Ten years ago, an unprecedented wave of social movements, sparked by weariness, hope, and a yearning for liberty and justice, led to the uprooting of several autocratic regimes in the Arab world. The mantra “the people want the fall of the regime” inspired millions of people to fight for dignity and freedom. In 2012, in the wake of the “Arab spring”, Yemenis poured into the streets and ousted Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen since 1978. His former vice president, Mansur Hadi, was elected as a president the same year.

The hope created by the overthrow of Saleh did not last; the political transition was soon curbed. Yemen was plunged into political instability by the pushback from supporters of the former president (who was assassinated in 2017 by Houthi rebels, his former allies), but also by the attacks instigated by al-Qaeda that took advantage of the chaos. 

Hadi’s government was overthrown by the Shia Houthi rebellion that seized the capital city Sanaa in 2014. The insurgency compelled President Hadi to take shelter in Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-majority giant. In 2015, the latter established a military coalition made up of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The aim of this Saudi coalition was to track down the Shia rebels that were backed by Iran and restore Hadi to power.

President Mansur Hadi (Photo by: U.S. Secretary of Defense, Flickr)

The country has become a theatre of Sunni-Shia ethnic clashes and attacks by armed groups that are inflicting a life of interminable war on Yemenis. In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that two boys were wounded by cluster munitions launched by the Saudi-led coalition. This year, the city of Marib was targeted by several missiles fired by the Houthis according to the NGO Human Rights Watch

A proxy war which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world

Yemen is currently caught in a pincer movement of the “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran is accused of expansionism and destabilising the Arab world by fostering Shia movements. The rise of the pro-Iran and anti-Saudi Houthis rebellion prompted Saudi Arabia to thwart any threat against its security at the cost of Yemen’s sovereignty. The 29 million inhabitants of the poorest country in the Middle East thus remain the hostages and the victims of a war between these opposite powers. 

Civilians are currently targeted by indiscriminate bombings against schools, refugee camps, villages, slaughters, and attacks of armed groups, with 233 000 people having died since the beginning of the war. The former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, stated: “During the last quarter of 2016, approximately 2,400 incidents consisting of airstrikes, armed clashes and shelling were reported throughout Yemen”. 

Group of men maimed by Saudi airstrikes (Photo by: Almigdad Mojalli, Wikimedia Commons)

Yemenis are confined in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to the UN. Two thirds of the population depend entirely on humanitarian support. Among them, millions of children and pregnant women suffer malnutrition and 7.4 million people are menaced by famine according to the United Nations. The UN reported that a “child under the age of five dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes” in Yemen. Furthermore, this tragedy is reinforced by a coalition-imposed blockade on the Hodeidah port where the humanitarian aid arrives into Yemen.

Pouring salt in the wound, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has opened a new war front in a country whose healthcare system is among the most dysfunctional in the world: “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic (…) We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat” Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, deplored.

Yemen’s war also reflects the “double standard” of the Western foreign policy which denounces war crimes and human rights violations – and meanwhile provides support for powers violating international law. This was illustrated by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights after the discovery of weapons made in Europe found on the scene of a deadly bombing in Deir Al-Hajari.  

A forgotten war

“Yemen is the civil war that the West likes to ignore, despite a death toll in excess of 100,000 since 2015 (mostly due to a continuing famine)” the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote. Riyadh and Teheran are passing the buck, or rather the bomb, for this humanitarian crisis. At the same time, the Yemeni population receives scant attention from the media and Western rulers.

Yemen’s advocates have accused Western countries of prioritising their trade relations with Saudi Arabia  at the expense of human rights. Philippe Hensman, the director of the French-speaking section of Amnesty International Belgium, indeed said: “How many children must die before we react? We [in the West] look elsewhere because the main actors on the field are among our most important customers”.

There are few Heads of State who have defied the Sunni giant and its coalition by freezing sales of weapons– such as the new American president, Joe Biden. Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA applauded the decision: “President Biden’s decision to freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE represents a welcome relief in an otherwise shameful chapter of history. Almost six years of conflict in Yemen, fueled by irresponsible arms transfers, have left 14 million Yemenis in dire need of humanitarian assistance”

The ancient city of Marib (Photo by: Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons)

Marib battle, a watershed moment?

Today, Yemenis’ lot remains unchanged, bombs are raining down, suffering persists, the economy is drained, famine is raging, the sanitary crisis of Covid-19 is ramping up. Last February, Houthis launched an offensive against the government-held city of Marib which is located in an oil-rich region. Human Rights Watch reported that several civilians were wounded and forced to move. The UN expressed its concern over the escalation, especially regarding the circumstances already faced by the population: “Given the potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences, we call on all parties to the conflict to de-escalate the situation and remind them of their obligations under international law to protect civilians from the adverse effects of the armed conflict” Liz Throssell, the UN Human Rights Office’s spokeswoman said.

The outcome of this battle may become a milestone in the course of this conflict, and could even tilt the balance of force in favour of either one of the parties, as stressed by Peter Salisbury, the Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Yemen: “If the Huthis prevail in the battle for Marib, they will have in effect won the war for the north, at least for the time being, making international efforts to end the conflict even more difficult. Worse, a fight for Marib could add a new catastrophe to what is already the world’s most serious humanitarian emergency – one that may soon worsen badly if the COVID-19 pandemic hits Yemen hard”. Whatever the outcome of this crucial battle will be, a heavy toll spawned by these new fights is dread. 

Victoria Bruné