It has been six months since Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen’s internal conflict at the behest of the exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, igniting a regional war and engendering the largest economic and humanitarian crisis in Yemen’s modern history.
According to the United Nations, the war has killed more than 3,000 people, most of them civilians. On August 8, UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, reported 1.2 million Yemenis are internally displaced (IDPs). Since the beginning of the war, approximately 100,000 Yemenis have fled to Somalia and Djibouti, ceasing the historical trend of Somalis and Ethiopians seeking refuge in Yemen. Yemenis traveling outside of the country at the start of the war are effectively stranded abroad, unable to return because of interdictions against commercial flights to, from, and within Yemen.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has noted that more than 80 percent of the Yemeni population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The siege imposed on Yemen has led to a shortage of food, medicine, and other necessities such as oil and electricity. Malnutrition is on the rise, as are preventable deaths resulting from the unavailability of medicine for people suffering from chronic, treatable conditions, such as diabetes. Particularly in the city of Taiz and elsewhere in the south, poor sanitation has increased the spread of viral diseases such as dengue, malaria, and typhoid fever.
In addition, the war has severely damaged Yemen’s already fragile economy, which has declined since Yemen’s “Arab Spring,” when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign after more than 30 years in power. The Saleh regime failed to diversify the economy or focus on human development, and ignored chronic essential issues such as water scarcity, overpopulation, illiteracy, and poverty. According to the government’s budget, Yemen’s economy is dominated by the oil and gas sector, which accounts for 25 percent of the Yemeni gross domestic product. Since Saleh’s resignation, criminal elements have taken advantage of the newfound security vacuum to sabotage the oil pipelines and divert revenue from the state. And the ongoing conflict has forced production nearly to a halt. According to the Social and Economic Development Research Center, unemployment in Yemen grew from 37 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2012, and youth unemployment currently stands at 73 percent, the highest in the region. Modest poverty eradication efforts will be the biggest challenge after the war.
In response to the government’s decision to halt flights to Sanaa airport and divert ships from northern ports to the southern port of Aden, many northern Yemenis withdrew their savings to purchase large quantities of food and other necessities. The population of the north is three times that of the south, and this hoarding drove up the price of basic goods and created an inflation crisis.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are taking advantage of the political vacuum and instability caused by the war. ISIL recently announced its presence in Yemen, and AQAP continues to consolidate its hold on parts of the country, particularly the wealthy oil rich capital of Hadramout governorate, Al Mukalla. AQAP has claimed responsibility for killing soldiers and looting banks, while ISIL has launched suicide attacks on mosques in Sanaa.
The battle for Aden has been particularly fierce, even when compared to the extreme violence occurring in Yemen’s other besieged cities. Forces supporting Hadi allied with the southern resistance, as well as the Houthi and Saleh allied coalition forces, endured the usual privations of war, as well as human rights violations outside the established norms of conflict.
Consequently, this war has bred hatred and discrimination amongst brothers. Like most civil wars, the conflict in Yemen has increased instances of localized violence, encouraging the settling of old scores, and nurturing new grievances based on presumed or real confessional and regional identities.
As a consequence of the Houthi and Saleh allied coalition’s expansion to the south, some in Aden now believe that anyone with a northern sounding name must be a Houthi supporter. As they attempted to return to Aden, many IDPs were prevented from entering the city simply because they descended from northern families, despite being born in Aden and having lived there for decades. Now, there is fear of retaliation by northerners against southerners, which would initiate a fresh cycle of violence.
Since July 16, a number of ministers of the internationally recognized government have arrived in Aden where they are currently tasked with overseeing the distribution of relief efforts, while pro-Hadi government fighters, supported by a sizeable contingent of Emirati armed forces, are waging attacks in strategic governorates like Taiz and Ibb. On August 2, exiled Prime Minister Khaled Bahah paid a short, symbolic visit to Aden. Horrified by the “catastrophic” damage to the city, he called upon the National Resistance Fighters to liberate the provinces remaining outside of the government’s control.
The tide appears to be turning in favor of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Forces loyal to Hadi, supported by airstrikes by the Saudi-led Sunni Arab coalition, have gained momentum. They have been further bolstered by the advanced weapons and training they have received from the coalition, as well as Emirati and Saudi ground forces. Beginning in late July, they regained control of Aden, Al-Anad air base in Lahj, the town of Dali, and parts of Abyan governorate. The UAE sent an armored brigade to support operations in Aden, and its official news agency has reported five Emirati soldiers have been killed in Yemen.
There appear to be tentative regional and international diplomatic attempts to reach a permanent cease-fire. All parties to the conflict state their willingness to end the war. Officially, Saudi Arabia believes that the only solution to Yemen’s crisis is a political solution, through the implementation of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, the GCC Initiative, and U.N. Security Council resolution 2216. The Saudi position affirms the Houthis are Yemeni and have to play a role in the future of Yemen, but they cannot have the right to form militias outside the framework of the government. Saudi Arabia has maintained that its national security depends upon a secure and stable Yemen.
Likewise, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement, has expressed support for possible political solutions under the current circumstances, and welcomes any initiative from any Arab or international body. Around the time these statements were made, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, was holding closed meetings in Oman, where he has met previously with Houthi officials. Representatives of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party also reportedly met with some Western diplomats in Cairo.
Saudi Arabia and other GCC states realize that an unstable Yemen will continue to pose a threat to the region and that a military victory must be followed by an international relief effort commensurate with the enormous human and physical toll the war has taken. However, the different warring parties will not likely give up their arms just because the Saudi-led coalition reinstates Hadi’s government. A war economy has also brought “opportunities” for the jobless youth on both sides and benefits to commanders and heads of tribes.
In addition to the high number of victims of the war, the struggle for power, even among those who may at this point be allies, will almost certainly begin soon. The war has irrevocably broken the trust that once existed between the people of Yemen. For this reason, while this terrible war may soon end, it will be a long time before the country knows real peace.