is where the differing ideologies would really come out. The UAE began withdrawing troops from Yemen in 2019, claiming the 90,000 UAE-trained Yemeni forces are now able to hold their own in defending Yemen against the Houthis. The UAE will maintain its role by providing intelligence and supplies to the forces, securing its potential for influence at key Yemeni ports at the end of the war. Some UAE forces will also remain with the intent of combatting radical Islamic forces in the country. For the UAE, establishing an Emirati-friendly government in the south has been and remains its ambition through involvement in Yemen.
For the US, involvement has manifested through support for the Saudi-led coalition as well as US-performed drone strikes. US drone strikes are guised at attempts to fight AQAP, but the extent of civilian casualties that have resulted from US strikes suggest inaccuracies. According to a human rights group in Yemen, Mwatana for Human Rights, of the 22 Yemenis killed by the US in 2018 only one of them was found to have links to Al-Qaeda. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism cites at least 225 civilians killed as a direct result of US activity in Yemen, including at least 50 children. Despite Congressional attempts to pull back on US involvement in Yemen in 2019, the current President vetoed the measure. In addition to its own drone strikes, the US has signed a $100 billion weapons-sale agreement with the Saudi regime.
According to the World Report for 2018, as of November 2018 the coalition was responsible for 6,872 civilian deaths. That is not to mention that due to the years of fighting Yemenis are dying of starvation, disease, and are often unable to access safe medical assistance. What can be done to de-escalate the seemingly never-ending conflict? The UK has taken the first step as its court of appeals recently ruled the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia “unlawful.” The UAE’s withdrawal of forces is also seen as a move in confidence of the UN de-escalation process. De-escalation from all sides is essential to allowing humanitarian aid to begin reaching those most in need in Yemen, including the nearly 20 million on the brink of famine. Reduction of arm sales are a significant step in this process. Furthermore, transparency of western states’ role in the conflict is important in order to provide accurate reports of the scope of their influence. The US has denied the existence of civilian casualties on numerous occasions in both Yemen and Somalia, despite reports that prove otherwise from field research conducted by Amnesty International. Tightening of restraints on drone strikes and arms sales are key to de-escalation in Yemen, and foreign influences need to be held accountable for their role in the casualties.