The War in Yemen, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Christy Williams

Years of political instability in the Middle East’s poorest country culminated in the outbreak of civil war in 2015 and has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Why do the struggles in Yemen continue to rage on, and is the UK complicit in the situation?

The Arab Spring of 2010 saw a wave of anti-government demonstrations, protests and riots grip the whole of the Middle East due to widespread dissatisfaction with authoritarian and oppressive governments. Yemen was no exception to this and in an effort to suppress the unrest in 2011, political power was transferred from long-time President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

However, Hadi continued to struggle with the rising tide of dissent. A number of critical issues weakened his political grip over the country, including ethnic conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, separatist movements in the South of the country as well as an increase in terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda.

The deteriorating political situation opened the door to the Houthi movement, which claims to represent Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority. The anti-government sentiment from the Houthi movement boiled down to an ethnic conflict between them (the Shia Muslims) and the government and their supporters (Sunni Muslims). However, at the time many Sunnis decided to back the Houthi forces due to disillusionment with the incumbent regime; ultimately causing President Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015.  

This chain of events became a cause of great concern for the Saudi Arabian government, who supported Hadi’s government. As a result, a coalition of Arab states led by the Saudis, began bombing the Houthis in Yemen under the fear that they were a proxy to the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world: Iran (fighting for, or on behalf of, Iran’s interests without Iran’s direct involvement in the conflict). Rather than bring about a swift resolution (and the reinstatement of the Saudi government’s preferred political status quo with Hadi at the helm), the Arab coalition’s military intervention has only proved to escalate the conflict to the all-out proxy war it is today.

Yemen is now officially the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with more than 22.2 million people in need of assistance, so it may be shocking to learn that many regard the UK as complicit in the current situation. The United Nations has reported that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are the main cause of roughly 10,000 civilian deaths and more than 40,000 casualties. With it becoming apparent that coalition air strikes frequently target civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, Germany, Norway and Belgium have cut off their supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia.  

However, UK arms sales to the regime have increased by 500% since the start of the Saudi campaign and Britain is not the only advanced economy to export weapons to Saudi Arabia, with other EU states also profiting along with the US and Australia.

The impact on everyday life in the Yemen does not end with the immediate effects of the bombing. Cholera outbreaks have proven deadly, with fears that escalations in the fighting will cause the disease to spread further. Last month, Save the Children warned that cholera “could spread like wildfire” during the summer, and with the complete devastation of infrastructure and crippling of the health service due to the violence it is not hard to see how this could be the case.

With such a complex struggle still ongoing, political conflict between the Saudis and Iran at play and the continued flow of weapons to Salem’s coalition from countries including the UK, it is hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel for the people of the Yemen. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salam is very unlikely to withdraw any Saudi interest without a politically expedient outcome; something that has proven much more difficult to achieve than he initially thought. This relentless pursuit of an inaccessible political outcome only exposes the people of the Yemen to more violence and prolongs their terrible suffering.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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