With the war in Yemen well past its hundredth day, confusion persists as to the underlying causes of the conflict. Far from a sectarian proxy war between Shafi‘is under the patronage of Saudi Arabia and Zaydis backed by Iran, as the mainstream media would have it, the hostilities are rooted in local quarrels over power sharing, resources and subnational identities. These wrangles, in turn, are part of a broader negotiation process among domestic forces over a new social contract after the 2011 removal of the long-time president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih.
Twenty million people in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, are at risk of dying from hunger or thirst. That’s 80 percent of the country’s population, which according to UN agencies badly needs emergency supplies of food and water, along with fuel and medicine.
This almost unimaginable crisis sounds like something out of a disaster movie. But the cause isn’t an earthquake or a tsunami.
The main reason for all this suffering is months of merciless bombardment and blockade led by the richest Arab countries—Saudi Arabia and its neighboring petro-princedoms—and backed by the United States. Washington’s providing the attackers with technical assistance, intelligence and top-shelf armaments.
With UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva involving the usual suspects and only a few new faces, it is time to raise the question of Yemen’s future as a state.
The talks involve exiled President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah and minor figures from the long-time ruling General People’s Congress (GPC, now split into factions tied to Hadi and former President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih), the leading Sunni-identified Islamist party Islah and its ally in Hadi’s government-in-exile, the Yemeni Socialist Party.
On June 8, Yemen’s (self-)exiled president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, conveyed his ideas about UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, due to start on June 15, and downplayed their scope. The conversations are to take place mainly between politicians handpicked by him and his Saudi hosts, on the one hand, and Ansar Allah (or the Houthi movement) and members of the formerly ruling General Party Congress (GPC) who do not support Hadi, on the other. These two sides roughly correspond to the alliances that have been fighting in Yemen since March.
Amidst widespread fighting in Iraq and Syria, millions of distressed civilians have fled their homes. In Yemen as well, war has led to mass displacement as people try to escape threats to their lives and livelihoods. These instances of forced migration create overwhelming immediate problems such as the need for shelter, food and medical care. If insecurity remains a problem, then forced migration can lead to lengthy displacement of people within their own country or in a country of refuge. The longer displacement lasts, the more significant the problems that can develop with regard to land claims and property rights.
The humanitarian emergency in Yemen continues to worsen.
In Aden, the southern port city where local fighters are trying to fend off a Houthi takeover, several neighborhoods have no water or power. Hospitals are begging for basics like antibiotics and bandages. There is no sign of a pause in the combat, with the Houthis’ leader vowing not to back down. The Saudi-led bombardment of the country, which has closed all sea and airports, is into its twenty-sixth day.
On April 14, three weeks into the Saudi-led air campaign called Operation Decisive Storm, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2216. This legally binding resolution, put forward by Jordan, Council president for April, imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and his son. There are also provisions freezing individual assets and banning their travel. Russia abstained. It seemed fully to endorse both the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, brokered by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, and Operation Decisive Storm.
We write as scholars concerned with Yemen and as residents/nationals of the United Kingdom and the United States. The military attack by Saudi Arabia, backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council states (but not Oman), Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UK and above all the US, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen. This military campaign is illegal under international law: None of these states has a case for self-defense. The targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores and food industries. This has the potential for appalling harm to ordinary Yemenis as almost no food or medicine can enter. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab world in per capita income, yet rich in cultural plurality and democratic tradition.
“Yemen’s conflict is getting so bad that some Yemenis are fleeing to Somalia,” read a recent headline at the Vice News website. The article mentions that 32 Yemenis, mainly women and children, made the trip to Berbera, a port town in Somaliland (and not Somalia). Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have crossed the Gulf of Aden since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. But now the tide seems to have turned.
Helen Lackner, ed., Why Yemen Matters (London: Saqi, 2014).
The essays in Why Yemen Matters, though written prior to the stunning takeover of much of the country by Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthis, provide an excellent primer on the political and economic crises that underlie those still unfolding events. The authors were among others who participated in a British Yemeni Society conference in early 2013.
On the night of March 25 one hundred Saudi warplanes bombed strategic targets inside Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. A number of countries—the other Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) members minus Oman, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco and Pakistan—joined the effort either directly or in support capacities. Although the Houthis have been in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the central government since September 2014, it was the flight of president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Aden and the subsequent Houthi attack on the southern city that constituted the breaking point for Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
On February 21, 2015, the man most countries recognize as president of Yemen, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, escaped house arrest in Sanaa and fled with his family to the southern city of Aden, which he soon declared the new capital. The Houthi movement, or Ansar Allah, that holds sway in Sanaa insists that the Yemen’s seat of government is still there. Perhaps equally confusing to outsiders, however, is the decision of the Southern Movement, or hirak, to suspend its long-standing campaign of protest and civil disobedience aimed at restoration of national independence for the southern provinces that once made up the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Sad news came on December 15 from Aden, the port on the southern coast of Yemen. The city had awakened to a day of civil disobedience, called to speed up what Adenis and other southerners hope will be their independence from the central government in Sanaa. As the day’s protests gathered steam, government troops shot and killed Khalid al-Junaydi, popularly known by his Facebook name, Khaled Aden.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, Yemeni political thinker, activist and university professor, was assassinated by gunmen on a motorbike on November 2, 2014 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Iris Glosemeyer and Anna Würth, researchers of contemporary Yemen based in Berlin, were his friends from the early 1990s onward.
In the summer of 2014, director Diego Luna released Cesar Chavez, a feature-length retelling of the story of the 1973 grape pickers’ strike in California that inspired an international grape boycott and made Cesar Chavez a household name. In the film, the first person killed on a farm worker picket line was a Mexican bracero named Juan de la Cruz. In fact, de la Cruz was the third of five “United Farm Worker martyrs” to die violent deaths struggling for social justice in the vast fields of American agribusiness. The first was Nan Freeman, a young Jewish student helping a sugarcane strike in Florida, and the second was a Yemeni migrant called Nagi Daifallah.
On October 9, 2014, a suicide bomber detonated himself in central Sanaa, killing dozens of innocent people. Upon reading the news coverage of this terrible event my thoughts leapt back to a series of plays that I had seen performed in Sanaa in the spring. Most of these performances took place under the aegis of the annual celebration of World Theater Day, known locally as the Festival of Yemeni Theater. Five months prior to the explosion in Sanaa, a surprising number of the festival’s plays had made references to suicide bombing.
“Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution,” shouted five or six men at a march in Crater, a district of Aden, on March 20, 2014. The mass of demonstrators answered in unison: “Get out, get out, o colonial power!” The call-and-response pattern continued: “Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution.” “Against the power of the tyrants.” The stanza concluded with the chant leaders prompting, “No unity, no federalism,” and the crowd again thundering, “Get out, get out, o colonial power!”
“This is no longer a movement,” said the young man whose Facebook name is Khaled Aden. “This is a revolution.”