Shortcuts / 06 August 2020
The Conflict in Yemen
Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries and in recent years has been devastated by a civil war. Millions of civilians are now starving and thousands have died. The conflict itself is complicated. It involves much more than one side taking up arms against another, especially with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Western nations involved. Here, we step through the origins of the conflict and what it has meant for the people of Yemen.
Where is Yemen?
Yemen is at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, and this is one of those moments where a map it would make life a lot easier. Yemen borders Oman and Saudi Arabia at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula. And across the Red Sea is the African continent. The Persian Gulf is on the other side of that peninsula.
Who lives there?
The vast majority of the population of Yemen is Arab. But there are people of Somali, Pakistani and Indian heritage in Yemen. These days it has a population of about 28 million people, the vast majority – as in about 99% – are Muslim. And within the Islamic faith there are two major denominations – Shia and Sunni. The two sects agree on the fundamentals of Islam, but they are in conflict about the leadership of the Muslim community after Muhammad’s death. So in Yemen, about 55% of the population is Sunni, and 45% is Shia. There’s other estimates that puts Shias at a higher and lower number, but that’s the UN’s number. The majority of Muslims in the Middle East are Sunni, as they are around the world. But Shia Muslims are the majority in Iran. And thats important because Iran’s a big figure in the current conflict in Yemen, as is Yemen’s neighbour Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni.
How is Saudi Arabia involved?
Yemen unified in mid-1990 after a joint governing agreement was struck between South Yemen, which was a former British colony that turned communist, and North Yemen which had a representative government for some years. After it became one nation, it wasn’t long before it outraged its neighbour Saudi Arabia and consequently Saudi Arabia’s ally, the US. And this is because of the position they took when, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait after a dispute over oil. The United Nations, America, Saudi Arabia were all concerned about the invasion and talked about a military intervention, which eventuated at the start of 1991 in the first Gulf War. But Yemen had the view that there should be no intervention from non-Arab states – a position the the Saudis and the US didn’t like. So Saudi Arabia and the US aren’t fans of Yemen’s government.
Meanwhile, there were troubles brewing within Yemen. Its first president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, who was formally president of North Yemen was looking to to find a way of governing that involved a sort of informal powersharing agreement with the military and various tribal chiefs who are still a strong force in Yemen. A lot of those tribal chiefs were also receiving payments from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s saw an alliance with the tribes as a way to have a say in what was going on there. But after some time with all those players not getting on so well, civil war broke out in 1994. It was relatively short and end with a win for Saleh and the north. And that chapter saw the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Saleh going from bad to worse because the Saudis backed the communists from the South.
What happened after Saleh became president?
Fast forward to 1999, the first election since the north and south merged, and Saleh became Yemen’s first elected President winning 96.2 per cent of the vote. It was a move that secured his place as the most powerful man in Yemen.At this time, in the background, terror network al-Qaeda is gathering strength, and of course in 2001, the 9/11 attacks happen. Although Saleh publicly sides with the US behind the scenes, investigations found that his government supported and directly helped al-Qaeda. In the 15 years or so to follow, there are al-Quada attacks on Americans in Yemen, and the US hits back air strikes on training camps, and sadly, many civilians are also killed.
Who are the Houthis?
While Yemen is facing attacks from al-Qaeda and the US, a group of Shia insurgents were also on the rise, known as the Houthis. They’re named after a dissident cleric. Not only are they fighting the Saleh government, they are also fighting al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is more on the Sunni denomination of Islam, and the Houthis, as you say are Shia. The Houthis start making their mark from 2004, and they say they’re motivated by Saleh’s economic discrimination of the north. Saleh and the Yemen government however said they were simply intent on destroying a unified Yemen. And it’s this conflict that is at the heart of the civil war the still grips the country today.
So Yemen’s been marred by religious disputes, tribalism, north and south divisions, Middle Eastern politics and the war on terror. Can it get any more complicated?
Yes, it can. And even experts say it’s one of the most complex disputes going on because of all those layers. But let’s stay high level and hit the key points. At the end of 2010, the Arab Spring hit the region. That was a series of anti-government protests, and uprisings that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. And Yemen also caught a case of Spring fever. The uprising in Yemen in early 2011 was initially against unemployment, economic conditions, and corruption, as well as against the government’s proposals to modify the constitution so that Saleh’s son could inherit the presidency. That causes are violent protests in the capital Sana’a as well as centres across the country. And in June 2011 there was an assassination attempt on Saleh that saw him flee to Saudi Arabia. And long story short, after months of wrangling, it was agreed Saleh would go and Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was appointed as president and a unity government including opposition members was formed. Then in 2012 Hadi won an election – noting that he was uncontested. And from there, things go from bad to worse. The Hadi government is hit by al-Qaeda attacks and moves from separatists in the south. And the Houthis step up their opposition in a big way. And it’s the rising Houthi movement that takes the country into civil war. From late 2014 and into early 2015, the rebels get backing from the Iran Government, which remember is also Shia Muslim aligned, and they take over the capital Sana’a. At this point the Houthis – despite having previously previously fought against the government led by Saleh – formed an alliance with him…of sorts. Saleh backed the Houthis in a bid to regain power. And they had some success in their attempts to take control of the entire country, forcing Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015. As they say, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. And it’s at this point that Saudi Arabia gets involved. Remember, Saudi Arabia has a Sunni Muslim population. So it didn’t much like the idea of a Shia Muslim insurgency – particularly one backed by Iran – getting their hands on power in Yemen. So the Saudis form a Coalition with eight other mostly Sunni Arab states and they also receive logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France. Air strikes start with three specific aims: defeat the Houthis, end Iran’s influence in Yemen, and to restore Hadi’s government.
And how’s that worked out?
It’s been a disaster. At the start of the civil war, the Saudis thought it would only take a few weeks to defeat the Houthis. But five years on and the civil war in Yemen rages on. Fracturing alliances saw the Houthis kill former President Saleh at the end of 2017. President Hadi continues to live mostly in exile in Saudi Arabia. And alliances continue to splinter and make headlines.
To make matters worse, Yemen was already already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East when the civil war started. And that means things like poverty and food insecurity have become significantly worse. There have been widespread civilian deaths and casualties and massive displacement from the fighting and terrible economic situation. And the situation is said to be getting worse. The UN High Commission for Refugees says 22.2 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance – that’s about 80% of the population. It is estimated that more than 3.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. And about 180,000 have fled the country.
There’s been a particularly focus on food insecurity within Yemen. About two-thirds of those 22.2 million in need of assistance are considered to be malnourished. And children are especially vulnerable. There aren’t a lot of official figures about but an estimated 85,000 people have died from the famine that’s ongoing.
And the there’s thousands who have been killed in the fighting. About 18,000 civilians have been killed, mostly through airstrikes. One of the big criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s conduct during the war is over accusations that about a third of the Coalition airstrikes have targeted civilian buildings including school and hospitals. It’s been labelled the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. And there’s not much hope of anything improving anytime soon. And the United Nations are very worried that things will get worst because money to fund humanitarian work is very tight with COVID-19 taking the world’s attention.
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