The eruption of fighting by rival factions in Yemen’s southern city of Aden on January 28 provides distressing additional evidence that Yemen’s war is best understood as a series of mini-wars reflecting the intersection of diverse domestic drivers of conflict and Gulf regional fragmentation. [1] Eyes are turned to Aden and the conflict between the government of displaced President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, on the one hand, and the UAE-backed secessionist Southern Transitional Council on the other, which the government has accused of staging a coup. At the same time, there are at least six distinct zones of conflict around the country, each with its own antagonists and external patrons. [2] Linked in fluid and non-linear ways, actors in one arena of conflict are aware of (and may seek to shape) dynamics in others, and none can be ignored.

Even before the most recent escalation in Aden, the December 5, 2017 killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by domestic rivals marked a dramatic change in Yemen’s political environment, shaking up a war that had settled into a military and diplomatic stalemate. But this development—along with the at least partial disintegration of the Houthi-Saleh alliance that immediately preceded it—is dwarfed by the rapid escalation of humanitarian catastrophe wrought by the hermetic closure of the country on November 5, 2017. The Saudi-led coalition that backs Hadi blockaded Yemen in response to a suspected Houthi missile attack on an airport outside Riyadh, directing international attention to the struggle between the war’s primary antagonists in Sana’a; this week’s escalation between rival factions in Aden has done something similar. Yet these dramatic developments between Yemen’s armed antagonists and their regional patrons mask the story of Yemen’s broader fragmentation and its material effects for local communities, a reality that is undeniably more immediate in the lives of many Yemenis. The humanitarian crisis has created conditions that a peace process alone will not immediately resolve.

Given the partial blockade put in place in March 2015—after Hadi and his government were forced to resign in light of a Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a—it would be wrong to characterize the 2017 humanitarian crisis as a qualitative shift. Instead, it has developed as something closer to a slow-motion disaster that has suddenly (and horrifically) accelerated. The structural changes in the Yemeni economy that have occurred under partial blockade now shape the ability of millions of Yemenis to survive the current—and unconscionable—closure of the country.

Even before November’s escalation, almost three years of conflict and partial blockade have produced a thriving war economy in parts of Yemen. [3] Trade occurs via “security islands” where warring factions impose taxes on smuggled goods and displaced persons as they traverse armed checkpoints. Goods and people have nonetheless been able to circulate. While by no means a durable solution, these ongoing economic activities reflect survival strategies that have led people to relocate in search of greater security, to rely on the collective resources of kinship networks when possible, and to focus on the most basic business of staying alive. This war economy, dysfunctional and inadequate as it is, has been the last resort of a population disproportionately located in areas of the country under siege: a siege imposed at the behest of displaced President Hadi.

If some parts of the country have managed to survive the impact of the US-armed and supported Saudi airstrikes, in other parts of the country siege conditions are the more immediate responsibility of the now-fractured Houthi-Saleh alliance. The strategically and symbolically significant city of Taiz, for example, has endured two years of urban warfare and the collapse of public services. In the South, the destruction that Houthi-Saleh fighters left in their wake created a security vacuum into which a range of radical actors stepped. Their entry provoked foreign intervention by the UAE and the United States, in cooperation with a loose amalgam of Southern Yemen actors with diverse ideologies but shared secessionist aims.

The situation in Aden, where President Hadi’s government is nominally based, complicates the international impression that Yemen’s war is a war between two sides, focused on control of Sana’a. The response to Hadi’s decision to relocate the Central Bank of Yemen to Aden in September 2016, in particular, highlights the weaknesses of a two-party (or two-faction) approach to the Yemen war. The move was aimed primarily at disabling the Houthi-Saleh administered bureaucracy based in Sana’a. Instead, it provoked a severe liquidity crisis that has fueled famine, as somewhere between 8.5 million and 10 million Yemenis rely on public sector salaries that have been unpaid for more than a year. [4] Beyond this economic devastation, moving the bank to a city where secessionism runs strong, and one with its own history of sovereignty, raises other risks. When dismissed Aden governor Aidrous al-Zubaydi announced the formation of a parastatal Southern Transitional Council (STC) to actualize renewed Southern sovereignty in May, it became clear that Hadi’s government is on the back foot even in its temporary capital. [5] While the Houthis govern Sana’a with the assistance of former ruling party bureaucrats, Hadi relies on the last vestiges of international recognition and his backers in Riyadh, and the STC has developed its own patron, the UAE, operating in parallel to (but not congruent with) the Saudi-led coalition—of which it is at least nominally a part.

In this context, the future of Yemen rests with at least three fragile coalitions of actors. The fallout of the break between the Houthis and former (now late) President Saleh is not yet fully clear, but could easily increase this number to four. Formal diplomatic processes are at a standstill, in large part because they fail to account for this fracturing. The UN is wedded to an outdated two-party framework that pits the rump Hadi government against Houthi insurgents and their allies, anchored in Security Council Resolution 2216. That resolution demands what amounts to the latter’s surrender. Almost three years into a highly asymmetric war, neither a military nor a diplomatic solution seems near at hand.

Paradoxically, recent polling data shows that 59 percent of Yemenis feel always or mostly safe. [6] How can this be possible? The war—as military conflict—is being waged predominantly in and around major urban centers, whereas much of Yemen’s population is rural or has the ability to call on rural kinship networks for temporary shelter. It is easy to misinterpret this reported feeling of safety as straightforward “good news.” But in a country in which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that more than one third of the population is entirely reliant on food aid, and most of the remaining two thirds cannot meet nutritional needs from collapsing markets, rural living means hunger. For the past year, a Yemeni child has died a preventable death every ten minutes. And that was before the recent tightening of the embargo to prohibit all imports, including aid.

The control of information further entrenches this escalating crisis. Because the Saudi-backed coalition controls access to Yemen for humanitarian workers and journalists alike, coalition officials have sought to leverage aid and limit coverage. When the news program 60 Minutes tried to bring the famine in Yemen into the American mainstream in early December 2017, for example, Saudi officials kept a World Food Program plane full of relief aid sitting on the ground in Djibouti until the CBS cameras were removed. While this blatant manipulation of access pre-dates November’s total closure of Yemen, it partly explains why the severity of the human costs of war have become clear only at this late date. For their part, the Houthis have also sought to control local media in areas under their control and have harassed and intimidated local journalists seeking to report from the capital.

Yemeni American communities and their allies have been working hard to address the crisis, but they have been hobbled by US domestic politics. Owing to their advocacy, a growing number of congressional voices have expressed an interest in greater oversight over US support for the Saudi-led coalition and have been critical of its instrumentalization of humanitarian crisis. [7] Despite this increased attention, and amid considerable evidence at the UN that the role of Iran is overstated, the Trump administration remains committed to the Saudi framing of the war in Yemen primarily as a proxy arena for regional rivalry and has indeed escalated this through Ambassador Haley’s presentation of questionable evidence to the UN Security Council in December. Recent calls from President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis could help to convince the Saudis to relax the aid restrictions, but will do little to address the liquidity crisis that leaves Yemenis unable to buy what food they may be able to import. Moreover, concerns about the growth of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the South have led President Trump to expand direct US military actions in Yemen. These actions are still heavily reliant on the use of drones, and include conventional airstrikes and ground forces working in cooperation with the UAE.

Meanwhile, efforts among the Yemeni diaspora to bring relatives to safety or send aid to those suffering the consequences of the war have been limited by the administration’s immigration policies, and by policing and surveillance of financial transfers to Yemen. [8] Savvy Yemenis have worked with the United Nations Development Programme to establish a clearinghouse that would allow diaspora dollars to be safely routed to local relief efforts, [9] but with the borders and internal transport so heavily restricted it is unclear what impact these sums can have. Individual donations, in any event, are no match for the structural barriers to access imposed by the Saudis (and abetted by their allies, including the United States and Great Britain). The world’s leading humanitarian relief agencies, coordinated by the UN itself, consider border restrictions to exceed the “principle of proportionality” and to amount to the “collective punishment of millions of Yemeni people.”[10]



[1] Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Marc Lynch, “Why it won’t be easy to resolve Yemen’s many wars,” Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen, POMEPS Studies 29 (Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Political Science, January 2018).
[2] Chatham House, “Yemen: Reconstruction and Dialogue,” accessed January 30, 2018.
[3] Peter Salisbury, “Bickering While Yemen Burns: Poverty, War, and Political Indifference,” (Washington, DC: Arab Gulf States in Washington, June 2018).
[4] “Addressing Yemen’s Most Critical Challenges: Practical Short-Term Recommendations,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, June 5, 2017; Mark Lowcock, “Briefing to Member States on Yemen,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), November 6, 2017.
[5] Susanne Dahlgren, “Popular revolution advances toward state building in Southern Yemen,” Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen, POMEPS Studies 29 (Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Political Science, January 2018).
[6] Marie-Christine Heinze and Hafez Albukari, “Yemen’s war as seen from the local level,” Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen, POMEPS Studies 29 (Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Political Science, January 2018).
[7] April Artrip, “Congress Establishes Oversight Over US Role in Yemen,” Yemen Peace Project, November 16, 2017.
[8] Dana Moss, “A diaspora denied: Impediments to diaspora mobilization for reconstruction and relief at home,” Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen, POMEPS Studies 29 (Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Political Science, January 2018).
[9] UNDP, “Yemen Our Home,” accessed January 30, 2018.
[10] UN OCHA, “Statement by the Humanitarian Community on the Blockade of Yemen,” November 16, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Stacey Philbrick Yadav "Yemen Dispatch," Middle East Report Online, January 30, 2018.

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