• Celine Louis

What’s happening in Yemen?

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Yemen is going through the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, ever. We know this. 24 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid, including almost every child. Half of the health facilities in the country are damaged or unable to function. Covid-19 and cholera have spread to more than a million people in the country, and international humanitarian aid is lacking. The United Nations has been screaming it on all the rooftops for a while. Yemen went from being a prospering country on the Arabian Peninsula to a country where extreme poverty and starvation is prevalent. Mostly, this is the result of a war that has been raging for almost five years.[1] But how did Yemen get in this situation? And what caused this terror?

For that we have to go back to the Arab spring. During the Arab spring Yemenis rose up against President Saleh. Ali Abdullah Saleh was Yemen’s president from 1990 to 2010. President Saleh was the first president of a united Yemen. During his presidency 75 percent of the country’s revenues were its oil-reserves. Water supplies were predicted to run out in 2017. Over a third of the country’s fertile land was given to the cultivation of qat, a plant with light stimulant properties. Radical jihadism has long been a problem in the country. Saleh liked to complain that ‘ruling Yemen is as delicate and dangerous as dancing on the heads of snakes.’[2]

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oversaw negotiations to force Saleh out, with support of the United Nations. These talks put Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the former vice president in power. But little changed in the country.


The Houthi’s were not satisfied with this new president. The Houthi’s are a Zaidi Shia minority out of which the Houthi movement grew. The movement had been involved in the uprisings against Saleh during the Arab Spring. The group, that was formed in the 1990s, was not allowed to be part of the GCC led negotiations after the Arab spring. The Houthi’s joined forces with members of the army loyal to Saleh and Saleh himself and took over the capital of Yemen Sanaa’ in 2014.

The Saudi’s formed a coalition to return Hadi to power. The Saudi’s do not want the Houthi’s in power, because their ideology is close to that of Iran. They wanted to protect its own southern border and they wanted to contain the perceived influence of Iran in the region. The Saudi campaign bombed several parts of Yemen for the last four years in approximately 20,000 attacks. The air strikes have been destroying hospitals and schools in that time. The campaign sieged the country by creating a land, sea and air barrier making it more difficult for any supplies to reach the population. The Houthi’s are blocking aid as well.

The Houthi and Saleh alliance broke down in 2017 after three years. Saleh announced on television that he wanted to talk to the coalition, two days later the Houthi’s killed him. They have kept control of the capital Sanaa’ till this day.[3]

Saudi Arabia thinks that the Houthi’s have been this successful because they were getting help from Iran. Iran denies backing Houthi’s militarily. After attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, their belief in this claim grew, despite the Houthi’s claiming the attack. The United States declared that they believed that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian-produced.

Saudi Arabian oil production has a huge influence on the world economy. When Saudi Arabia lowered its oil prices in March this year, stock markets all over the world fell. A move that was aimed at Russia, but also hurt Iran.[4]

Deep history

Yemen’s history does not fit into the narrative the west prefers to deal in. The Houthi’s are a tribe that has been in Yemen since the eleventh century. Tribalism is very prevalent in Yemen, more prevalent than the institutions that are common to the nation state. The trust between members of a tribe is absolute, trust in governments is not. They believe that they are the natural heirs of the imamate system that had existed in Yemen for hundreds of years. They believe that Yemen is theirs to rule.

Between 1918 and 1962 they ruled the Kingdom of Yemen, also known as North Yemen. A civil war erupted between 1962 and 1970 under influence of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Sovjet Union on one side and royalists including Jordan, Israel and the UK on the other to force Britain out of the country. After this war the country became a republic known as the Yemen Arab Republic. In this republic system there were tribal representatives.

South Yemen was a British colony with Aden as its capital from 1839 until 1918. Then it became the Aden protectorate. After 1967 the country became a Leninist one-party state supported by the Soviet Union. In 1990 it was unified with the Yemen Arab Republic to from Yemen as we know it today.

International arms

There have been claims that the war in Yemen is a proxy-war, because of the influence from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Allies like the United States, United Kingdom and France have been supplying this war with weapons. The United Nations believes that several countries are liable to claims of war crimes.

The organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) reported that the UK has licensed 5.3 billion pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began in March 2015.[5] On 20 June 2019, the court of appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox had illegally signed of on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians, and without any attempt to do so. The 4.7bn pound worth deal with Saudi Arabia was put under investigation. The government did not accept the Court of Appeal judgement and has been granted permission to appeal.[6]

At the same time, the British Department for International Development has allocated a 110-million-pound budget to Yemen, mostly to provide food assistance. They are the fourth biggest donor to the United Nation’s 2018 Humanitarian Appeal for Yemen, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. A similar aid appeal by UNICEF this June was struggling to get funds. The United Kingdom contributed with a 160-million-pound aid package in this recent appeal.[7]

Stopping the United Kingdom, France or the United States from arming Saudi Arabia is not a solution to this problem. Disarming one side in a war, does not mean that the war is resolved. This would make Saudi Arabia vulnerable and therefore the world oil supply and the world economy. In a 2015 fact sheet from the American Security Project, Yemen is deemed important because it is near major shipping lines that carry more than 3.5 million barrels of oil per day. The safety of the Suez Canal needs the safety of this strait as well.

So what is the solution to this? On the 22nd of June both sides agreed on a cease fire and will begin talks on implementing a 2019 Riyadh agreement involving committees from both sides.[8] This agreement involved an end to current media campaigns between the two sides, a strengthening of the role of Yemeni state institutions both politically and economically and confronting terrorist organisations. In November 2019 the agreed timeline was ignored without any implementations.[9]

But the governments funding the war are getting tired and did not think that the war was going to last this long, so they might be a bit more willing to agree to a peace treaty this time. What that will mean for the struggling population of Yemen is difficult to say.

Cover image credit: OCHA/Giles Clarke https://www.unocha.org/story/un-humanitarian-chief-yemen-will-‘fall-cliff’-without-adequate-support-humanitarian-and-covid

[1] https://unocha.exposure.co/eleven-facts-about-the-yemen-crisis [2] Victoria Clarke, Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes (Yale University Press, 2010) 5. [3] https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/start-here/2019/10/yemen-war-191031103012254.html [4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/08/business/saudi-arabia-oil-prices.html [5] https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/stop-arming-saudi/uk-arms-sales [6] https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/stop-arming-saudi [7] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/yemen-new-uk-aid-will-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus [8] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/yemen-gov-southern-separatists-agree-ceasefire-arabia-200622152037838.html [9] https://www.mei.edu/blog/obstacles-implementation-riyadh-agreement

At the time of writing, Celine Louis is an MA History and Intensive Arabic Student at SOAS London.. Her interests are 19th and 20th century history, and Middle Eastern affairs.