Five things you need to know about the Yemen crisis

One year on from the Houthi takeover of Yemen, the conflict has no end in sight.

Sherine El-Taraboulsi

The market stalls in the old city of Sana’a boast an impressive collection of janbiya — the dagger carried by most Yemeni men above the age of fourteen. Intricate artistry goes into each: the carvings on the blade; the adornments encrusted across the handle; the weapon’s singular curve. According to Yemeni tradition, to raise your janbiya against somebody else is a disgrace: there are severe stigmas and punishments against those who dare to do so.

Or rather: there were. The other day a Yemeni friend described to me how, during the holy month of Ramadan, a petty argument at a Sana’a gas station escalated and ended in a militia member shooting an elderly man.

Bullets and bombs are tearing Yemen apart. Today, the janbiya’s honour code sounds like the relic of a lost and more innocent time.

‘No other option but to stay and fight’

And while the damage goes deeper than numbers, the numbers are staggering. According to UNICEF, 20 million people — that is, eight out of ten citizens — need humanitarian relief to survive. More than 1,500 people have died from the conflict. 3,600 are wounded. More than a million people have fled their homes.

The regional blockade on Yemen has worsened the crisis. A suffering and vulnerable population has nowhere to go. Some manage to flee to Malaysia; others to Djibouti, where the UN expects more than 15,000 refugees in the next six months.

Neighbouring countries make it almost impossible for Yemenis to enter. Jordan — already home to over 630,000 Syrian refugees — allows them to remain up to a month. Egypt demands a visa from Yemenis prior to travel, as well as security approval.

Faced with these restrictions, one young Yemeni activist explains: ‘We are left with no other option but to stay and fight.’

Two wars — and one mistaken narrative

The majority of the population is caught between two wars: a war launched by foreign coalition forces, led by Saudi Arabia, against the ethnic Houthis; another launched by the Houthis against pro-government forces.

Crushed by the two wars are the Yemeni people who are incurring the most losses — and losing all faith in both external and domestic political actors in the process.

The world, however, is being offered a different narrative.

A decisive victory by the Saudi-led coalition has been poised as the means to restore order and stability, by reinstating the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March 2015 as the conflict intensified. This proposal has UN backing too.

Consequently, the UN Security Council has forced an embargo against the Houthis as well as Ali Abdullah Salih — a former President of Yemen with whom the Houthis are in alliance.

While this simplistic narrative prevails, there can be no winners in Yemen

The ‘international community’ would like to see President Hadi reinstated and Mr Salih and the Houthi insurgency crushed.

As a result — the scenario goes — the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East would recede in Yemen (with the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq still raging).

Some believe that recent news about pro-government forces reclaiming the south of Yemen from the Houthis may confirm this scenario and herald the end of the Yemeni crisis.

Is that so? And in the event of the Houthis’ defeat, what does the future of Yemen look like?

Yemen was once described by the Greek geographer Ptolemy as Eudaimon Arabia, or ‘happy Arabia’. But Yemen is no longer happy. Its social fabric has incurred much damage and no quick-fix solution — such as the one touted by the international community, if it does come to pass — can heal the country’s deep and open wounds.

Five things you need to know

1. The conflict is packaged as sectarian, but it is not. This is a proxy war over resources.

The crisis has been portrayed as a Sunni versus Shia conflict, pitting the Saudi-backed Hadi front (Sunni) against the Iran-backed Salih-Houthi front (Shia). The Houthis may claim that they are rebelling against injustice and fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but this argument is undermined by the fact they have also claimed control over regions where AQAP is absent.

There is a more convincing explanation: back in January 2014, a peace-minded ‘National Dialogue Conference’ agreed upon a federal system that divided the country into six regions, with Sana’a having its own separate authority.

This division failed to take into account the resource allocation in the country, leaving the Houthis land-locked and impoverished.

2. Alliances are constantly shifting — sometimes absurdly. Future alliances may be unexpected.

The current alliance between Salih and the Houthis is purely based on interests.

Salih fought six brutal wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. It seems unthinkable that they should be allies today, and yet they are.

This alliance was further consolidated by the UN Security Council decision, in Resolution 2201, to enforce a collective arms embargo on Houthi rebels and their allies as well as issuing a travel ban and freezing the assets of Salih and his son. If anything, this brought the former arch-enemies closer together.

3. Without transitional justice, violence and resentment will simmer for a very long time.

The conflict traces back to the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative in 2011. The initiative was an attempt to ‘absorb’ a stirring revolution into a neatly-crafted agreement among the country’s elites, led by Hadi and Salih.

The then-president, Salih, handed his presidential power to his vice-president, Hadi. In return, Salih was granted immunity from persecution for episodes of violent repression that occurred on his watch. The immunity also applied to many officials who worked under the President during his rule.

As a result, no-one was held accountable for the killing of protestors. Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights reported that at least 2,000 people were killed during 2011. This included unarmed protesters and military defectors — and more than 120 children. 22,000 were wounded.

On Bloody Friday in March 2011 alone, over 57 people were killed. Among the deaths were 23 children.

The result was that Salih and his entourage continued to enjoy informal power, supported by a culture of impunity. Many Yemenis resent this.

The only solution is for the state to strive for justice and leave no-one immune from persecution. A transitional justice law is being prepared, but has little credibility with the public.

4. An entire civilian population has taken up arms. We may be looking at a Libya scenario.

There are around 1,600 militia and armed groups operating in Libya today — the result of divided loyalties between the two governments and small regional and tribal affiliations.

The proliferation of militias within the Yemeni population in the current civil war will be difficult to reverse unless there is a proper disarmament and post-conflict recovery strategy in place.

Crucially, it is difficult to understand or predict which groups are — and will remain — loyal to the government. But essentially, we just do not know who the Yemeni loyalists are.

5. Humanitarian aid is being used as a political weapon. The multilateral system is unwittingly responsible for that.

‘If the fuel arrives to Hodeidah, it is taken by Houthis. If it arrives to Aden, it is taken by pro-Saudi forces.’

This is how a Yemeni in Sana’a described the politics of access to aid to me.

He also pointed out the media’s role in skewing access to aid.

‘They must open a port to allow the aid in, and with coverage by international media. […] 90% of the media has been sold to the Saudis. And what reaches the world is only 10% of what is happening on ground.’

Yemenis need aid now — it can’t wait for a political solution

As threats of a food security crisis loom in the background, humanitarians are under pressure to do more while confronting a rapidly shifting socio-political environment.

A political solution is essential, but while international actors broker that solution, Yemen needs a concerted international humanitarian effort — not only to ensure access to ports, but to ensure that supplies are distributed properly to all regions without political interference.

This is a test for the humanitarian system. So far, it has failed.