Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, and has been suffering even further losses as a war between the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel movement. The people of Yemen are paying the price, as the conflict and a blockade have triggered a humanitarian disaster, with over 80% of the population in need of some type of aid.
Since March 2015, over 6,800 people have died, while over 35,000 have been injured. But what started this conflict? According to the BBC, the conflict has its roots in the failure of the political transition that was supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an uprising that forced its authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to transition power to Hadi, who was his deputy in November 2011.
Mr. Hadi inherited a variety of problems, which included al-Qaeda attacks, a separatist movement in the south, military still loyal to Saleh, corruption within the government, high unemployment and food insecurity. His presidency was clearly weak and the Houthi movement, champions of the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, took advantage. They had been rebelling against Saleh, and saw an opportunity to take control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighboring areas.
The Hadi administration’s transition lost the control by the attacks of Houthi movement. With the influence of the Iranian’s IRGC and pouring arms and training to the Houthis they had chance to take over the capital in early 2015 and the president ended up moving to the southern port city of Aden.
The Saudi-led coalition was alarmed by the rise of this movement, which they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran. Houthi leaders used militias developed in the 2000s, their skills in mobilizing tribal support and a Faustian pact with Salih to defeat Islah and, as a result, force President Hadi out of the country.
But the result of all this fighting has been an increase in local groups and sectarian tensions. According to Open Democracy, “The conflict will not lead to a clear victory: the Yemenis and the coalition will need to make some difficult compromises. Meanwhile, the destruction continues and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State terrorists are exploiting the situation.”
The problem with the transition that left Hadi vulnerable was that Salih was allowed to stay in Yemen as head of the GPC, but he was supposed to be kept in check by the threat of UN sanctions. But measures to break up the patronage networks in the armed and security forces were not fully implemented, enabling Salih to retain loyalty among the elite forces. The Houthis and the Southern Movement were excluded from the coalition government and inadequately represented in the NDC. Large sums of international financial support were promised, but little of the promised aid ever arrived. When Islah’s power grew, Salih joined forces with the Houthis to work together to counter it. Since that time, the divide in Yemen has steadily grown, as the Houthis and Salih’s forces have put Hadi’s administration on the run.
The Saudi-led coalition tactics are to use air power to degrade the military capacity of Salih and the Houthis, while also supporting local militias to fight the Houthis. The coalition has trained Yemenis in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen itself to form forces that could fight alongside reforming anti-Houthi military units and tribal militias.
The future of Yemen is not going to be easily decided on. This is because of several key factors:
- There are multiple players, each with a different agenda regarding the type of government the country needs.
- The backing of Houthis by IRGC and Iranian’s arms.
- The anti-Houthi resistance in the south, which wants southern independence.
- There is disagreement about a centralized or federated government.
- The economy is bad shape, after years of instable transition, fighting, and falling oil revenues. Damage has also been done to the infrastructure, which will require a massive input from the international community for reconstruction to take place.
The reality is that the longer the fighting continues, the more unstable the country will become and at the same time, the greater the humanitarian crisis will become.