Since 2014, Yemen has been torn apart due to the conflict-turned war between the two governments in the country- one led by Abdrabbuh Hadi government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the other by the opposition group, the Houthis. While we see statistics, death tolls and pictures in the news, it is difficult to actually imagine the depth of difficulties encountered by countless civilians in the country. Here, I have put together a history of what caused the conflict in Syria, leading to what is deemed as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The Houthis in Yemen
The Houthis are an Arab tribe residing in northern Yemen. It was under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al- Houthi that the Houthi movement was formed in the 1990s. The formation of the group was a reaction against the then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was charged with financial corruption and for forming an allaince with the US and Saudi Arabia. According to the Houthis, the alliance was created at the expense of the Yemeni natives and by sacrificing the country’s sovereignty. Moreover, they claimed that the government personalized the state and altered the constitution according to their personal gain, leaving the country to battle various issues.
The Houthis promoted a Zaidi (one of the sectors in Shia Muslims) revival in Yemen. Influencing the public of the Zaidi ideologies came as a reaction against the government’s alliance with foreign powers. The Houthis feared that Saudi Arabian ideologies would be forced upon the people.
The movement was formed to fight corruption, political marginalization and economic distress. Other than these, it aimed for a more democratic government and sought to create greater autonomy in the Houthi- led regions of Yemen, as the government discriminated against these areas. Combating corruption remains the main goal of the movement.
The rift between the Houthis and the government led to Saleh issuing a warrant for the arrest of Hussein, the leader of the Houthis. Resisting the arrest, Hussein was killed in 2004 along many of his guards by the army of Yemen. The incident built up the group’s anger and resentment towards the government. After Hussein’s murder, it was his brother, Abdul Malik al- Houthi who led the movement.
Early Unrest- Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni Revolution (2011)
Ali Abdullah Saleh had been the President of Yemen for thirty three years when the Yemeni Revolution broke out. The country was in deep distress which continued to worsen under Saleh’s governance. The economy plummeted. Unemployment rates kept going up, especially among the younger generation. More than half the country suffered from unavailability of basic goods and a shortage of food and water. People who lived below the poverty line suffered from chronic hunger. The government was accused of corruption, draining the country’s treasury and ignoring the plights of the poor.
In 2009, there were talks that an amendment was drafted by the government to be implemented into the Yemeni constitution. According to the draft, it granted Saleh the right to remain in office for life, much to the outrage of the Houthis. Protests grew far and wide calling for Saleh’s resignation. In order to prevent political suicide, Saleh was forced to concede and in July 2010, agreed to a national dialogue between his ruling party and the opposition party.
There were two purposes of the national dialogue. One was to ensure that all the issues, grievances and conflicts of all the relevant political parties in Yemen are addressed. However, the main aim of the government was to present and debate with the Parliament regarding the amendments in the constitution. The amendments’ purpose was to remove any clauses limiting presidential terms, thus ensuring that Saleh would be able to remain President for life. The plan was to finalize the changes before the parliamentary elections in April 2011.
However, a few months after agreeing to the national dialogue, Saleh dug his own grave by ordering his ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) to withdraw from the dialogue. This was done after months of negotiating with the opposition on how to engage in a national dialogue- members of the GPC and six opposition parties, called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) had even drafted a map for the national dialogue. A string of decisions came from Saleh which led to public outrage- he announced that despite the nationwide protests from the opposition, he would go ahead with the elections. He also amended the electoral law and single-handedly appointed a committee to manage the elections to ensure his re-election.
Saleh’s actions are believed to stem from the fact that he received no financial aid from a meeting of the Friends of Yemen (FoY) in New York a month before the national dialogue. In the meeting, progress made by the government regarding political and economic scenarios were discussed. Yemen hadn’t made much progress in either of these two, and the FoY only called on Saleh to speed up the dialogue in order to create security and stability in the country. So returning empty handed, Saleh’s decision to cancel the national dialogue and rig the elections only added fuel to the already unstable situation of the country.
Despite appeals from the opposition parties, activists, independent politicians and even members of the GPC to reinstate the national dialogue, Saleh went forward with his unlawful plans. By the end of the year, the US Department of State urged the Yemeni government to resume the dialogue and delay any amendments to the constitution.
In January 2011, the revolution began. Nationwide demonstrations and protests demanding the president to step down erupted. Although Saleh agreed not to seek re-election, the protests’ gained momentum. Security forces and parties supporting the government clashed with the opposition, leaving over 2000 people dead. The passing of the days saw thousands of civilians killed by the security forces, turning Saleh’s own men against him. Towards the end of March, Saleh fired his entire cabinet. The government’s violence in repressing its people prompted the Yemen ambassador to the UN and to quit as sign of protest. By then, the opposition was backed by several army commanders.
More bloodshed and an assassination attempt later, Saleh finally conceded to sign over his powers to his Vice President, Abdrabbuh Hadi in September 2011. Hadi was sworn in for two years in February 2012. He was the sole candidate.
The Hadi Government and the subsequent conflict
Hadi’s election was boycotted by the Houthis and other oppositional parties. It was widespread opinion that Hadi was weak and his administration was corrupt, much to the displeasure of the opposition parties. As if to reinforce public opinion, the transition of power from Saleh to Hadi failed to bring any reforms or improvement to the country. The crises that Saleh failed to deal with- food and water shortage, unemployment and failure to unify the country- followed Hadi into his presidency. Adding to the already exiting issues, Hadi had to struggle with attacks from extremists groups and jihadists. As for the security forces, they were still loyal to the former president. The disillusionment lead to the growing power of the Houthis, who began to gain support from the other natives and opposition parties. Even the security forces loyal to Saleh joined them, though it is reported that they did so in order to regain power.
In an attempt to bring the country’s diverse political parties to address the crises and to ease up the transition process, the National Dialogue Conference was conceived by the government in March 2013. A year later, Hadi proposed that Yemen, in the future, will shift to a federal model of government. However, this move brought more dissatisfaction amongst those who resided in north-western Yemen. The mountainous region was the region most affected by poverty, and Hadi’s decentralization of the government meant that the region and its people would receive even less money from the government. Their issue was all the more relevant given that a majority of the country’s population had resided in the region for several years. Hadi’s move meant that the rebellious groups emerging from the mountains would be subdued due to lack of financial aid and administrative obscurity. Moreover, the country’s oil wealth and foreign profits would be directed towards the regions of Hadhramawt and Saba’, the two least populated areas of Yemen. In reaction to the government’s actions, the opposition groups, (all rival, political, tribal, religious and social groups) held a national dialogue to draft a new constitution and to delay elections in 2014. However, it only fell apart.
In late 2014, the Houthis, along with Saleh’s supporters and army, attacked Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, forcing the government to share power. When Hadi proposed a federal constitution, it was met with opposition. Hadi’s decision to increase fuel prices led to mass protests that finally led to his resignation in 2015.
Hadi was arrested by the Houthis in early 2015, but escaped and fled to Saudi Arabia. The growing rebellion in Yemen alarmed Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab States began targeting the Houthis through air strikes and restoring Hadi’s government. Soon, Aden was established as the temporary home to the government, but providing basic security and services proved difficult. The president continues to stay in Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis claim that they are the new government. They continue to seize more and more of the country’s territory, while regularly launching drone and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The alliance between the Houthis and Saleh crumbled in 2017 when both groups fought to take control of Sanaa’s biggest mosque. Saleh cut ties with his supposed allies in an attempt to regain power for his family, leading to violent clashes. The clash led to the Houthis taking complete control of the city, in which Saleh was killed. The former president’s forces turned against the Houthis.
In 2019, Abqaiq and Khurais, Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil fields, were attacked by air. The attack disrupted almost half the kingdom’s production of oil. Although the Houthis have claimed it was their doing, Saudi Arabia and the US believe it was from Iran. The chaos in the country have ensured the emergence of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group has taken control of the southern territory and carry out regular attacks against Aden. In January 2020, the Houthis sentenced Hadi and his Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik to death in absentia through the Specialised Criminal Court. According to the sentence, the two were guilty of abuse of government estates, high treason and looting the country’s treasury. Meanwhile, air strikes continue with the UN’s attempt to create peace going nowhere. Saudi Arabian infrastructure, including oil tankers, international airports and facilities have been attacked by air. To make things worse, Yemen’s secessionist groups in the south, which are supported by the United Arab Emirates, have ended up clashing with UN- recognized government forces.
While the civil war continues to destroy the country, the US continues to fight terrorism by implementing counterterrorism operations through air strikes, targeting the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although the Houthis’ activities do not pose a direct threat to the US, the air strikes carried out against Saudi Arabia does threaten one of US’ important partners.
Significance in Anthropology as a Humanitarian crisis
The effect of the war on Yemen’s civilians is deemed as the worst humanitarian crisis.
Since Saleh’s government came into power, the country has been ravaged by poverty, hunger and unemployment, so it hardly needs to be said that the war has only worsened the people’s plight. The number of deaths due to the air strikes led by Saudi Arabia is staggering. The damage caused by the war to the infrastructure makes it harder for the UN and Western allies to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.
The Houthis have faced international outrage for violating humanitarian laws. This includes recruiting children for the war, shelling and bombing civilian areas, using landmines, forcing the remaining civilians out of their homes and executing them. They have also come under fire for interfering with the country’s human rights advocates and organizations in providing aid. Food trucks and aid have been diverted and removed by the Houthis, to be sold in the open market to those not entitled to it. To extort money from whomever they can, the Houthis have been reported to hold people, often children below the age of eight, hostage. Underage girls have been taken away from their homes to act as nurses, informants and guards, which is indeed unusual given that Yemen is an extremely conservative country. Many of these girls suffered sexual violence.
Chronic hunger, malnutrition and diseases stalk the civilians, killing millions. The millions who need food and water are just one step away from famine, according to the UN. Less than half the country’s medical facilities are still functioning, which are severely underfunded. Access to clean water and adequate sanitation is almost non- existent. The inadequate health care has also led to the largest outbreak of cholera ever recorded. More than 3. 65 million civilians have been rendered homeless, and the number only keeps mounting. According to the UN, the death toll from the now raging pandemic could surpass the combined death toll from war, disease and hunger from the past five years.
When President Biden came into office, he announced that he was withdrawing whatever support Saudi Arabia was receiving from the US. All US backed weaponry and arms were halted. With the withdrawal of the US, it is claimed that Saudi Arabia has lost the war on Yemen, but it doesn’t mean that the war is over in Yemen. Civilians need food, water, medical assistance and homes. Moreover, the country has declared a state of emergency due to sharp increase in corona virus infections.
Yes, the whole world is suffering due to the pandemic. But a few other countries have other conflicts tearing them apart too. Many of us have the privilege of having a roof over our heads, access to food, water and medicine. From our part, we can only send out prayers to those engaged in civil wars.