Imagine a country steeped in poverty being attacked by some of the wealthiest nations on the planet. A sophisticated aerial bombing campaign has killed thousands of civilians and maimed many thousands more. Almost one-third of the population of 28 million are facing famine, and over half do not have access to safe water or health care. Nearly three million have fled their homes. There are so many groups fighting each other that nowhere is really safe in this country. Can you guess what country this could be?
Chances are you had not heard much about Yemen before recent news coverage of this war. The media is beginning to cover the conflict due to the human rights violations on all sides.
The official media treat the situation as a unified Saudi coalition vs a ragtag group of Huthi rebels who inherited the deposed President Ali Abdullah Salih’s military arsenal. The coalition is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with many hired mercenaries from several African countries, as well as from Academi, the new name of the infamous Blackwater private military service now located in the Emirates. This coalition has total command of the air and sea, unleashing thousands of bombing missions and blockading virtually all shipping coming to Yemen’s Red Sea coast. All of this requires logistical support from the U.S. and Britain. Most of the ground troops are poorly trained Yemenis paid by the coalition. Very few Saudi or Emirati soldiers actually engage in battle.
On the other side are the Huthis, who call themselves Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) and are a modern political branch of the Zaydi Shi’a sect that established an Imamate in Yemen’s north, which lasted until a republican revolution took place in 1962. The founder of this group was a politician named Husayn al-Huthi, who called for the overthrow of Salih and railed against “the United States, Israel and Jews” in an echo of the Iranian revolution.
The murder of Husayn by Salih’s military in 2004 led to several small wars that devastated the local economy in the north and displaced several hundred thousand people. Tensions between the Zaydi majority in the north and an imported fundamentalist Sunni sect financed by neighboring Saudi Arabia, were already high. The Sunni fundamentalists, known as Salafis, established a religious school in the Zaydi heartland, claiming the Zaydis were not real Muslims, and tried to convert Zaydi youth.
The Huthis have received moral support and a limited amount of military aid from Iran, which sees their rebellion as a thorn in the side of the Saudis. Zaydi Islam, however, differs in many ways from the Shi’a perspective in Iran. Iran does not share a common border with Yemen.
The wars between President Salih and the Huthis came to an end during the watershed moment of the Arab Spring. Salih was forced to resign in 2011 only months after Tunisian President Ben Ali fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, Egyptian president Husni Mubarak was removed from power and Colonel Qaddafi was killed. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a self-serving deal in which the sitting Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi would be elected as an interim president until formal elections could be held. A National Dialogue Conference was established to foster a new direction for the country. Although this included most of the political factions in Yemen, it kept the entrenched elites and ignored the youth who had led the street protests. Due to the corruption of Hadi and his government officials, an alliance between the Huthis and their tribal supporters in the north with Salih and his army units led to a peaceful takeover of the capital Sanaa in September 2014, after which Hadi resigned.
After occupying the capital, the Huthis attempted to spread their control to Yemen’s south, which had no desire to once again be under northern power politics. Many southerners favored secession due to the policies that Salih had imposed after a brief civil war that followed the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Land was confiscated by northerners, people disappeared, and the southern economy plummeted. After Hadi managed to escape to the south, the Saudis and the UAE put together a war coalition to put Hadi back in power with the full support of Western governments. This was the work of the young crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, who no doubt thought it would be a six-day war, but his “Operation Decisive Storm” has proved to be anything but decisive three years later.
Despite initial gains by the coalition in the south and along parts of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, the Huthi alliance controls the bulk of the population. Hadi is only recognized as legitimate by foreign powers and not by the Yemeni public. The war right now is a stalemate and unlikely to ever be resolved militarily.
The on-the-ground reality is a jumble of makeshift alliances. Until the murder of former president Salih in December, 2017, the Huthis had made a Faustian bargain with the man who ordered the killing of their founder. The Huthis oppose both al-Qaeda, a Sunni offshoot with roots to the Wahhabi doctrine of the Saudis, and the Islamic State (ISIS). They are also against the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party known as Islah. As enemies of the Huthis, al-Qaeda has been largely spared attacks by the Saudi coalition and Emirati troops. There are also regional tribal militias who provide a semblance of stability in their local areas. A southern secessionist movement in the south, supported by the UAE, took control of Aden from Hadi’s shadow government last May. From the outside this may look like chaos, but in fact the battle lines have been fairly stable over the past year. Warfare is not everywhere, and many communities have established their own local government structures, guaranteed security and provided welfare, drawing on traditional principles of community cooperation and mediation of disputes.
It is impossible to find anything positive in the current aggression of a Saudi-led coalition against an internal coup in its southern neighbor Yemen. The war in Yemen is one of those in which all sides are to blame. Each side claims the other commits atrocities without admitting their own. There are enough war crimes from the air and on the ground to keep the International Court of Justice busy for many years. The most recent tragedy happened Thursday, August 11, when a school bus with young children was hit directly by an American-made bomb dropped by the Saudis. As reported by UNICEF, over 40 young children were killed and over 50 more were severely injured. This story has garnered media attention, but it is only one of many cases of bombs, including cluster bombs, that have fallen on civilians and private houses, as well as mosques, government buildings and military targets. Several clinics run by Médecins Sans Frontières have been hit from the air, despite clear markings. Even historical monuments, like the ruins of the famous Marib dam from Queen of Sheba days, were bombed. Either Saudi bombers are very badly trained or civilians have been targeted on purpose to instill fear in the population.
In addition to the death and destruction by the Saudi-led bombing campaign, the battle on the ground has been ugly. The Huthi forces have imprisoned and tortured opponents, especially journalists. The street battles between the Huthis and southern supporters in the city of Taiz have devastated this major center. Egregious crimes are also committed by the small number of terrorists with links to al-Qaeda, which calls itself Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Sharia law) in Yemen, and the Islamic State. These groups, who benefited from a power vacuum due to the war, have bombed mosques and destroyed religious shrines. Ironically, the Huthis were arch enemies of both terrorist groups, but by default al-Qaeda became a silent partner of the Saudi coalition. If there are voices for peace in this political maelstrom, these are drowned out by the sound of money-making that arms dealers inside and outside of Yemen are making in the conflict.
I first visited Yemen in 1978 as an anthropologist to conduct fieldwork on the long tradition of irrigated agriculture in the highlands. My wife Najwa Adra, also an anthropologist, and I settled for over a year in a beautiful valley with many mountain springs. We arrived soon after the first car road to the valley and just before electricity arrived to nearby villages. There were high hopes for Yemen at the time as development aid poured in to improve health, education and the economy. Due to a lack of government services, communities pooled their labor and money to build roads, schools and health clinics. The Yemeni entrepreneurial spirit was evident in the new stores and markets that opened up. Women in rural Yemen moved about freely, not burdened with the full-covering ‘sharshaf’ of elite women in the city.
The Yemeni farmers I met were hard working, no-nonsense men and women who welcomed us as individuals. They were genuinely proud of their local knowledge of agriculture and the environment, patiently responding to the anthropologist’s unending questions. These were the days of the Cold War. As Americans, we were seen as good people, unlike the ‘godless communists’ in Russia. Thousands of Yemenis had worked in America, especially in Michigan, and returned to their homeland. There were no terrorist cells, and I never felt in danger, although most Yemeni men were armed. I returned to Yemen many times as a consultant on international development projects and as a historian, but one of the things I remember most is sitting with a man in 1992 in the valley I had lived in earlier. The subject of the recent American invasion of Iraq came up. He looked at me and said that now he knew that the American president was as bad as his own.
So why does the UN think Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, as it declared earlier this year? It is not the overall death toll, which is less than Iraq or Syria, but much higher than the report of 10,000 made over a year and a half ago. Rather it is the level of devastation in a place where there is little opportunity to escape. Unlike Syria, neighboring countries are not taking in Yemeni refugees. Most countries in the world will not even allow a Yemeni passport to pass inspection. The website of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documents the growing numbers of those in need of just about everything. A cholera epidemic has affected over a million people. Education has been interrupted at all levels due to the insecurity and bombing of schools. Famine is threatened, since Yemen depends heavily on imports for even basic food supplies. The population has reached an unmanageable 28 million with limited resources to support them. And to top it all off, Yemen is running out of water due to over-exploitation of its groundwater.
The bombing of a bus of very young children may actually make the nightly news, but the Secretary-General of the UN recently warned that every ten minutes, probably the time you have spent reading this commentary, a child dies in Yemen of a preventable cause. What makes the Yemen situation so dire is that there is no viable solution in sight. I am convinced that Yemenis could achieve reconciliation, given the long history of mediation among the tribes which are still dominant in the society.Yemen has never had a strong central government, so civil society has been based on customary tribal law together with Islamic law. The entrepreneurial work ethic still thrives. But peace will not come until foreign involvement ceases. As a realist I know this will not happen as long as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can buy the weapons and silence of Western powers. Please do not let them buy your silence.