A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has, this week, warned that 24 million Yemenis are in “a race against time” to survive. This comes as Yemen’s healthcare system is beginning to collapse due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and UN aid to the country is running out. The latter news is especially dire for the 80% of Yemen’s population who rely on foreign aid to survive. At the same time, Western nations such as the U.K. and U.S. are rescinding their aid pledges for 2020 due to Coronavirus, despite their support for a five-year war in Yemen that has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Rupert Colville of the OHCHR has stated that 30 of the 41 UN-supported programmes in Yemen will close in the next few weeks if it cannot address its $1 billion shortfall in funding. Yet, ultimately, as a 2018 report from King’s College London’s Policy Institute has found, these pleas will likely fall on deaf ears. Western nations such as the U.K. and the U.S. have supported the coalition of countries (led by Saudi Arabia and U.A.E.) that decided to begin a proxy war in Yemen in 2015, seemingly in the name of security ‘counter-terrorism.’ Until the humanitarian implications of the five-year war in Yemen can be shown to detract from Western security aims, it is likely that this war will continue.
“What ordinary Yemenis want doesn’t seem to matter anymore,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, an analyst at the Sana’a Center think-tank in Yemen. This seems to be a running theme in political interventions in Yemen. After the 2011 Arab Uprising in the country, Abdrahbbuh Mansour Hadi took power from the authoritarian president Ali Abduallah Saleh. His political weakness prevented him from tackling corruption, mass unemployment and food insecurity that Yemen had suffered for decades. He was eventually forced to flee Yemen in March 2015, when the rebel Houthi movement (from Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority) gained control of the northern Saada province.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., fearing Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East and its support of regional Shia Muslims, launched an air campaign to defeat the Houthis. Since 2015, 20,000 bombing raids have landed in Yemen. According to the Yemen data project, 30% of these raids have hit civilian infrastructure or killed civilians. Over 112,000 people have died in these airstrikes, shellings, and bombings.
That the U.K. and other Western nations such as the U.S. and France are responsible for these reckless aerial bombardments and the deaths they have caused is beyond doubt. Since March 2015, over £11 billion worth of U.K. arms have been licensed to Saudi Arabia. U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are Washington’s largest weapons buyers. France, along with Britain, has refused to scrutinise the human rights violations that have been committed by the Saudi-U.A.E. coalition in Yemen since 2015.
In this context, it easy to see the U.K.’s offer of just £18 million to the UN’s Yemeni humanitarian programmes for 2020 (just 10% of what it provided last year) – and the U.S.’s complete cutting of funds to these initiatives – as violations of the rights of Yemenis who depend on them to survive. Nevertheless, it is sadly self-evident that the populist governments of Britain and the United States will not respond to such accusations. It is necessary, therefore, to point out just how detrimental the Yemen civil war has been to the aims of those who supported it in the first place.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, has been keen to prevent Iran’s spread of influence in the Middle East and to secure Saudi borders against terroristic violence. Neither of these aims have been successful. Missiles launched by the Houthis continue to rein down on Saudi Arabia, with evidence tracing their weaponry back to Iranian manufacturers. The war is costing Saudi Arabia $53 million a day. The coalition’s support of Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi in the name of counterterrorism has, meanwhile, backfired catastrophically.
An exclusive report from Mintpress News revealed in April 2020 that “an unholy (Sunni Muslim) alliance” had formed between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Hadi’s government. Thanks to inadvertent support from Western countries via the Saudi-U.A.E. coalition, AQAP is now judged by American counterterrorism officials to be the most dangerous and powerful branch of al-Qaeda. Beyond this, there is substantial evidence that Sunni Muslim tribes in Yemen who are supported by al-Qaeda are having increasing success in expanding their recruitment and radicalisation efforts among the civilian population. Due to the sectarian nature of the war, many Sunni civilians support al-Qaeda, while the third of the Yemeni population comprised of shi’ite Muslims, have largely supported the Houthi rebels.
The rising sectarianism in Yemen, and the increasing influence of both AQAP and the Houthi rebels in the Arabian region, directly contradicts the aims of Western nations who sought to fight a ‘war on terror’ in the country. Previous British Prime Minister Theresa May argued that Saudi Arabian security equalled Gulf security which, in turn, would mean British security. If this linkage is true, the war in Yemen has jeopardised British security massively. Indeed, previous studies have shown that the war in Yemen caused many of the al-Qaeda-instigated attacks in Western nations over the previous five years. In addition to this, the U.K.’s hope of a strong economic partnership with Saudi Arabia is now severely hampered, due to a war that is costing the latter nation over $50 million each day.
It is a sad fact that the basic right to life that humans can – and must – share is not enough to dissuade Western nations from backing a cruel and counterintuitive war. At the same time, it is also evident that this human catastrophe is intrinsically linked to the failed aims of the coalition in this war. The United Nations Human Rights Council expert report into human rights violations in Yemen found that all coalition members had been acting with callous impunity, jeopardizing the lives of 24 million people. A report delivered by the UN Development Programme, meanwhile, shows evidence that if the war continues until 2022, 49.4% of the Yemeni population will live in extreme poverty and the country will suffer a loss in economic output of US$181 billion.
The increase in support for Yemen’s factionalist terroristic and militant groups is one consequence to causing untold suffering amongst Yemen’s civilian population. Shi’ite Houthi rebels and AQAP militants are already beginning to fill a power vacuum in the country, in the absence of any stable government. Should the majority of the UN’s humanitarian programmes in Yemen close, which seems likely, Yemeni civilians will have no choice but to rely on the networks of the Houthis, AQAP and other militant groups to obtain life-saving resources. This would provide these groups with unfettered access to members of a population that, in suffering through extreme hardship, have little alternative to military recruitment and who are therefore vulnerable to radicalisation.
It has never been clearer that the U.K., U.S. and other Western nations to ‘stabilise’ Yemen and the surrounding Gulf region has failed dismally. In the process of that failure, they have contributed to a war that has caused untold human suffering and, in turn, will perpetuate the problems (such as terrorism) that the Saudi-U.A.E. coalition was supposedly seeking to solve. Simultaneously, it has always been true that the coalition would be forced to immediately cease its air campaign if the U.K. withdrew its support, due to the size of its arms contributions.
With American foreign policy becoming increasingly volatile and dangerous under Donald Trump, the U.S. can no longer be relied upon to take a leading role in creating peace in Yemen. The U.K. must seize the initiative and cease exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, as it could force a ceasefire which is sorely needed during the current pandemic. To avoid an immediate human catastrophe in Yemen, the U.K. must then re-size its contributions to the UN’s emergency aid programmes in the war-torn country. Once this initial move towards accountability has occurred, the U.K. must then address the security consequences of the Yemeni Civil War – particularly its role in emboldening terrorist groups. If it does not, those consequences will haunt the International Order for generations to come.