As civil war continues in Yemen, a conflict that is tangled in complex regional geopolitics, the hunger crisis continues to worsen and seriously affect some 17 million of the country’s 28 million citizens. Saudi Arabia had enforced a complete blockade on the southern Arab nation in early November, preventing much needed humanitarian aid from reaching areas on the brink of famine. Yemen is historically 80 to 90% dependent on imported food, medicines, and fuel. Although Saudi Arabia announced last week an alleviation of the blockade, allowing ports in the south of Yemen to re-open, the sheer scale of the hunger crisis requires humanitarian aid to be granted unhindered access.
Even before the Saudi-led blockade, the food situation in Yemen was extremely serious. The UN World Food Programme estimates that 17 million people in the country are food insecure, meaning they do not have enough food. Nearly seven million of these are severely food insecure, in that they rely solely on external provisions of food. According to the UN body, “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel, and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death.” The top UN humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, recently stated that the blockade on basic supplies risks instigating “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades.”
Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, support the government of Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi. When Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrew Hadi, Saudi forces invaded the country in early 2015, viewing the conflict as part of a larger regional struggle with Iran. This conflict is thus not simply a civil war but a proxy war between regional powers, which has devastated one of the Middle East’s largest countries. The recent blockade is ostensibly in reaction to the firing of a ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen at the international airport in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. According to the Project Director for the Arabian Peninsula at International Crisis Group, the ability to strike the Saudi capital “raises the political stakes as well as the cost of war for Saudi Arabia.” April Longley Alley continues, however, that the domestic political context has been severely under-appreciated in international thinking about the conflict. Longley Alley argues that military responses on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, such as air strikes and blockades, serve only to increase the influence of more extremist elements within the Houthi camp at the expense of those favouring negotiations. Such actions thus only worsen the humanitarian aspects of the conflict whilst simultaneously making any kind of political compromise more difficult.
The first stage of any response must seek to alleviate the plight of civilians caught up in this prolonged conflict. With close to a quarter of the population on the verge of famine, it is paramount that humanitarian aid is delivered to the areas where it is required most. The blockade currently being imposed by the Saudi-led coalition must be stopped immediately, which will require international pressure and condemnation (including from powerful allies such as the United States). Airstrikes should also be halted, allowing more moderate forces on both sides to gain greater influence and move towards more meaningful negotiations aimed at reaching a resolution to this conflict.
Although the conflict appears unlikely to abate any time soon, steps must be taken to prevent what leading experts and humanitarian agencies warn may turn into one of the worst famines of our lifetimes. This must be the focus of international efforts and attention, and is the only path towards any hope of a more peaceful future in Yemen.
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