The Yemen Crisis

By Severin Kavanah

The crisis in Yemen is not a new phenomenon. The exact date it began is debated, but there is a general consensus that the crisis began in 2011, after the Yemeni revolution. However, conflict in Yemen reaches even further back than this point. In order to fully understand the crisis, the history of the region of the last century must be understood. 

The modern history of Yemen really begins with the conflict between the British and Ottoman empires over Yemen. Yemen passed under and fell out of Ottoman rule multiple times, but both the British and the Ottomans desired Yemen for strategic reasons. Britain, needing a place to service their ships while travelling to India, established the Aden protectorate in a large area of what is now Yemen. This threatened Ottoman hegemony in the region, and the Ottomans worked to control areas around the Aden protectorate and destabilize the British. The Ottomans never regained control, and the British held on to the Aden protectorate for quite some time, even holding off the Imams in the north of what is now Yemen who wanted to unite all the tribes of the area. This effectively split Yemen into a kingdom ruled by native Yemenis in the north and the British-ruled south. 

The next chapter of the history of Yemen is characterized by turbulence surrounding North and South Yemen. After the leader of North Yemen died, a military coup overthrew the monarchy and formed the Yemen Arab Republic in the North in 1962. Hostility towards the British in the South was already brewing, and the successful coup against the monarchy in the North only inspired more liberation movements such as the National Liberation Front (NLF). The loss of India as a colony in 1947 for the British meant that Yemen, a strategic extension of British Raj, was no longer useful and they withdrew after pressure from native Yemenis in movements such as the NLF in 1968.  South Yemen was declared the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. However, all was not well. The tension between the North and South, stemming from conflicts over the official border between the two, eventually led to multiple wars between the two until 1990, when the two governments finally agreed to merge into a democratic republic with Ali Abdullah Saleh as president. 

Yemen’s situation was not resolved after its unification. Saudi Arabia’s hostility, a failed coup, and multiple insurgencies have since plagued the country. Saleh remained president through it all. This culminated in the 2011 Yemeni revolution, which followed similar revolutions in the ‘Arab Spring’ in that the people protested economic conditions and major corruption issues. President Saleh was forced to step down and relinquish executive control to his long-term vice president, Abradduh Mansur Hadi, who was widely seen as a puppet for Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen. For many, this transfer of power was not enough. The Houthis constitute a political movement formed in the 1990’s and were largely united in opposition to President Saleh and the current administration, who they charged with massive financial corruption and supporting the interests of the USA and Saudi Arabian imperialism over the interests of the Yemeni people. Their revolt’s popularity rose with the Arab Spring protests, and their active fighting members likely number over 180,000. 

This violent rejection of the current administration prompted Saudi Arabia to begin Decisive Storm, a military operation including both an air campaign against hostiles in Yemen and the blockading of ports across Yemen’s shoreline. This operation is supplied with the necessary equipment for its success, such as aircraft and trained pilots, primarily by the USA and UK. Saudi Arabia has said the support given by the USA and UK is so large that the operation would be over in several days without it.

Rubble from the aftermath of a Saudi Arabian airstrike in Yemen (from UNDP)

According to the Human Rights Watch, the majority of the over 17,000 civilians killed or wounded in Yemen have been from Saudi-Arabia led airstrikes. Decisive Storm’s air campaign has devastated Yemen, but not as badly as the blockade. 80% of people in Yemen, a country with 24 million people, lack vital resources such as fuel, medicine, and even food and clean water. A cholera outbreak, which could have been prevented by access to resources, has run rampant through the entirety of the country. The current COVID-19 pandemic has similarly spread. The lack of access to fuel, medicine, and medical equipment means there were only 1,619 active health facilities in the country in 2017, and only a few hundred of these facilities were proper hospitals. The UN has called this the worst humanitarian crisis of today, and perhaps the worst famine of the century with 14 million people at risk of starvation. Some humanitarian organizations have even called the blockade a genocide, and many international political organizations such as the European Parliament condemn the operation as a whole. 

Saudia Arabia began Operation Decisive Storm because the administration views the Houthis as a proxy of Iran and wants to limit Iran’s influence in such a close country. The USA and the UK, as allies of Saudi Arabia, have supported this operation from the beginning. Whether it is true that the Houthis are a proxy of Iran remains to be seen, but it is likely that this allegation has just as much falsity as it does truth. The USA and Saudi Arabia have both claimed to have found Iranian shipments of weapons and pieces of Iranian technology in Houthi-controlled territory, but the United Nations and even US intelligence maintains that there is no official connection between Iran and the Houthi movement besides small-scale arms dealing. However, there are other reasons that these nations might be interested in restoring Yemen’s current administration to power and suppressing the Houthi movement. The movement is centered around anti-imperialism in Yemen and holds a special resentment of the USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Yemen, as a country rich with natural resources (oil in particular), has the potential to be an open market for western capital. This will likely not be the case if the Houthis take control of the country. 

The question thus arises: what can be done with this information? Can American highschool students do anything about this crisis? The answer is a bit of a mixed bag. The UN itself regards Operation Decisive Storm as unlawful and has repeatedly called for peace in the area, so it is highly unlikely signing petitions will convince Saudi Arabia to stop its campaign. Even donating is not very effective because of the blockade of Yemen’s ports. And here at home, very little can be done to stop US action. Both the Obama and the current Trump administrations have heavily funded and supported Operation Decisive Storm, and it is not a large part of today’s talks about foreign policy. However, not all hope is lost. Protests and demonstrations are a sure way to put pressure on elected officials to act in the interests of the American public if other forms of activism such as letters to local Congressmen do not have their desired effect. Abroad, Saudi Arabia has been losing ground in its campaign, and some journalists suspect that the outbreak of COVID-19 might be used as a cover for Saudi Arabia to retreat from this costly and unrewarding operation under the guise of pursuing humanitarian aid for those afflicted by the pandemic. 

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