The Yemeni Enigma


The conflict currently raging in Yemen is as confusing as it is unknown in the west, with little beyond the relentless Saudi bombing of the country and a growing humanitarian disaster being widely known. The conflict is being fought on many different levels, with a myriad of differing and irreconcilable motivations; a coup, within a civil war, within a foreign invasion defies any easy explanation.


The roots of the conflict began in 2004, when a small insurgency began to flare around the Yemeni-Saudi borderlands. The insurgents were a predominantly Shia militia popularly named Houthis after their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi; although they call themselves the ‘Supporters of Allah’ in clear indication of their religious motivations. After years of this low intensity conflict and an internationally pressured change in government, tensions exploded in 2014 when the incumbent Hadi government cut the countries extensive fuel subsidies, at the behest of the IMF. Using the popular backlash against this measure, the Houthis attacked the government directly and by the end of the same year the capital city Sana'a was in Houthi hands.


After a feigned resignation of Hadi’s government and flight to the provisional capital of Aden, the country officially split. The conflict escalated from an insurgency into a deadlocked civil war, with geo-political manoeuvring, small scale warfare and terrorism taking the place of the drastic city storming. The UN has persistently condemned the Houthis and ordered their disarmament, but they see this as inviting their destruction, and the rump Hadi government perceives any compromise in a similar way. This divided country has attracted the meddling of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Al Qaeda and ISIS; as well as the isolated tribes of the mountainous east who fight depending on local needs, creed and circumstance.


The civil war has devastated the country economically and politically, and whichever faction prevails they will suffer these issues for years to come. However, it is the common people of Yemen who have suffered the most drastic calamities of this war. In such an arid mountainous nation, food and water supplies are mainly dependent upon imports, with imported food staples accounting for up to 90% of the Yemeni diet. The Saudi ‘armaments blockade’ has suspiciously crippled food importation, and with factional boundaries littering the countryside what food does arrive is disrupted in its distribution.


The water situation is also dire; a lack of fuel for pumps, damaged sanitation infrastructure and simple scarcity has led to drought and disease, most notably cholera. The outbreak is one of the worst in modern history, with an estimated one million Yemenis contracting the disease and over two thousand dying so far. Alongside this, the vital health workers that battle this disease have been operating for almost an entire year without a single pay check.


 In such dire straits, radicalism has been creeping in to exploit the chaos, with both Al Qaeda and ISIS claiming small territories in the country. The growing menace of belligerent Saudi bombings against the Houthis (and whatever other civilian target they hit) has only exacerbated all the aforementioned crises.


Despite all its horror, the conflict has garnered little public or political attention. It's overshadowing by the larger and more intense Syrian conflict is certainly a contributing factor, but this cannot be the whole story. The region is geopolitically important due to its proximity to the Gulf of Aden and the access to the Suez Canal, but in a divided and dilapidated state, it poses little threat to this vital shipping lane. As a result, outside of genuine humanitarian concern, foreign governments often have little impetus to intervene beyond a futile UN declaration. 


Unfortunately, one of the few drivers of foreign intervention is sectarian in nature. This takes the form of the Saudi’s harrying war on the nation, motivated by their religious opposition to the Houthis. Iranian influence is the opposite, funnelling of armaments to the majority Shia Houthi rebels, both contribute to intensifying the violence and escalating the conflict whilst providing no tangible solution.


There is likely a desire to avoid a drawn out involvement in the governments of the west, which guide their aversion to the war, but there may be another reason they would rather not talk about: arms sales. Saudi Arabia is an important customer for western arms dealers, who have use them devastatingly against Yemeni fighters and civilians. Any condemnation or action would have to be followed by a severing of this lucrative and diplomatically important trade (not considering pure hypocrisy that is).


It seems that for the foreseeable future the civil war will trundle ever on, as religiously motivated foreign intervention is conspicuously devoid of any oversight and condemnation. One can only hope that the already titanic humanitarian effort gets the support it so desperately needs to see out this crisis and save the civilians caught in the crossfire.


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