Yemen is experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis globally, with more than 24 million people, corresponding to 80 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance and aid -- 12 million of whom are children. Years of civil war has brought the country's citizens to their knees.
Yemen’s conflict was initiated by the wave of Arab Spring uprisings that rocked the Middle East in 2011. The country’s failed political transition forced longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down leaving his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in power. Hadi has struggled to deal with the Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, which defends Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority. He has engaged in battles against Saleh the previous decade, and gained control of Saada province.
Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, Yemen has become inhabitable for the country’s children. Schools, markets, and hospitals have been targeted areas for attack, threatening the lives of youth. Family separations and deaths are high as a result of this conflict. One in four civilian casualties are children and more than 13,000 grave violations against children have been reported since the conflict escalated.
If families are displaced to areas where assistance cannot reach them, worse outcomes are possible. Famine may be possible if food supply is cut off for a prolonged period of time. In late March 2021, the Government of Yemen announced that four fuel ships would be allowed to enter the port of Al Hudaydah. This will increase the supply of fuel, providing some temporary relief for around one to two months. However, unless additional ships are permitted to enter the port, fuel shortages will most likely resume. This will continue to place upward pressure on food prices and threaten industrial activity, including the milling of wheat for food distributions and electricity for hospitals and water treatment plants.
The war in Yemen is a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iranian knowledge transfer and military aid to the Houthis, in violation of the targeted international arms embargo (U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216), has increased the Houthis’ ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. According to the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, “an increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.” In October 2020, Iran appointed Hassan Eyrlo as Ambassador to the so-called “National Salvation Government,” the Houthi-run northern Yemeni authority. The appointment made Iran the first country to diplomatically recognize the Houthis as a legitimate government since they seized control of the capital city of Sana’a in 2014.
Since the Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the Republic of Yemen Government in 2015, Houthis and coalition forces have been engaged in air and missile warfare. The Saudis have conducted numerous air strikes in northern Yemen, while the Houthis have launched ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into Saudi territory. As of early March 2021, reports of errant Saudi air strikes, that have resulted in civilian casualties, continue, though far less frequently than in earlier periods of the war.
While the Houthis do not possess a manned aircraft, they have conducted persistent ballistic missile and UAV launches against Saudi territory in an ongoing campaign in response to the Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing maritime blockade of Yemen’s west coast and closure of San'a airport. In February 2021, a Houthi drone attack against Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia struck a civilian plane, though no casualties were reported. In addition to aerial bombardment, the Houthis also have targeted vessels transiting the Red Sea or berthed in Saudi ports.
For the Houthis, the longer they remain the de-facto authority in northern Yemen, the more their rule becomes an accepted norm, with increased potential that such legitimacy could gain acceptance internationally. For the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the war has provided them with a foreign patron in the UAE and a degree of local autonomy not seen since before the unification of Yemen in 1990. For Iran, its military support to the Houthis has allowed it to again demonstrate how projecting power through proxy warfare is arguably a successful strategy for expanding regional influence.
Finally, while the UAE may have suffered reputational damage due its conduct in the Yemen war, the Emirates have gained influence along several Yemeni coastal port towns and islands, such as Socotra, Mayyun, Belhaf, and Mukalla. Unfortunately there is no country victorious in this war. Yemen will take a decade to recover from the ongoing situation and the actions of all parties involved will echo for generations to come.