Helen Lackner sets out the background to the humanitarian catastrophe faced by the people of Yemen.
There is no doubt that the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning to end British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are a significant contribution to bring about an end to the war in Yemen. Equally important is to struggle to restore UK aid to its earlier level, and in Yemen to focus it on food supply and medical services, both in humanitarian support and development. These two campaigns are the most effective actions that the British left can take, but they say little about the main features of the Yemeni war which is fundamentally and primarily an internal political, economic and social crisis, worsened since 2015 by the military intervention of the Saudi-led coalition.
The Republic of Yemen (RoY) was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), formed in 1962 by the overthrow of the theocratic Imamate in Sana’a, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the only socialist state in the Arab world, which succeeded British rule in Aden and its Protectorates in 1967. Managed largely autocratically by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the RoY suffered a series of crises in the following decades and, throughout, remained the poorest country in the Arab world.
Despite a democratic republican system with presidential and parliamentary elections, the state remained dominated by Saleh and his closest associates who concentrated power and economic assets to the benefit of a small kleptocratic group. Dissent increased significantly in the first decade of this century, with the rise of the Huthi movement in the far north and that of southern separatists in the far south of the country, culminating in the national 2011 popular uprisings calling for an end to the Saleh regime in favour of political and economic transformation.
The Huthi movement
Following a series of wars between the Huthis and Saleh’s regime, the Huthis joined the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which led to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement, the unopposed election of president Hadi, and a two-year transitional government which failed to bring about the governance changes so badly called for by the popular uprising. The Huthis are a sectarian theocratic movement, whose objective is to re-instate theocratic rule by descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, known in Yemen as sada and elsewhere as ashraf or Hashemites. The Huthi movement, self-described as Ansar Allah [Partisans of God] has installed a very oppressive police state over about 70% of the country’s population though only about 30% of the territory.
After the failure of the transition, the Huthis allied with, by then, ex-president Saleh, took over most of the northern highlands including the capital Sana’a, and the western coast of the country, which they controlled unilaterally after December 2017 when they killed their ally Saleh. Militarily, their strength derives from their determination and discipline and most of the weapons used in ground warfare are captured or bought from the enemy. Thanks to some technical support from the Iranian regime, they launched frequent drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and, in early 2022, the United Arab Emirates, the two leading states of the coalition opposing them.
The southern separatist movement emerged in 2007; it includes numerous groups, most of whom are calling for a return to the 1990 borders and of independence in the former PDRY. That area also includes many supporters of Yemeni unity; its population, like that of the country as a whole, includes people from all parts of Yemen. One feature of southern separatism is discrimination against people from northern governorates, including mass expulsions and even occasional assassinations.
Hadi officially turned Aden into the country’s official temporary capital, making it the focus of a power struggle between Hadi’s internationally recognised government (IRG) and southern separatists. Emerging from complex roots in factional struggles during the PDRY, by 2017, one separatist group formed the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and asserted independence. Its military and diplomatic strength come from direct support from the UAE, thus putting the two allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, at odds. In 2019 the STC expelled the IRG from Aden and took complete control over the city and some neighbouring areas. The following three years saw a series of political and military clashes between STC and IRG military factions, leaving most ministers in exile in Riyadh.
The war and the 2022 truce
The ostensible reason for the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015 was to restore to power the transitional regime created by the 2011 GCC agreement, which the Huthis expelled from Sana’a in 2015. This intervention involved aerial bombing; though recently systematically aimed at military targets, in earlier years Saudi-led airstrikes killed hundreds of civilians in attacks on schools, hospitals, markets and social events such as weddings and funeral ceremonies, without any accountability. The only independent observers, the UN’s Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts, were disbanded in 2021 following Saudi influence in the council. While the Saudis have taken most blame for the strikes, thanks to their self-description as the ‘Saudi-led coalition’, the UAE are also significant participants.
Since 2015, the UK has sold £8.6 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia; although the amount to the UAE is far lower, that is largely because the UAE buy more from France. Arms sales are only one element: their nationals’ involvement in maintenance of aircraft, supply of spares etc… are essential to the KSA’s ability to continue its military activities in Yemen. Ending arms sales would not have an immediate impact, stopping technical support and training would.
The other major element of the war has been the coalition blockade on the main Red Sea ports which give access to the majority of the population. As Yemen imports 90% of its basic staples, wheat in particular, as well as most fuel, this has a major impact on both commercial and humanitarian imports. In a country where two thirds of the population are in emergency conditions of food insecurity, the widely recognised disastrous humanitarian situation is likely to worsen in coming months as 42% of its wheat was previously imported from Ukraine and Russia.
After seven years of fighting within Yemen, with the two-year Huthi offensive on Marib finally halted early in 2022, war weariness has set in. The Saudi regime has been seeking a face saving exit from the Yemeni quagmire for years; having suffered drone and missile attacks on its capital Abu Dhabi in January 2022, the UAE’s rulers have also decided that the time for diplomacy has come. The GCC arranged a large intra-Yemeni conference in Riyadh in late March-early April, providing regional cover for the Saudis and Emiratis to enforce a fundamental change in the IRG: President Hadi and his Vice-President were replaced by an eight-man Presidential Leadership Council, which includes the main military leaders of the anti-Huthi factions. Presidential councils have a record of failure in Yemen, and this one is composed of individuals whose mutual hostility is notorious. The coming months will show their willingness to implement one of the main elements of their mandate, namely to negotiate peace with Ansar Allah. This, of course, can only be done if all parties involved and their international sponsors are committed to ending the fighting.
A new UN Special envoy, the Swede Hans Grundberg, appointed in September 2021, brought a fresh, innovative determination to find a way out. Thanks to his good relations with all parties and the overall objective situation favouring progress, he achieved a two months truce in early April, which has just been renewed for a further two months. He has already succeeded in bringing the parties together to negotiate a number of important stumbling blocks to earlier efforts, but there is much left to be done. So while prospects to ending the fighting are better than they have been for years, any regime emerging from negotiations from the current political and military leaders is unlikely to provide the Yemeni people with the kind of people-focused governance they dream of.
Readers wanting to learn more are encouraged to read Helen Lackner’s Yemen in Crisis, the road to war, Saqi 2017 and Verso 2019; a second updated edition is due out in coming months. Helen’s new book Yemen, poverty and conflict is published by Routledge in July 2022.