Yemen's Complex Catastrophe


Yemen’s Complex Catastrophe

A slew of actors vying for influence in Yemen have created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with atrocities on all sides and no end in sight

By Sam FouadSeptember 16, 2019 ・ 25 mins.


AS OF TODAY, September 16th 2019, Houthi rebels have pulled out of three key Red Sea ports in Yemen, in a partial implementation of a ceasefire agreed upon to allow in imperative humanitarian aid. The three ports of Hudaydah, Salif, and Ras Issa will be handed over to the Yemeni coast guard, while the United Nations has been given access to help in the removal of trenches, barriers, and mines. The port of Hudaydah is especially vital, as it is the main lifeline for two-thirds of Yemen’s population. The Houthi withdrawal from these ports marks the first major step in bringing the ceasefire agreed upon in December 2018 to fruition. Even as many view the Houthi withdrawal as a positive step, Yemen’s internationally recognized government has condemned the UN for handing over vehicles to Houthi rebels in their demining process, calling it a “new scandal.” Yemeni government forces accuse Houthi rebels of using these vehicles in combat instead of for their intended use of demining these seaports. A seemingly innocuous attempt at restoring order has become a tense, political stand-off between the two main factions. 

The conflict that has engulfed Yemen the last few years is long and complicated, as wars tend to be. But the complexity of this conflict is only eclipsed by that of Syria in modern times. This sad story, and stain upon the world for letting it continue with no end in sight, begins in early March of 2011. Back then, protests against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who had resided as president of Yemen for 33 years—emerged in the form of throngs of people in the capital of Sana’a, and spread like wildfire across the country. Since the start of these protests, Saleh’s forces beat and attacked protestors in the streets. In some areas, pro-government demonstrators fought with hundreds of protestors who were calling for Saleh to step down. In other areas, police killed protestors by gunfire as they moved to disperse them. Elsewhere, someone threw a grenade from a car at protestors, resulting in one person’s death. As the days geared into weeks and the weeks ground into months, pro-Saleh supporters and security forces continued to attack and kill protestors in the streets.

Events came to a head in mid-March of 2011, when more than 100,000 Yemeni protestors filled a mile-long stretch of road near Sana’a University. They had congregated there for a prayer ceremony mourning the loss of seven protestors killed in clashes with police the prior weekend. As the prayers came to an end, smoke from a burning car caught the protestors’ attention. As they moved towards it, security forces began shooting into the crowd. Soon thereafter, plainclothes men began firing down on the crowd from roofs of nearby houses. The most common injuries were bullet wounds to the chest and the head, as well as exposure to teargas. Up until this point, government forces had mainly been using water cannon, rubber bullets, and teargas to disperse protestors. At the end of it all, security forces killed 45 protestors in Sana’a.

Protestors face security forces in Sana’a in 2012.

Protestors face security forces in Sana’a in 2012.


Soon after this massacre took place, Saleh found himself abandoned by many of the tribal leaders he had bribed for so long, as well as by the military itself. Dissident army generals accused Saleh of surrendering the southern province of Abyan to “terrorists” and actively called for more troops to defect. Many tribal leaders also viewed Saleh as a man with rapidly waning power and confidence. Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, a member of Yemen’s most powerful tribe, the Hashid, announced that he was resigning from Saleh’s corrupt ruling party and joining the revolution of the young people.

 As pressure continued to mount against Saleh, he eventually stepped aside and passed the baton of corrupted power to his then Vice-President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi became president in a shoddy, referendum-like election that was supported by the international community but was quickly shown to be incapable of uniting the various factions that existed in Yemen, or of inspiring any confidence among the Yemeni people. Houthi rebels concentrated in northern Yemen and Saleh supporters joined forces in a fight against Hadi’s government. By the fall of 2014, Houthis took over Sana’a and, by the start of 2015, forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, where he’s been hiding ever since.

Back in Yemen, 2017 ended with the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was killed near Sana’a, purportedly by Houthi rebels who shot at him in his car. His death at the hands of the Houthis, with whom he previously had friendly relations, was apparently retribution for his attempts at seeking peace with Saudi Arabia. Since that time, fighting has continued with cities and towns changing hands between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government led by president Hadi and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Various Yemeni tribal leaders aligned themselves with the Hadi government, the Houthis, or struck out on their own, hoping to seek independence. The United States and other Western countries have continued to assist Saudi warplanes with logistics and intelligence data, while terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS have continued to make the most of the vacuums that exist in the nation. Since early 2015, the Houthis have held firm control over the capital city of Sana’a. Hadi has lived in Saudi Arabia since then and his internationally recognized government has been based in the southern city of Aden for the better part of the last four years.

The power vacuum after Saleh’s death was the main factor for the chaos and violence that ensued. Since Saleh was all Yemen had known for so long, the country lacked a thriving civil society and nepotism ran rampant, as is common in many Arab countries. His son, Ahmed, had run the Republican Guard, an elite formation of the Yemen Army, with troops numbering between 30,000 and 100,000. Furthermore, at least two dozen family members had held key government positions, in the oil ministry, the national airline, and security agencies, and as the Deputy Prime Minister and Ambassador to the United States. As a result of years of corruption and nepotism, power had been condensed in the hands of a few. Once the main players were disposed of, it has become extremely difficult for the rest of the nation to unify itself. When the power vacuum was created, the lack of a stable, governing bureaucratic class resulted in years of bloodshed between numerous entities on an even playing field, without one singular party taking the upper hand.  

The bribing tactics from both Saleh and the Saudis eroded the fabric of the country and contributed to the numerous fissures we now see taking place in Yemen. Saleh had managed to keep the country united mainly by bribing tribal leaders to remain in line. Adding further layers of decay to any notion of national sovereignty and stability was the fact that the Saudi government also often paid tribal leaders to ensure stability and obedience in its southern neighbor. Saleh had also clung to power by using the oft-used justification of keeping terrorists at bay, in this case, Al Qaeda. Even if this assertion was not always true, only the perception was necessary to strengthen his grip on the country’s seat of power. The removal of Saleh from the equation along with the residue of rampant corruption added fuel to the fire that was already simmering in the country.

Adding another layer of complexity to the utter chaos and destruction that has befallen Yemen is the sectarian angle. The Houthis belong to the minority sect of Shia Islam in Yemen, and the role of their Iranian benefactors has been a mitigating factor towards any prospects of peace up until this point. According to the Middle East Institute, Iran’s support of the Houthis grew increasingly open and transparent in the summer of 2014. At that time, Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran and agreed to increase their cooperation with Iran. Shortly thereafter, Iranian supplies and personnel, including Lebanese Hezbollah allies, began flowing into Yemen. Iran also increasingly promoted their own Twelver Shiism over the traditional Zaydi sect practiced in Yemen. This deepened sectarian divisions in the country. While the conflict is most likely more about power and the control of resources than it is about any neat tropes regarding sectarianism, Iranian support for the Houthis­—regardless of how effective it may be­—has added fuel to the anxious fires of Saudi regional hegemony.

Meanwhile, sectarian conflict in Yemen has been further heightened by the presence of extremist groups. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda continue to wage a battle of attrition for territory, recruits, and influence. While ISIS in Yemen was originally formed in 2014, it has steadily ramped up its operations and taken advantage of the chaos in the country. In April 2019, ISIS fighters deployed suicide bombers against al-Qaeda positions. A tribal group affiliated with al-Qaeda responded by offering a $20,000 reward for the death of a local ISIS leader. While these groups in other parts of the world fight for something akin to global, theological dominance, the battle in Yemen seems to align more with political and economic ambitions, with many skirmishes taking place along Yemeni oil shipping lines. Battles between terrorist groups such as these add yet another dangerous layer to any frameworks for peace that may be agreed upon by adding potential wildcards to the mix. Even in a country with a history of strange bedfellows, suing for peace with the Islamic State or al Qaeda because of the influence they may wield adds yet another volatile component to the existing collection of actors.

As the sectarian dimension added more vitriol to the conflict, a Saudi-and UAE-led, U.S.-supported coalition entered the fray. On 25 March 2015, this coalition was authorized due to a call for help from Hadi. The coalition, named Operation Decisive Storm, promptly launched a vicious aerial bombing campaign that has now lasted for four years and counting. The United States has backed the coalition, providing logistics and intelligence support for their air campaign. At the same time the ire of the coalition manifested itself via shadows of aerial machinery against the Houthis and Saleh supporters, al Qaeda and ISIS fighters swarmed towards neglected areas of the country such as parts of the south and the city of Aden, Yemen’s second largest city. According to a 2019 report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the escalation of the conflict since March 2015­—due to Operation Decisive Storm­—has dramatically aggravated the crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and basic rights.  


The interjection of Operation Decisive Storm into the Yemeni conflict has proven to be a turning point for the worse. The UN reports that more than 20 million Yemenis are food insecure. An estimated 7.4 million people require services to treat or prevent malnutrition, and 17.8 million people lack access to safe water and sanitation. At least 17,700 civilians have been killed or injured since 2015. Furthermore, the Yemeni economy has contracted by about 50 percent since March 2015. These unfathomable figures became what they are today through a steep increase in warfare, catalyzed by the intervention of the coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  

The humanitarian crisis that has befallen the Yemeni people since then has gradually drawn the attention of other countries. Since 2016, the United States Congress has attempted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia multiple times, with none of the resolutions making it out of their committees. The Obama administration did suspend an arms sales deal with the Saudis at the end of 2016, but all arms deals were promptly resumed by the Trump administration. In the United Kingdom, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales issued a ruling on June 20, 2019 on the UK’s decision to continue licensing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The UK government will now have to reconsider these decisions on the correct legal basis. Given the atrocities of Operation Decisive Storm, the decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia must now take these horrid truths into consideration. For their part, Russian officials have met with both Hadi and Houthi leaders. Russia has held a policy of ‘universal engagement’ since the start of the war in Yemen. In April 2015, Russia was the only country to abstain from a UN resolution that imposed sanctions on senior Houthi officials. China, however, has been actively supporting President Hadi and has created informal partnerships with pro-Saudi factions in Yemen.


Yemenis protest against the bombardment by F-16 fighter jets in 2016. F-16s are used by the Saudi-led coalition supporting Hadi’s government against the Houthi rebels.


The Trump administration has also continued to veto any Congressional attempts at ending U.S. support for the Saudi aerial bombardment, which­—according to a new UN-commissioned study by the University of Denver­—will have led to 233,000 people dying by the end of 2019. This includes 140,000 children under the age of five. The study also projects that Yemen will have lost $89 billion in economic output by the end of 2019. If this war continues through 2022, 482,000 people are estimated to die. If it continues until 2030, the death toll will reach 1.8 million, including 1.5 million children under the age of five. The Trump administration has so far shown no signs of discontinuing its support of Saudi Arabia’s horrific war. Likewise, UK, Russian, and Chinese support for this Saudi-Emirati war has been holding steady, despite attempts by some of their legislative bodies to change.


The rise of the Houthis as a major force in the Yemeni conflict, as well as the out-of-proportion Saudi response of utter annihilation, has led to what has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations. As of February 2019, close to 80 percent of Yemen’s population needs assistance and protection. In the past four years alone, at least 17,700 civilians have been killed or injured and roughly 3.3 million people are currently displaced. Furthermore, a famine has been ongoing in Yemen since 2016, which has put over 17 million Yemenis at risk of starvation. The famine has also been compounded by an outbreak of cholera, which is resulting in 5,000 new cases each day. Yemeni infrastructure has essentially ceased to exist, as UNICEF claims that Saudi-led airstrikes have been deliberately targeting water systems.

These astonishing figures make it almost impossible to imagine the scale of death and destruction that has ravaged Yemen. Given the consistent media coverage of the unfathomable carnage, the fact that the situation in Yemen is a worse crisis than that of Syria points to a failure of leadership and coverage from global governments and media. There should be more consistent media coverage and international leaders must take a harder line than they have and currently are. In the United States, many Republican lawmakers have given pro-war speeches to continue assisting the Saudis in their war on the House floor. In November 2017, former Representative Ed Royce gave a speech supporting the war that had been scripted by a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia. The ongoing war in Yemen similarly points to a failure of UK, Russian, and Chinese leadership. In a move that is currently being challenged by the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, the government in Britain has provided the Saudis with Typhoon military jets, as well as the ammunition, training, and technical support required to keep those jets operational. A former British technician recently told Channel 4 that if UK support was withdrawn, there wouldn’t be a single jet in the sky over Yemen within seven to 14 days. Continued international support for Saudi Arabia will allow for the war to end only once the Saudis have destroyed whatever is left of the northern and western parts of Yemen.

As this conflict continues, the war’s reach expands to new areas and dimensions outside of the plane of conventional warfare. On May 14, 2019, Houthi rebels began launching drone strikes against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. So even as they are withdrawing from seaports in apparent gestures of goodwill in allowing humanitarian aid to be brought into the country, striking Saudi oil facilities erodes trust in negotiation. As Houthi officials begin to defect to Saudi Arabia as the war slogs on, these drone strikes may be a play at strengthening support in northern Yemen. Such attacks publicly show the local population the Houthis’ ability to counter Saudi attacks and may be an attempt at tightening their grip on the areas they still control. 

Yemenis stand next to a house destroyed by bombardment in Sana’a, 2016.

Yemenis stand next to a house destroyed by bombardment in Sana’a, 2016.


A new wrinkle in this war is that the UAE has purportedly begun drawing down its forces, pulling out several thousand troops from Yemen. The Emiratis are not entirely quitting on the war, but they are diverging from the Saudi strategy and mission, which is to utterly defeat the Houthis. The UAE says their troop reduction is a show of good faith towards negotiating an end to the war. Furthermore, Yemen’s Saudi-backed government was ousted recently from areas in the south of Yemen by UAE-supported southern separatists, causing further strain to what seemed to be a solid UAE-Saudi relationship. But on September 8, 2019, a joint statement from the UAE and Saudi Arabia “reaffirmed continued support for the legitimate government of Yemen” and called on all factions to cease “all military operations” and to “stop media propaganda”.

Whether or not the Houthis, Emiratis and Saudis agree to resolve the war diplomatically remains to be seen. The fact is that the UAE has not disclosed how many troops they are withdrawing, and this withdrawal is unlikely to tip the scales on the battlefield. Factoring in these fissures in the Emirati-Saudi relationship, the situation remains extremely complex and deadly on the ground in Yemen. A peaceful end to this conflict in the near future continues to seem increasingly unlikely due to the many parties involved and the fragile unity that exists even amongst parties that are seemingly allies.

No sides in this conflict are innocent of death and destruction. For this reason, more courage is needed from any countries that are still capable of valuing human life above their geopolitical interests if there is to be an end to this war. While discontinuing Saudi support will not immediately end the war, or even necessarily slow it down, the continuous aerial bombardment must stop. As the last few years have shown, the current trajectory has only resulted in the loss of life and infrastructure, and has not brought the war closer to an end.  ❖


Sam Fouad is a communications specialist, global affairs analyst, and photographer based in Washington, D.C. He is always looking for opportunities in journalism and photography. You can see his work and connect with him at @_saf155


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