Yemen has traditionally been absent from the international media and remains unknown for a large part of the global population. Moreover, the rise of ISIL and the Syrian conflict have further eclipsed the Yemeni Crisis. In order to shed light on the matter, the latest data from the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 82% of the population (roughly 26 million) are in need of some form of humanitarian aid. This means the level of humanitarian emergency by the UN is level 3 which is the maximum level of alert for these cases. The numbers are striking: 4.4 million people have limited access to nutrition and 19.4 million lack clean water and adequate sanitation.
As aforementioned in a previous report, the increasing internal instability for the last 10 years brought Yemen to a fratricidal conflict. The situation rapidly raised concerns in neighbouring Saudi Arabia which intervened militarily in 2015. This action led to an open civil war with regional and religious implications. The civil war and especially the airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition have killed thousands and displaced an estimated 2.5 million people.
The complexity of the Yemeni conflict goes beyond the classic western perspective in which the sides and alliances are well-defined from beginning to end. Yemen has historically been characterized by internal tensions and divisions for instance, until 1990 Yemen it was split into two different states. Moreover the country is fragmented into several tribes and ethnic groups with ancestral roots that go beyond the concept of a nation-state. In addition to the already complex balance of forces, the Saudi-led coalition consists mostly of an anachronistic unhealthy mixture of backward family monarchies and dictatorships that essentially are the antithesis of democracy. This international coalition consists of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. In order to frame the Saudi democratic intentions, it is worth recalling that the Saudi intervention in Bahrain crushed demands for reforms there. Due to the record Saudi Arabia has on human rights and democracy, their claim that bombing Yemen will protect the population and will create the basis for a democratic transition appears unfounded.
The myriad of groups and forces involved in the conflict has occasionally resulted in incongruous convenience alliances, for instance there are reports that mention occasions in which Saudi forces and Al Qaeda fought together against the rebels and that there is an alliance between the forces loyal to former president Saleh and the Houthis. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are hugely influential, their interventions are clouded in contradictions as demonstrated through the state of countries like Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Consequently, all these facts raise important questions about the support of western countries especially the US and UK for the Saudi-led coalition. The official narrative of promoting democratic values in Yemen is neither demonstrated by official data nor thoughtful understanding of the conflict. But given past events, avoiding internal unrest in Saudi Arabia serves to maintain some stability in the region. But the Saudi-led international coalition has no legal basis under international law and has not been authorized by the UN Security Council. In addition, it is difficult to justify it under any article presented in the Charter of the United Nations.
From a regional perspective, the Yemen conflict is of extreme importance for Saudi Arabia. The control of Yemen is key for the transport of Saudi oil across the world in addition to the fact that the route borders a regional adversary Iran. Secondly, the Sunni-Shite confrontation is at its peak after the Syrian war has stirred the internal conflict between the two branches of Islam. To a large extent the internal peace of Saudi Arabia may be influenced by this confrontation, since Saudi Arabia has an important Shia minority . Lastly, the dangers to the internal instability of Saudi Arabia and the house Al-Saud is due to a particular form of succession to the throne. In addition, the plunge of oil prices has shook the foundations of Saudi Arabia’s surplus which maintains some internal peace and balance.
On the one hand, Yemen has turned into a military nightmare for Saudi Arabia. Saudi-led forces have often struggled or failed to achieve their goals, making no headway in areas where support for Houthi rebels runs strong. In addition the coalition is considered responsible for killing twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen by a UN report. International civil societies have criticized the Saudi-led coalition for the airstrikes and bombing of civilian infrastructure like homes, markets, hospitals, schools and commercial enterprises. On the other hand, the conflict has allowed Al Qaeda to consolidate its presence and factual power in the country. Al Qaeda presence in Yemen is noticeable, the Yemeni and Saudi branches merged to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Ansar al-Sharia). In relation with Al Qaeda, Yemen has always been a main centre of attention, not surprisingly Bin Laden was from Yemen and the US drone campaign has targeted terrorists and killed a number of Al Qaeda leaders.
Despite the diplomatic intentions to reach a peace agreement and a political transition, there is little hope that the conflict is reaching its final phase. While negotiations proceeded in Kuwait and efforts have decreased military action, violence continues almost daily. This implies that most of the population will continue suffering from the conflict unless the desire for peace overcomes specific interests. Last December, negotiations for a ceasefire were held in Switzerland and a temporary ceasefire was achieved but at the beginning of 2016, Saudi Arabia broke the ceasefire unilaterally. Currently, the special UN envoy to Kuwait announced that discussions were winding down for a month during which “the focus will be on working with each side separately to crystallize precise technical details,” but the peace talks have not resumed yet. All in all the situation in Yemen is in a horrific state politically, socially, and militarily. Violence is rife and pessimism prevents any prospect of peace. This war is as much about oil as it is about Saudi suzerainty and the House of Saud’s objectives to make Yemen a satellite state, and it seems unlikely that they will accept a peace agreement which does not favour their own interests. However, the often forgotten humanitarian crisis is the factor that the international community should prioritise. Saudi Arabia spends between 200-300 million dollars per day to keep up with the intervention in Yemen. Undoubtedly, this amount of money would facilitate peace if used for providing aid to the country instead of prompting the escalation of violence. This case is full contradictions as the resources deployed for war are in fact the key elements necessary for building long-lasting peace and the foundations for a democratic state.