The Saudi Trail in Yemen’s Quandary
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The Saudi Trail in Yemen’s Quandary

By Hely Desai

The Saudi Trail in Yemen’s Quandary

Yemen might just be on the brink of an irreversible collapse. The country is grappled in a perverse storm of difficulties along with a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. With an ill-timed war, coronavirus, extensive human rights violations, famines, regional oil conflicts, and a crumbling health care system, Yemen has now become what the UN calls “exceptionally vulnerable in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

As much as two-thirds of the country’s 30 million population bank on food assistance. A lack of which, could lead to a 20 percent rise in the number of malnourished children as per the UNHRC. The humanitarian aid has spiraled to a disturbing degree, leading to frail health infrastructure, fatigued immune systems, and acute vulnerabilities, in the face of a pandemic. To add to the disaster, COVID-19 is aggravating across a war-torn Yemen, while a recurrent cholera outbreak worsens, food and water scarcities are surging, and civilians are continued to be bombarded at, and the skirmishes between Saudi-led forces and the Houthis continue. 

For years now, the Yemeni Forces, allied with the Houthi rebels, have been disputing over the charge of the impecunious nation. When it initially intervened in Yemen’s multifaceted civil war, Saudi Arabia had anticipated overpowering the Iran-backed Houthis, who took hold of the capital, Sana’a. Even after half a decade of war, the Houthis are still in power; while the Saudi troops struggle to confine its allies, resorting to torturing the civilians. While the Houthi movement has fortified their power, acquired territories, and with aid from Iran, deployed long-range weaponry that menaces the region. 

Saudi Arabia’s latest quest for a unilateral cease-fire in Yemen displays the kingdom’s ominous socio-economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and the drop in oil prices. The Houthis will certainly not go along with the cease-fire, given that the Saudi government has played the ceasefire card time and again, for momentary gains. Nonetheless, Yemen’s decline into a chaotic conflict with multiple civil wars amid a larger war has made it absolutely unprepared for a pandemic.

The Tangled Geopolitics of the Middle East 

As Yemen continues to face major problems fuelled by the external intrusion, internal conflicts, and economic destruction against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis, the country is exposed to massive geopolitical uncertainty.

Yemen’s decline into a tumultuous and multifaceted civil war is affected by deep-seated alliances and oppositions along ideological, tribal, and religious lines, and the subsequent violence has assisted the country’s descent into poverty and famine. Local and global state and non-state actors have played decisive roles in Yemen’s civil war. 

Post the Operation Decisive Storm, anarchy spread beyond Yemen’s borders in two fairly minor, but important, migrant flows, further expanding the internal crisis. The geopolitical rift widened with Saudi Arabia and Iran funding opposing sides in the war, for stakes in southern Yemen; obscuring the chances of conflict resolution. There was no consensus among the nations involved, vis-à-vis whether the conflicting regions in Yemen should be united or disbanded into states. Nor was there any agreement over instilling a federal or confederal administration in Yemen. Further, Yemen’s petroleum assets amassed in the southern regions, became a potential point of contention in the conflict between the southern extremists and Yemenis as they struggled to protect the north-south integrity.

Without the authoritative blocs in Yemen moving towards mediation and negotiation, it has become tough to envision peace in Yemen. After almost five years into the Saudi initiated intervention in Yemen, the crisis is not singular to just Yemenis. The conflict has matured into a war between regional powers.

The external factors; including the western supremacies, Gulf Cooperation Council states, Iran, and Russia; have contributed to the state’s problems by deploying direct military interventions, funding, and aid for various allied and proxy groups to further their political agendas. This remains an obstacle in achieving a realistic peace strategy that could in-turn politically stabilize Yemen. Further adversities like a massive cholera epidemic, climate change, and the surge in the dominance of extremist forces; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, add to the nation’s woes. 

The Saudi-led coalition that initially started military operations against the Houthis, to support the Hadi government; now, is not completely affixed to its initial goal. This is specifically accurate given grander political divisions during the war, like the Southern Transitional Council and UAE’s annexation of Aden. These alterations distorted the map of treaties among superpowers with stakes in Yemen, switching to new on-ground dynamics. The alliance has partially collapsed, following their contrasting interests and proxy groups involved with ulterior motives. While the Houthis and Iran, have strengthened their alignment and partnership given the rivalries between Tehran and Riyadh. The war in Yemen has altered the geopolitics of the country creating new layers of conflict and instability. The eastern borders of the Governorate of Mahra, the Southern archipelago of Socotra, and the maritime routes of the Red Sea have turned into crucial unrest areas among authorities, steering in a new phase to the conflict. 

The geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East are now being defined by political chaos, failed states, protests, military interventions, twisted social systems, religious extremism, internal conflicts, and external proxies. The course of these catastrophic advances must amend. Autocrats and external actors must be held accountable. Political reforms have been crushed for far too long, leading to ruined economies, bolstered ignorance, and aggravated regional conflict scaring the Middle Eastern landscape.

These dynamics accentuate the degree to which the Yemeni crisis has been distorted and oversimplified as an al-Houthi and Saudi Arabia conflict; condoning the many other intricacies in Yemen’s complicated and twisted war.

Civilians: The Real Victims

Just days after declaring a ceasefire and announcing aid, fighter jets linked to a Saudi-led alliance attacked Yemen's Houthi rebels launching dozens of air raids on several Yemeni civilian provinces, as the kingdom proclaimed the beginning of a new military operation. The ceasefire game has been played before, with no end in sight; only to lead to more civilian casualties. The difference this time is that with the pandemic and the economic costs of the war, Saudi is in too deep. They might lessen the force but will elongate the war as long as they can, given the leverage on Iran

The Saudi airstrikes have besieged civilian sites for over five years. As per a survey from a UK based think tank, one-third of all the airstrikes have hit civilian targets including hospitals and schools. Only half of the country’s medical facilities are working because of the bombing and the hostility.

Data from the HRW suggests, that over 2,33,000 civilian casualties have been reported on account of the five year-conflict; majorly due to lack of food, healthcare, and infrastructure. The deficiency of primary facilities in the country has forced people out of their homes, made to live in cramped makeshift quarters, without access to basic food and resources. Further, the famine driven country is running out of humanitarian aid. The United Nations was compelled to cut 75 percent of its programs in Yemen this year. Donor nations are slashing aids. Funding from the gulf states has substantially decreased. Roughly 80 percent of the population is reliant on humanitarian assistance, and two-thirds are malnourished. Nearly two months of post-Yemen’s yearly funding conference, hosted by Saudi Arabia, the kingdom gained much appreciation from the UN, for providing aid to cover-up the problems they created in the first place. International donors donated just 18% of the $3.37 billion required to meet the urgent humanitarian need in the country. Without additional funding, 19 million people could lose access to health care, 8.4 million may lose access to water and sanitation facilities, and 2.5 million malnourished children could lose life-saving nutrition support. Millions of more vulnerable Yemenis could lose access to the $90 per month provided by the UN and humanitarian agencies, as per statistics from the UNDP. The manipulation of famine in Yemen has led actors on different sides of the multifaceted civil war to deprive specific sections of the civilian population; access to food and medical services to achieve their own political objectives.

Further, a perilous shortage of fuel, for which the Houthis and the government are playing the blame game, is now obstructing the operation of the electricity grid, water supply, and key infrastructure like hospitals. Ships aren’t being permitted by the government, to transport lifesaving commodities. The currency is depreciating quickly. The central bank is defaulting. The price of basic foods was hiked by 30 percent in the last few months alone. Also, the Houthis have taxed humanitarian aid from external sources, restricted journalists, and fired missiles at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. 

With a looming pandemic and almost no funds, the country has nearly no testing capacity. Most of the people being tested, already have severe symptoms, ensuing a death rate that is five times higher than the global average. Health experts estimate millions to become infected by August, with a worst-case scenario of 85,000 deaths.

The country is dismantling as the pandemic annihilates the poorest in the Middle East. The conflict has crushed the water, education, and health systems. The conflict is intensifying with civilians facing the brunt. The ramifications of the catastrophe must be completely understood and addressed. The solution should not be to reduce aid; like the Trump administration is doing or to throw money at self-created problems; like the MBS administration; but to curb the blockade and open the country to outside assistance and the media.

Despite the aid and assistance, the country is right back where it was; with lesser the resources to push it back.

UN and the World

Yemen’s immediate future is ambiguous due to internal actors, the interests of other regional powers, and the agendas of the international community. The war in Yemen is escalating.

As per a UNHRC investigation, the US, along with Britain and France, are equally complicit in the war crimes happening in Yemen given the continued exports of weapons and intel assistance to the Saudis and their allies, especially the UAE. This subsequently enabled civilian casualties, violence, killings, and wrecked health facilities in Yemen. These countries must use their supremacy and resources to diminish the conflict, not incite it.

The American contribution in the Yemen war though is far more destructive than just trading weapons, intel, and training worth of billion dollars to UAE and Saudi Arabia which happen to be its biggest buyers. The US; for years, has turned a blind eye as its allies execute outrageous war crimes and then avoid accountability for incentivizing a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Since the Saudi and allies intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, the US has given a relentless backing to all of its austerity campaigns where thousands of warplanes and bombs were targeted at civilian regions and infrastructure. Due to this, the US has lost all its moral credibility to criticize the delinquencies in other armed conflicts when it continues to provision and aid an alliance that is executing the same misconducts in Yemen. 

While the UK has always been deceptive over condemning Saudi. Despite pledging $196.56 million in aid to Yemen, it resumed supply of arms to Saudi Arabia to fuel the war. The British tend to align with the US when backing the Saudis. The UK should commit to maintaining funding and critically using its diplomatic leverage to support war-trodden Yemen. Even the gulf states have had a major role to play in the Yemeni crisis. Funding from the Gulf States has recently dropped to record lows, with less to no funding from the UAE and Kuwait.

While Russia has maintained favorable ties with the major actors in the Yemeni war by advocating a political resolution. The Kremlin’s agenda to build a military base in Southern Yemen to gain sea access is a vital motive in Russia’s Yemen Policy. Moscow has always looked to capitalize on its ties with the STC to gain geopolitical strategic influence.  

The UN further abolished the US-Saudi military alliance, which was largely accountable for the conflict in Yemen, from an international blacklist of states and armed groups responsible for killing civilians and maiming children, in a major triumph for Saudi Arabia. Though the surge in the war and bombings marks the failure of the efforts by the UN, to arrange a ceasefire. The situation in Yemen implies a poised disaster for millions of vulnerable people, with a rise in child labor and malnutrition as families, are forced to take extreme measures for survival. Covid-19 is widening the gap in the country’s fragile healthcare system.

The only likelihood Yemen has for peace may come in a political covenant shaped through dialogue, not continued warfare. Settling Yemen’s multi-sided civil war will require cooperation and faith-building initiatives involving all major actors in the conflict. Those responsible for abusing international law in Yemen must be liable. 

Humanitarian assistance needs to be delivered to all Yemenis in need. Implementation of existing agreements like the Stockholm Agreement and the Riyadh Agreement must be bolstered. Further, for Yemen to recover from Covid-19, its already dwindling economy must be kept buoyant. Urgent economic reforms and re-building a strong healthcare system must be a priority. Humanitarian law and human rights should be given the utmost precedence. Yemen cannot face two conflicts; a war and a pandemic at the same time. But with the failure of negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire; if the past is any sort of prologue, peace, and stability in Yemen will remain elusive with the only war in sight.

About the Author

Hely Desai (ORCID: 0000-0001-9339-4157) is a Research Scholar based in India. She has formerly been affiliated with Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, India.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.