In the last decade, several regions in the world saw the emergence of political and military conflicts. The threads of history, sociology and politics are so deeply intertwined that their origins are hard to trace. Yemen’s current political impasse is a product of a similar entangled web. How did Yemen find its way here? As one of the most significant geopolitical conflicts, the world needs to pay attention, if the crisis is to be resolved.
Yemen was one of the first Arab countries to experience the political renaissance of the twenty-first century in the Middle East – the pro-democratic ‘Arab Spring’. The success of these pro-democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt inspired the protests in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, in 2011, as thousands of civilians gathered to express their disappointment and distrust with the government and the president – Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh had been the president of Yemen for a long tenure of twenty-two years, and his negligence paved the way for unemployment, poverty and food insecurity to hijack the basic guarantees and rights of Yemeni citizens. Although he promised several economic concessions to appease the protestors, they were immediately rejected. The protestors demanded that Saleh step down from presidency. His reluctance to step down along with Saleh loyalists opening fire on civilian protests on March 18, 2011 escalated the protest into a civil war, forcing Saleh to let go of his prized possession – incumbency.
In 2011, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took up the position, but bigger hurdles were in the way. Hadi found it tough to cope with the economic distress of the Yemeni citizens, thereby being unable to equally focus on all avenues of government jurisdiction. Meanwhile, militant groups like Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the ISIS gradually captured southern territories of Yemen while the Houthi Movement and Jihadists loyal to Saleh captured Saada and its neighbouring provinces in Northern Yemen. Initially, under the impression that Houthis were acting to restore the status quo, the Sunni Muslims in Yemen extended their support to the Movement. As it would turn out though, the motive of the Houthis was to capture the whole of Yemen and oust Hadi from presidency. This made the Sunni Muslims suspicious; they later found that the Houthis were backed by Shia-militant groups from Iran. By September 2014, the Saudi-led coalition (including the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Sudan) involved themselves in air-strikes and battles against the Houthis, with the aim of ending Iranian influence in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition was supported by powerhouses like France, the UK and the US, who supplied ammunition and aircrafts for the airstrikes.
This is a very significant event as this changed the dimension of the war – from a regional Civil War to a very devastating International Armed Conflict. Although it is classified as a non-international armed conflict by the UN due to the absence of ‘direct’ involvement of international powers, the influence of P5 nations like the US and the UK over the status quo of Yemen is high, justifying its classification as an International Armed Conflict.
The Houthis annexed key geostrategic regions, like the city of Taiz, from where they launched ballistic missiles towards oil bases in the Abqaiq and Khurais region of Saudi Arabia, severely disrupting oil extraction. Another wave of ballistic missiles was launched towards the Riyadh International Airport in November 2017, further straining the ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi pushed for a complete blockade of Yemen, hoping to suppress the smuggling of weaponry to weaken the military might of the Houthis; however, a fallout was the hike in the prices of food and fuel that in turn increased the food insecurity in Yemen. By the end of 2017, the Houthi-Saleh partnership underwent a significant turbulence. Saleh was assassinated by the Houthis, redeeming hope for the Saudi-led coalition.
Therefore, in June 2018, the coalition attacked a Houthi stronghold – the port city of Hudaydah – which acts as a lifeline to more than two-thirds of the Yemeni population. To their delight, they were successful in bringing the Red Sea City back into their control. However, this annexation of Hudaydah was tainted with extreme violence which alarmed the United Nations. The UN, therefore, introduced a peace talk between both the parties in Sweden, through the Stockholm Agreement. The agreement pressured both the parties to facilitate a prisoner exchange mechanism, withdraw armed forces from Hudaydah and address the situation of Taiz, which remained illegitimately occupied by the Houthis. Although many prisoners were released after the Stockholm Agreement, majority of the clauses that pertained to the redeployment of forces from Hudaydah and settlement of disputes over Taiz were not carried out.
By July 2019, the UAE was charged with several accusations internationally, for empowering the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern Yemen which posed an additional threat to the sovereignty to the citizens in Yemen. Therefore, they officially announced a withdrawal of their support from the Saudi-led coalition and redeploy their forces from Yemen. However, the STC and the Saudi-led coalition fought a series of battles in August 2019, where the STC managed to seize control of Aden – the interim political capital of Yemen, from where Hadi ran the Yemeni Government after Sanaa was annexed by the Houthis. The STC publicly denounced the government’s influence on Aden, and by April 2020, it swayed the public to support its decision to press the government and the Saudi-led coalition to recognize Aden as an independent city ruled by the STC. The war was interrupted by the CoVID-19 Pandemic when Saudi announced a unilateral ceasefire during mid of 2020; however, the Houthis and STC rejected the announcement and demanded that Saudi Arabia lift air and sea blockades off of Sanaa and Hudaydah.
In tracing the arc of the Yemeni crisis, it is easy to reduce and view it as a series of clashes. The politics threatens to overshadow the very real consequences faced by the unwitting population. Yemen, as we will see in the next piece, is facing a severe humanitarian calamity, with no end in sight.