The war in Yemen has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. Yet enduring peace remains out of reach despite limited progress on the diplomatic front.
For the past nine years, Yemen has been embroiled in an internationalized and civil conflict, inflicting a harrowing toll by fracturing communities, inflicting immense suffering, and imprinting enduring wounds on the country’s social, economic, and political structure.
The War in Yemen
Since September 2014, Yemen has been in a multi-dimensional conflict with devastating impact. In 2014, the Houthi armed group, in an alliance with the armed forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, forcefully captured Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, leading to the ousting of Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) organized a coalition comprising several Arab nations, embarking on an aerial bombing campaign against the Houthi-Saleh coalition in support of Hadi’s government.
As the conflict unfolded, the belligerent parties to the conflict became multiple. Numerous allies emerged besides the Houthi armed group, the Yemeni government, and the coalition. On one hand, Iran has been a strong ally of the Houthi armed group that controls Sana’a and significant parts of Yemen. Media and UN reports have accused Iran of providing military support to the Houthi rebels. It remains unknown the extent of the support. On the other hand, the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, and other countries have extended arms and military materials to the coalition.
Numerous peace initiatives have been attempted, including UN-led talks, but they have made limited progress. In October 2020, a series of truces commenced between the Houthi armed group and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition. In September 2023, Houthi representatives and Saudi officials had high-level talks in Saudi Arabia without a publicly disclosed peace agreement.
Despite a significant decrease, close to a near halt, in military confrontations between the Houthis and the coalition, Yemen is still far from attaining a state of complete peace, primarily due to the lack of formal peace agreement, the fragility of the ceasefire and violence continuation in some parts of the country, and lack of peace talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. Yemen is currently in a precarious “limbo” situation often described as “neither war nor peace.” The country’s current state is resulting in serious ramifications such as severe economic deterioration, an escalating humanitarian crisis, severe food insecurity, healthcare problems, and widespread displacement.
Poorest Arab Nation
When the war broke out, my primary concern wasn’t focused on the underlying causes of the conflict; instead, what troubled me deeply was the devastation the conflict would cause. It was easy for me to picture the devastating impact, knowing the imminent bombardment of the poorest Arab nation, Yemen, by some of the wealthiest Arab nations on the planet.
As I reflected on my upbringing in Yemen, I recalled the destitution. Yemen was consistently ranked as the poorest Arab country. On a daily basis, this meant that the majority of the population was illiterate, had widespread malnutrition, had inadequate access to healthcare, suffered from high unemployment, and had insufficient access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Basically, the country had a significantly underdeveloped infrastructure. As the war erupted, Yemen lost any development gains it had gained over the years. The conflict brought the nation to its knees, leading to unprecedented destruction. Aid workers described that they had never seen such destruction as in Yemen.
During the conflict, civilians and civilian infrastructures were targeted by all parties. Hospitals, school buses, markets, mosques, farms, wedding parties, funerals, bridges, factories, and detention centers have been bombed by coalition airstrikes and Houthi indiscriminate shelling and attacks, resulting in the deaths and injuries of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Almost 377,000 people have died, although many analysts believe the death toll is considerably higher.
More than the violence, other factors have led to another hidden, unrecorded death toll. The collapse of Yemen’s economy and healthcare system has had a devastating impact on the population. Millions of civilians nationwide have been struggling to make ends meet and access essential medical care. Nearly 80% of Yemen’s population needs some sort of humanitarian aid and assistance. More than half of Yemen’s 34 million population faces food insecurity. Over 4 million people are internally displaced persons due to the conflict. In a country where nearly half its population is under 18, children in Yemen have suffered the heaviest burden of this conflict, enduring its most tragic and brutal consequences.
To summarize all that unspeakable suffering, in 2017, the UN described Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War due to the conflict. We may explain the massive scale of devastation by analysts’ estimation that the war in Yemen had more devastation on the civilian population than on the combatants, while others estimate that the economic warfare “cost more lives than frontline fighting.”
International Actors’ Role
For the international actors, the war in Yemen was a profitable venture. International actors such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and other states firmly believed in Saudi Arabia’s ostensibly ingenious strategy to have a brief military intervention in Yemen and succeed in restoring the Hadi government. Consequently, they managed to initiate lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although reliable and official figures of how much those deals cost since the beginning of the conflict, analysts estimate they were worth billions of dollars. At this stage, the war in Yemen was seen as a lucrative business for the U.S. in particular. As CNN’s Wolf Blitzer retorted to Senator Rand Paul, who advocated pressuring the Saudis to end the war in Yemen war, “but a lot of U.S. jobs are at stake. Certainly, if a lot of these defense contractors stop selling war planes and other sophisticated equipment to Saudi Arabia, there’s going to be a significant loss of jobs, of revenue here in the United States.”
Several states in the West have supplied the coalition. The US, however, has been the most upfront supporter of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with billions of dollars worth of weapons that Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased. Additionally, the US supported them with training and logistical support, including aerial refuelling, until 2018, while the coalition was operating its aerial bombing campaigns. US-made weapons have been found in several sites of coalition attacks, where civilians have been killed and/or injured. Analysts, human rights groups, and myself have documented extensively the US complicity in committing war crimes in Yemen.
All parties have committed war crimes and serious violations of international law. The disheartening reality is that all those violations and crimes remain unaddressed. The US, notably, is not known to have initiated investigations into any alleged unlawful attacks involving its armed forces. Even today, none of the belligerent parties conducted credible investigations into their forces’ alleged violations of the laws of war. The parties refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for violations and show adequate accountability and redress for war victims. This has led to a complete lack of accountability and total disregard for protecting the Yemeni population.
The Futility of the War
Although Yemen is a tortured land marred by suffering, it retains unquestionable magic and undeniable enchantment. It’s an ancient nation with so much history and natural beauty that easily mesmerizes anyone fortunate enough to visit it, let alone its resilient people. Watching Yemen fall apart has been profoundly heart-wrenching, to say the least.
The conflict’s impact might be quantified through statistics about how many people were killed and injured and how many houses were attacked and damaged, but nothing can quantify how many dreams were destroyed, how many aspirations were crushed, and how many spirits were demoralized.
“The War Will End” poem by legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captures so many Yemenis’ sentiments about the futility of the war and the price ordinary people had to pay:
“The war will end
The leaders will shake hands
The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son
That girl will wait for her beloved husband
And those children will wait for their heroic father
I don’t know who sold our homeland
But I saw who paid the price.”
Indeed, the war has destroyed the social fabric and the political, educational, healthcare, and economic systems. The most agonizing loss, though, has been the loss of loved ones of many families in Yemen, making it painful to imagine a future without them. That has inevitably traumatized the nation, causing widespread post-traumatic stress conditions and widespread domestic violence. The conflict’s impact on people’s mental health will continue reverberating for years.
Ending the War
Even if the war were to end today, Yemeni people would endure the wounds and loss long after, impacting the well-being and resilience of the people for generations to come. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to bring an end to this conflict. Ending the war requires more than just a series of truces. Ending the war, once and for all, requires ensuring comprehensive, durable, and just peace. Belligerent parties must reach a peace deal that has at its heart providing justice and redress for the victims of war.
In a report published in 2021, the UN stated, “The cost of the conflict for all parties has been great. While the road to peace is likely difficult, the consequences of continued war are clear, and hope remains that effective Yemeni, regional, and international leadership can achieve a lasting and inclusive political settlement.” In my view, international leadership, represented in the UN agencies and international human rights groups, is vital, given the failure of the local and regional parties to prioritize the Yemeni people’s well-being.
The international community embodied in the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has been pushing for a peace deal in Yemen. Under his role, Grundberg has managed to substantially reduce violence in several truces since April 2022. However, the UN should and can do more than push for peace. It’s crucial that the international community put pressure on the local parties to end the civil war. Yemenis do not seek the world’s sympathy; rather, it’s the international community’s moral obligation to end this vicious war in Yemen, as many of their governments have benefited from the destruction of Yemen with their weapons. As they enabled the destruction of Yemen, they must end the war.
Meanwhile, Yemenis will dream of a day they can rebuild their country and, above all, rebuild their dignity.