In 1616, Pieter van den Broecke – a tradesman serving the Dutch East India Company – defied a detachment of Ottoman soldiers guarding coffee plantations in southern Yemen to smuggle some seedlings of the prized plant out of the country. Returning to the Dutch Republic, the clothing merchant was able to propagate these in a greenhouse and later make a gift of a single sapling to Louis XIII of France. While this event helped cultivate the European pallet for the drink – a development which in no small part aided in the establishment of the port city of Mocha (or al-Makha) as the world’s coffee capital, exporting over 10 million kilos of the substance annually by the century’s end – it also laid the foundations for a gradual process whose effects on the country were far more sinister.
Van den Broecke’s theft ended the Yemeni monopoly on coffee production. Soon, colonized slave labour in South-East Asia, Africa, and South America was being used to cheaply cultivate the plant and undercut Mocha’s product. The failure to compete led to the gradual decline of the port and the nearby southern highlands – as well as the impoverishment of the northern highlands, which relied heavily upon the economic success of the fertile coastal plain. The lamentable effect of the decline of one monopoly was a helping hand in the establishment of what is nearly another – the devotion of Yemeni agriculture to the cultivation of qat, a semi-narcotic plant chewed by around three quarters of the country’s men.
This seemingly trivial event encapsulates so much about how Yemen has become a seedbed for civil strife in the modern era. The meddling of foreign powers in the area’s internal affairs has been intermittent and damaging since the extortionate taxation and near constant fighting inflicted by the Ottoman Empire in the latter-half of the 16th century. They left in 1632, 14 years after granting the British and Dutch East India Companies trading posts to exploit the coffee trade in Mocha, only to return a little over 200 years later when threatened by the British establishment of a protectorate over Aden in 1839. Even with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, interventions persisted. In the 1960s, the eight-year North Yemen Civil War was supported on one side by Egypt and the Soviet Union, and on the other by Jordan, Israel, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia; from 2002 to 2017, at least 160 civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes targeting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants across the country; and at present, a five-year-old Civil War is ravaging the country, with the internal players backed variously by the U.A.E, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (who launch their offensives using weapons bought principally from lucrative arms deals with the U.K. and the U.S.)
The latter crisis has exacerbated the woes of a country which was already facing a great many domestic challenges. The qat industry, inadvertently aided by Van Den Broecke’s coffee theft, commands the use of over half of Yemen’s arable land. The plant is more productive when given more water, thereby discouraging a consideration of the environmental effects of over-irrigation, such as soil degradation. The devotion of so much land to qat cultivation has not only made Yemen heavily reliant on the importation of food (the danger of which has been brutally exposed in the ongoing conflict), but is also extremely wasteful of water in a country which is extremely short of it. As of 2017, one-third of Yemen’s annual water usage was mined from non-renewable fossil aquifers. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that Yemen’s ground water reserves would run dry within 30 years.
Given these facts, it is unsurprising that the United Nations has dubbed the crisis in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with nearly 80% of the country’s population requiring humanitarian assistance. This can only be worsened by the current coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc on much more stable countries with far superior health systems. On Friday, the country’s first positive test for SARS-CoV-2 was confirmed in the eastern province of Hadramawt – a 60-year-old man from Ash Shihr. In response, all workers at the town’s port have been confined to quarantine for a period of two weeks and the neighbouring province of al-Mahra has shut its border with the region. The severe lack of testing facilities, due mainly to the destruction of civilian infrastructure wrought upon the country in large part by Saudi air-strikes, underscores the country’s precarious predicament. Not even the most advanced countries’ figures accurately reflect the true number of infections there. In a country almost constantly tackling outbreaks of either dengue, diphtheria, or cholera, the chances that the first case of COVID-19 has been identified early are slim to nil.
One positive in this situation is the unilateral announcement of a two-week ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition – a ‘humanitarian’ decision taken with the country’s rudimentary health services in mind. Yet, such announcements of breaks in hostilities have been numerous and fleeting throughout the five-year war, and Houthi leaders have been quick to dismiss this latest move as a propaganda stunt. Consequently, healthcare workers’ dismal predictions of the threat posed by the global pandemic are unlikely to be proven untrue; the present ceasefire is almost certainly the calm before Yemen’s latest storm.