The decline and fall of Yemen
A troubled country is now firmly in the grip of war as competing sides vie for influence. What goes under-reported is how much the situation is crippling ordinary Yemenis…
Words by Alex Potter
Yemen is at war. The impending collapse that experts have predicted in recent months has finally come to pass. In the end it was the Houthi advance toward Yemen’s south and the Gulf of Aden that proved too much for neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The military powerhouse gathered allies and launched a brutal airstrike campaign on March 25 that only just winding down a month later as this magazine went to press.
Riyadh also imposed a naval blockade, preventing ships with food and aid from entering the country. Already plagued by lack of resources, including water, and rife with malnutrition, the move has proved disastrous for Yemen. Prices are astronomical and, amid the rubble of their recently destroyed homes, people are going hungry.
At the same time, the Houthis, a Zaydi militia and revival group from the north, have waged a punishing campaign in Aden, having captured Sana’a last September. Their ongoing siege of the port city has cut off water, electricity, and resources for over million inhabitants, who now face a desperate struggle to survive.
Yemen has struggled to command the full attention of the world’s media, perhaps because its complex tribal arrangements make it difficult to understand or reduce to easily digestible stories. Just one example of this is the constant reference to the “Iranian-backed Shia Houthis”. Technically the Houthis are Shias, but are a variation that is very different to other Shia groups in the region. And the links with Iran, though probably real, are less clear-cut than most outsider commentators portray.
But, despite the mainstream incomprehension of the situation, activists and politicians with experience in Yemen are lighting up the Twitter-sphere and Facebook. They describe atrocious living conditions, brutal attacks from both sides, and intolerable civilian suffering that the Saudi and Houthi campaigns have brought upon ordinary Yemenis.
This situation has been compounded by the lack of access for aid organisations to the country in the first weeks of the bombing campaign. The International Committee for the Red Cross finally sent a five-person team into Aden by boat on April 8, and the first plane of medical aid from Doctors Without Borders landed in Sana’a on April 10.
For years, people have spoken of Yemen as being “on the brink”. It now seems the country is finally collapsing, brought down by a number of corrupt officials, misplaced international interference, and lack of transitional justice. The very states who are bombing it now are also the ones who forced a flawed, post-revolution transition process on Yemen, following the citizens’ ousting of the country’s corrupt leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. The long-serving president agreed to step down only on the condition that he would be immune to prosecution and could remain in the country. It was an agreement orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and vouched for by the United States. Ever the master manipulator, Saleh has influenced much of Yemen’s politics under the table ever since his removal.
Saleh was succeeded by Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, the former vice president, in a one-man selection process that was again orchestrated by the Gulf states. This was supposed to be a two-year transitional period, after which time he would step down or compete in elections. But conflicts between political parties and an extended, and ultimately unsuccessful, national dialogue caused him to extend his term yet again, much to the ire of Yemenis who longed to actually vote for a new leader.
Into this power vacuum stepped the Houthis. Though mainly based in the north, the group is affiliated with the Zaydis, a sect of Shia Islam that had played a much larger role in the country before the monarchy collapsed in the 1960s and the country was partitioned. The Houthis stepped up their rhetoric, positioning themselves as Yemen’s nationalist group and true leaders who could complete the transition process. And after ousting the corrupt al Ahmar family — which had enjoyed close ties with the former President Saleh — and pushing al-Qaeda out of a number of areas, their number of supporters increased. As they grew, so did their desire to control more of Yemen. While they vehemently deny being supported by Iran (as Iran also denies the charge), the relationship is more than congenial, though more specific details of what this entails are unclear.
“Aden is going the way of Sarajevo. Since the beginning of the Houthi assualt there has been very little petrol, cooking gas, diesel, electricity, or running water, and bodies are literally piling up in the streets”
When the Houthis finally felt powerful enough to push south into Aden at the end of March, Saudi Arabia decided enough was enough. They quickly mustered a 10-plus country coalition of Arab and other foreign states to roll back the Houthi advances. The resulting airstrikes,
which were broadly supported by the United States, included multiple civilian sites, including a refugee and displaced persons camp, petrol stations, a soda plant, and dairy factory.
The human cost has been sudden and brutal. On April 11, the World Health Organisation released a report that said 648 people had been killed, and 2,191 injured since the start of Saudi bombardment. This number includes civilians and combatants, a third of whom are estimated to be child-soldiers.
But while Sana’a and the north are being pummelled, the suffering is even worse for those trapped in Aden. Simultaneously bombarded by the Saudi coalition strikes, caught up in the skirmishes between southern militias whose loyalties are ever changing, and the Houthis who are determined to take Aden’s port, Aden is going the way of Sarajevo. Since the beginning of the Houthi assault there has been very little petrol, cooking gas, diesel, electricity, or running water, and bodies are literally piling up in the streets. Less than a month into the campaign, the poor are getting poorer, the hungry getting hungrier, and the sick are dying. Pharmacies are out of medicines, bakeries out of flour, and petrol stations out of fuel. Noor Surib, a southern activist in Aden said “Every boy in Aden has joined the fight, even my brother. So many have died because of the bombs.”
Ahlam Mohsen is a freelance journalist witnessing the events first-hand. Whereas most foreign journalists have been forced to leave the country, including your correspondent, Mohsen, as a Yemeni-American, has been able to remain in Sana’a throughout the conflict. She has a stark message for the outside world: “If the conflict persists, there will be starvation.”
The blockade and bombing campaign have resulted in other unwelcome outcomes. Al-Qaeda sprung over 300 of its imprisoned members from a prison in Mukalla, a sea-side city in eastern Yemen on April 1. They quickly took over the city and the port, as well as the roads in and out of town. For a group that had retreated into the shadows following America’s sustained drone strikes of recent years, these are heady days.
There have been slivers of hope among the chaos. Khaled Bahah, a Yemeni politician appointed prime minister in November 2014, was appointed vice president by President Hadi on April 13 (though both were in Riyadh at the time of writing). His focus on the humanitarian situation, rather than on what each group can gain from armed struggle, offers some possibility that the conflict might end soon. Bahah plans to form a presidential council to be temporarily based in Riyadh, to mediate until the situation stabilises.
To Yemenis, the most important things to be protected are their faith, their women, and their land, all of which are tied to honour. The Houthis see the Saudi campaign as a great affront to their honour, and will not stop fighting.
But while they gather more supporters to push against this foreign intervention they are losing some of the national political support they had gained. Yemen is now hopelessly divided between the north and tribal groups in the south who want independence. There are also groups such as the Sons of Hadramaut, a newly formed tribal coalition to whom al-Qaeda is handing over control of the coastal city of Mukalla. These shifting alliances are compounded by politicians who use the chaos for their own benefit. Meanwhile the people, as usual, suffer the consequences.