In the shadow of Syria, Yemen has been
dragged over the last two years into an increasingly radical and deadly war in which the international community and the media have shown very
little interest. François Frison-Roche helps us to understand the causes and origins of this conflict
in the hope of saving it from the oblivion into
which it is sinking.
It has been almost seven years now since Yemen first became caught up in this complex conflict, the brutality of which is only now becoming obvious. Why so complex? Because it is made up of a several wars all happening at the same time.
One conflict, several wars
First there is the war between the “Houthi rebels*To avoid overly long footnotes, the “*”, refers the reader to a series of explanations given at the end of this analysis.”, part of the Ansar Allah* movement, and the Sunni “coalition” led by Saudi Arabia. This is the war we hear a bit about, as it is seen as a new battleground for two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are both seeking to preserve or regain hegemonic influence in the Middle East.
But there is also a war going on between the current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, who spent a long time in exile in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and is recognised and supported by the international community, and the elites of the former regime of the autocrat, Ali Abdallah Saleh*. These elites are composed mainly of various armed forces which have remained loyal to Saleh, are well-trained, well-equipped, and provide essential military backup to the Houthis. These confrontations have all the characteristics of a civil warEuropean Council on Foreign relations, Civil War in Yemen: Imminent and Avoidable, Policy Memo, March 2015, www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR_130_CIVIL_WAR_IN_YEMEN_(final).pdf .
And then there is yet another war between north and south Yemen. This war is the result of long-standing and latent antagonism dating back to the war of unification in the mid-1990s and aggravated by a heightening conflict between Shafi Sunnis* and Zaydi Shiites*. The significance of this relatively recent “confessionalising” of the conflict should not be over – or underplayed. In fact, it is a reflection of ancestral tribal struggles that have always been an important part of Yemeni political life, itself inextricably embroiled in interplay between the many networks of political and clientelistic alliances developed over the last thirty years.
And finally there is the war against the terrorist groups of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQPA)Jack Serle, “Yemen: Reported US covert actions 2016”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 18 January 2016, … Continue reading and Daesh. This war is the most blurred of all, with examples of manipulation and instrumentalization concerning both groupsFranck Mermier (interview): « Saleh brandit la carte du terrorisme à chaque fois qu’il est en mauvaise posture », France 24, 30 September 2011, … Continue reading. Although these two enemies are clearly identified in the West through the actions they carry out in different countries, their strategy in Yemen is much less clear. Indeed, in Yemen, it is difficult to know exactly who they are fighting with or againstYara Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari, “How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger and richer”, Reuters, 8 April 2016, … Continue reading.
But for the last two years, it is mainly the first of these wars that has been devastating one of the world’s poorest countries. And it is a “silent war”, at least when compared to the amount of media coverage devoted – and rightly so – to Syria.
Yet the horrendous statistics published by major international organisationsWorld Food Programme, Yemen: Situation Report, n°24, 14 November 2016, http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/ep/wfp288756.pdf?_ga=1.145710386.745854827.1481553103 and aid NGOsPremière Urgence Internationale, Conférence de Presse Yémen : six ONG internationales alertent sur une catastrophe humanitaire oubliée , … Continue reading. Since the start of the conflict, at least 10,000 people have been killedKareem Shaheen, “Yemen death toll has reached 10,000, UN says”, The Guardian, 16 January 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/16/yemen-war-death-toll-has-reached-10000-un-says and the thousands left injured have no access to proper care as the hospitals have been destroyed in bombing campaigns and drugs are in short supply. So far, the fighting has led to the displacement of more than 2 million people and this figure is likely to increase. More than 21 million of Yemen’s 25 million inhabitantsThere are around 20 million inhabitants in the north of the country and 5 million in the south., or 82% of the population, are in need of aid and 14 million are food insecure, with 7 million suffering from severe hunger. In several regions, famine has set in and without rapid action it looks set to take on catastrophic proportions and start claiming victims among the most vulnerable, especially children. Before the war, Yemen imported around 90% of its food. Is the air and sea blockade put in place by the Saudi-led military coalition part of a political ploy to starve the Yeminis to death for want of being able to defeat the “Houthi rebels” on the ground?
| Yemen: the challenge of maintaining a humanitarian access
While most institutions, donors, and diplomatic representations in Yemen have, in the last two years, closed their representative offices or temporarily relocated elsewhere, humanitarian organizations have been struggling every day, without very much support, to remain in the country and deliver increasingly vital aid.
Maintaining a humanitarian presence in Yemen has become increasingly complex, as none of the belligerent parties helps to make the successful delivery of aid possible. The increasing fragmentation of the conflict – as described by François Frison-Roche – has given way to a multiplicity of parties and decision-makings bodies with which NGOs must negotiate in order to carry out their activities, each party having different, if not contradictory, demands and procedures, and each party regularly putting into question prior decisions. In addition, the country’s civil servants – including health workers – have not been paid for months. The main consequence has naturally been the further decline of Yemeni public services, such as hospital care, due to lack of personnel, which results in a greater need for humanitarian aid. This effect was especially noticeable during the management of the cholera epidemic in October 2016. Out of the forty Cholera Treatment Centers officially operating in the country, a very small number of them actually receives and treats patients, due to a lack of personnel, a shortage of medication, and long customs delays. Nearly 15 million Yemenis no longer have access to the country’s health system, as more than half of the health structures are out of service.
The non-payment of salaries has also further delayed the issuance of administrative authorizations (visas, travel permits, programme agreements, etc.). At the same time, NGOs are facing mounting pressure from the authorities to address this problem and pay the salaries of civil servants providing these services, be they administrative staff in charge of granting authorizations, or health personnel, for example.
Given that the humanitarian situation has become so dire, that the economy of the country is on the verge of collapse, and that the belligerent parties refuse to recognize the impartiality of operational NGOs in the conflict, State control of humanitarian aid is now being played out at all levels. Authorities regularly interfere by wanting to participate in the drawing up of needs assessments – unless they perform these assessments themselves – and they intervene when lists of beneficiaries of humanitarian programs are being compiled, so that they can include their own people. Objections raised by NGOs frequently lead to reprisals, ranging from threats to arrests, violences, bottlenecks in the delivery of authorizations and visas, searches in NGO offices, etc.
Faced with this situation, humanitarian organizations have jointly developed common operational standards to maintain a concrete coordinated approach in line with humanitarian principles, which should allow them to approach these matters with the authorities. The time allocated by humanitarian organizations to open the dialogue with local and national authorities, to inform them of operating procedures, and to clarify the roles of each constituent has become a priority for all those involved.
The obstructions to providing assistance caused by hostilities are unrelenting. Bombings were extremely heavy after peace talks broke off between August 6th and December 2016. The targeting of civilian infrastructures (schools, hospitals, harbors, bridges, markets, etc.), of roads and checkpoints (with greater intensity during this period), resulted in having activities and travel come to a halt due to the absence of a safe and viable process of deconfliction . Since early January 2017, these dangers have resurfaced with greater intensity after the launch of a new military offensive along the coast by the Saudi-led armed coalition. The conflict thus shows no signs of abating, and the humanitarian space needed for NGOs to operate is not getting any better. Despite this, NGOs are assuring their presence, and are managing to provide humanitarian assistance that is now more vital than ever. In the case of Action Against Hunger, more than 250,000 Yemenis benefited from health and nutritional support programs, and from food and water safety measures and sanitation in 2015. These programs were further developed in 2016, notably following the cholera epidemic. But NGOs themselves need support to maintain their presence and pursue these actions, financially speaking, naturally, but also to preserve their direct dialogue with the authorities. Given the magnitude of the crisis, all those involved – institutions, benefactors, and diplomatic representations – need to speak out to help the humanitarian community gather the support it needs for it to gain greater access to all victims of the conflict.
Translated from the French by Alain Johnson
Two aggravating factors
This brief study focuses on two points in particular, both likely to worsen and lengthen the conflict. The first is internal and concerns the Yemeni president’s decision to transfer the country’s central bank. The second is external and concerns “commercial competition” between major powers over weapons sales, competition which is certainly helping to temper diplomatic pressure by western countries on Saudi Arabia.
To begin with the internal issue, despite strong qualms on the part of the International Monetary Fund, albeit cloaked in respectfully diplomatic languageInternational Monetary Fund, IMF Statement on Yemen, 22 September 2016, www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2016/09/22/PR16421-Yemen-IMF-Statement, President Hadi’s decision on 19 September to transfer the headquarters of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) from the capital, Sana’a, to the “temporary capital”, Aden, has dealt a heavy blow to the country’s humanitarian situationInternational Crisis Group, Central Bank Crisis Risks Famine in Yemen, 29 September 2016, … Continue reading. Until the move, the CBY had been one of the rare institutions still functioning thanks to a tacit agreement between the two Yemeni parties to the conflict. Despite the fact that the regular resources that used to constitute the country’s budget (royalties from the export of gas and oil, international aid) had completely dried up, the CBY was using its reserves to continue paying the salaries of all the country’s public servants and soldiers (i.e. about a third of the population), regardless of their political or religious allegiances in the conflict.
This transfer, supposedly for technical reasons, is having serious consequences because, in Aden, the CBY no longer has enough fundsSaudi Arabia is thought to have sent funds to the CBY in Aden in January to pay salaries, but only those of public servants and soldiers loyal to president Hadi. or sufficiently qualified personnel, that all stayed behind in Sana’a. This fact is more serious than it might appear on the surface. For example, the new CBY headquarters in Aden is unable to provide the letters of credit or commercial guarantees needed by local businesses to buy supplies on the international market. The buying cycle, which takes about two or three months, is running out of steam, which will inexorably lead to more shortages and worsen the famine taking hold of the country. Consequently, the global food crisis, which was already affecting the population at the end of 2016, seems likely to reach a peak during the first quarter of 2017L’Orient Le Jour, « Les importations de blé entravées par le transfert du siège de la Banque centrale », 19 December 2016, … Continue reading.
As a result of this move to Aden, the only ones left to supply the starving population are traffickers, often controlled by the Houthi clans or by the former president. Herein lies the paradox of this decision: it strengthens the predators, and harms the immense majority of the country’s population, especially in the north, forced to endure a political situation with objectives they don’t necessarily share.
As for the external issue, there is little point in lending too much impact to the recent claims by the United States to have cancelled an arms deal with Saudi ArabiaL’Orient Le Jour, « Les États-Unis annulent une livraison d’armes à l’Arabie saoudite à cause du Yémen », 8 October 2016, … Continue reading.
Trade in the front line?
A few figures suffice to reveal the extent of the commercial interests linked to this forgotten war in Yemen. According to a serious Swedish NGO, SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace research Institute), Saudi Arabia was the third largest arms importer in the world between 2011 and 2015SIPRI, “Asia and the Middle East lead rise in arms imports; the United States and Russia remain largest arms exporters, says SIPRI”, 22 February 2016, … Continue reading. In 2015, its military expenditure is thought to have been in excess of 87 billion dollarsSIPRI, Military expenditure by country, in constant (2014) US$ m., 1988–95, www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-constant-USD.pdf (last page). Again according to SIPRI, between 2009 and 2016, Saudi Arabia bought 43% of its arms from the US (a market of 115 billion dollars according to the Congressional Research ServiceChristopher M. Blanchard, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations”, Congressional Research Service, 20 September 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33533.pdf (table on the last page). ), its other major supplier being Great BritainDavid Wearing, “A shameful relationship: UK complicity in Saudi state violence”, Campaign against arms trade, April 2016, www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/stop-arming-saudi/a-shameful-relationship.pdf … Continue reading. Some Yemenis are concerned about US and UK neutrality with regard to the conflict as, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Foreign Affairs ministers of these four countries form the “quartetAbdul Hadi Habtoor and Adhwan Alahmari, “Quartet Meeting: Completion of Steps before Transferring Powers of Yemeni President”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 20 December 2016, … Continue reading” charged with helping to formulate and support a political solution in Yemen.
According to figures provided by the official DSCA (Defense Security Cooperation Agency) website, since the start of the air campaign against Yemen by the Saudi-led military coalition – 2 years ago at the end of March 2017 – the US authorities have approved the sale of more than 20 billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabiawww.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales; www.dsca.mil/tags/kingdom-saudi-arabia. The cancellation of this munitions deal for an estimated 500 million dollarswww.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/kingdom-saudi-arabia-ksa-ammunition-royal-saudi-land-forces-rslf – which has not even been confirmed“Saudi official denies reports US has decided to restrict military support”, The Guardian, 18 December 2016, www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/18/saudi-arabia-yemen-us-military-support-john-kerry – puts both the effects of this measure and the distress of the American authorities into a certain amount of perspective.
Of course, optimists will see this cancellation not just as a sign of “exasperationSimon Henderson, “Saudi Arms Restrictions Reflect U.S. Exasperation Over Yemen War”, The Washington Institute, 15 December 2016, … Continue reading”, but as a clear warning issued by the United States to their long-standing partner in the region, Saudi Arabia. Pessimists, on the other hand, might well see it as smokescreen for hiding its strong support to a country which has been its ally since the end of the Second World War and is considered to play a crucial role in regional stability.
Great Britain is also very mindful of its commercial interests in the region, as its weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are a godsend for its weapons industryCampaign Against Arms Trade, “Saudi Arabia”, 26 October 2016, https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/saudi-arabia. Despite Saudi Arabia recently acknowledging its use of British-made cluster bombsForeign and Commonwealth Office, “Government response to Parliamentary Committee reports on the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen”, 14 November 2016, … Continue reading, the UK has no intention of changing its policy towards the Gulf countries in general, even if it forces the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to publicly rebuff her Foreign Affairs ministerPatrick Wintour, “Theresa May cuts Boris Johnson adrift ahead of his visit to Gulf”, The Guardian, 8 December 2016, … Continue reading.
Meanwhile, and despite criticism mainly from English-speaking NGOsSébastian Seibt, « Des ONG dénoncent les controversées ventes d’armes françaises à l’Arabie saoudite », France 24, 23 August 2016, … Continue reading, France is trying to step into this US/UK-dominated market. According to SIPRI, it is only supplying 5% of Saudi Arabia’s weapons imports at the moment, as confirmed by the organisation Control Arms which compiles lists of weapons sold by France and other countriesATT Monitor, Dealing in Double Standard. How Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia are Causing Human Suffering in Yemen, Case Study 2, 2016, … Continue reading. However, according to reports in the Saudi press, a visit by the French prime minister to Riyadh has led to the promise of numerous contracts thought to amount to several billion dollars“France signs deals worth €10b with Saudi Arabia”, 13 October 2015, Gulf News, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/france-signs-deals-worth-10b-with-saudi-arabia-1.1600340.
Today, Yemen is no longer really a state. The “central government”, whose functioning had long been little more than façade, is now in a state of total collapse. Among the very numerous explanations put forward for the causes and enduring nature of this conflict, those discussed in this brief study are rarely alluded to, probably because they are not considered paramount. But we believe it is important and necessary to bring them to public attention.
As well as inflicting great suffering on the population, the war raging in the south of the Arabian Peninsula will no doubt deal a fatal blow to the very idea of a Yemeni nation. This conflict, entirely a Yemini affair at the outset, looks set to transform this country into a fragmented community of entities, varyingly and diversely influenced, and led by whoever manages – one way or another – to come out on top, by force of arms or with the support of self-serving allies. Is this really what the international community wants when what is still sometimes called “Arabia Felix” adjoins another fragile area, the Horn of Africa? If Yemen is allowed to sink into chaos, there is every reason to fear that the situation in Somalia and Eritrea will become even more volatile. A concentration of various armed forces (France, United States, Japan and Germany in Djibouti) or the establishment of bases (China in Djibouti, UAE in Somalia and Eritrea) in the area could lead to escalations and loss of control, with an inevitable “boomerang effect” for a number of countries in the region, especially Egypt, as well as for the international community in general.
Translated from the French by Mandy Duret
ISBN of the article (HTML) : 978-2-37704-170-1