Who is responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen?

Before presenting the rhetoric on Yemen’s catastrophe and its stakeholders, it would be wise to understand the demographics and geo-political significance of the country. Shia Muslims make up to 45% of Yemen’s population while they are only 15% of the total world’s Muslim population. Thus, learning these numbers, one can estimate the influence they have on the nationhood of Yemen. 

Yemen, also, has geographical advantages; some of them being strategic control over the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which are vital maritime transits, and the country’s distance from the horn of Africa. 

Yemen’s prominence at the ‘gate of tears’ (Mandeb Strait) makes it the controller of the global oil chokepoint. Though the proven oil reserves in Yemen are quite meagre by the middle east standards, their vicinity to these maritime corridors makes them a global player on the international waters. These determinants are not enough to secure the fundamental needs of the citizens.

According to the UNHCR, 80% of Yemenis do not have access to basic living necessities; more than 66% of the population suffers from the scarcity of food, water and sanitation, and the country land has been the epicentre of the world’s worst cholera famine.More than 30 lacs Yemenis are suffering from acute malnutrition. Despite all this, the nation is home to around three lacs refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. The UN declared this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Has this famine naturally occurred, or has it been inflicted on the people? If yes, then is there just one stakeholder in the series of developments or many? Studying the political dynamics, inside and outside Yemen, is a prerequisite to concluding answers of these questions with an objective analysis of the situation.

Quite a few factors can bring instability in a country and make a country tough to manage  — one of them being variable geography as Yemen is a land that has mountains, deserts and canyons. Weakness in history might also be a factor as countries like Egypt have had a strong history and good reigns (which had led to development) while Yemen does not as Roman and British empires for colonisation always contested it. Choices made by leaders have the most immediate apparent effect. Yemen has been a victim of all three.

Political crisis in Yemen has been present since the Arab Spring in 2010. Ali Abdullah Saleh is a former military officer of Yemen and the first president of united Yemen. He wanted his kin to walk down the posterity of the country by amending the constitution to omit the term limit of the president, which eventually would make him the president for a lifetime. Protests against this planning broke out on the streets, and the destabilisation had initiated. 

By then, corruption and bribery had peaked, and 30% of the revenue did not go to the government’s treasure. Yemen had become the most impoverished middle east nation with unemployment being 35%, and the illiteracy rate is 50%. Even until this, tribals had not rebelled as Saudi Arabia financed them since the country’s rulers backed Saleh. 

The government then was occupied with its internal power politics which resulted in an unstable and divided military. Meanwhile, Houthis, a Shia group, arose to rebel against the government, in North Yemen, alleging that it kept Shias and tribals deprived of the development they deserved. At the same time, Al Qaeda had started making their place in South Yemen. Since Saleh was a Sunni and Shia are nearly half the population, the situation started to slip out of hands for Saleh. Iran, being a Shia majority state, supported Houthis and deployed Naval assistance at the Gulf of Aden. Iran also found its place in the domestic politics of Yemen since Saudi Arabia supported Saleh.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two controlling rival powers in middle east politics, and due to this, a proxy war has started in Yemen. On one side, Houthis were becoming powerful because of Iran’s assistance and Al Qaeda was growing on the other side. These sandwiched the already divided military from both sides. Saleh sought help from Saudi Arabia who bombed all the Houthi territories in Yemen. In 2012, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi became the president who started with repairing and stabilisation.

Nonetheless, until then, Houthis had become very powerful with the support of Shias, all the tribals and assistance of Iran. Al Qaeda had spread widely in the south due to the weak military. The impotence of the military was primarily due to Saleh’s power-driven decisions and the military attention given to Houthis. 

Ultimately, Houthis overthrew the government and took over Sana’a (the capital). The capital’s occupation compelled Hadi to divert the entire government to the north, making the south vulnerable to Al Qaeda, which finally established itself in south Yemen. Later on, a peace agreement signed between the government and Houthis proved to be in vain when Houthis house arrested Hadi, who escaped to Saudi Arabia via Aden. Hadi launched Operation Decisive Storm with the help of Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen.

Unlike surgical strikes, which are precise to their targets, arbitrary bombing destroyed the civilian life taking down hospitals and schools. The scenario became nasty when Saudi Arabia bombed seaports, and all the food supplies had terminated, which led to starvation. This starvation and malnutrition resulted in epidemics like cholera and diphtheria.

Some thinkers propose the theory called ‘Weak-State Syndrome’ that has hit Yemen. The syndrome can be caused, majorly, by two factors. First, international law and institutions assure the authorities of their territorial command irrespective of how feeble the authority is. Second, the government adopts common strategies such as taking the support of elites by granting them access to wealth and power or suppressing the opposition to destroy the institution of democracy or manipulating ethnic and religious groups. The proxy war sparked between Iran and Saudi Arabia brought many players on the field. 

A severe problem with Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is that even after being declared as the worst in the world by the UN, the western media did not give it the much-needed coverage. The journalism in the west goes around covering only Syria since the USA is directly involved there. Even if Yemen is, ironically, fortunate enough to get some attention, the media portrays this as a black-white situation, completely antagonising Houthis. The media pictures this condition wherein the angelic government is pitted against the demonic rebellions, conveniently ignoring the fact that the government was responsible for the poverty and unemployment in Yemen. This bias in western media is also because the USA, indirectly, supports Saudi Arabia. 

The US is a war-based economy which has corporations like The Boeing Company and Airbus who profit from war. Also, the fact that the US makes one-third of the total weapons world exports cannot be ignored. Moreover, the US factor becomes prominent as it is the provider of more than 40% of weapons in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia has been the top recipient of its weapons from 2011 to 2015. Not wanting to upset its customers is one of the reasons that the US stays away from Yemen yet actively participates in its proxy war against Russia in Syria. Therefore, the US and Saudi Arabia defence ties turned out to be Hadi’s trump card in the civil war.

Finally, coming back to the original dilemma of who is to blame; is it the Al Qaeda who is ethnically cleansing the youth only to make a wasteful psychopath out of them? Or, is it Saudi Arabia who is relentlessly bombing the country? Or, is it Iran who helped the rebels in the first place to bring destabilisation? Or, maybe the US who, despite being a self-acclaimed superpower, cannot think of anything but business? Or, is it the national leaders who took the Yemenis for granted the entire time? Or finally, is it the media because of whom the situation is as it was ten years ago since they never let the world know and do anything about it?

Indeed, there are many stakeholders in causing and worsening the crisis. However, in the end, the problem of Yemen is more significant than its reasons. Playing the blame game and putting the ball in someone else’s court would be useless if it does not help the people of Yemen. Media and unbiased journalism can better the situation as media houses can influence the world public opinion. Throughout history, we have learnt of how global public opinion compelled the US to change its Vietnam policy and was the real strength behind Nuclear disarmament. Thus, the media is one institution that has the potential to bring a change towards betterment.

Studying proxy wars and the aftermath of them has always been vile. The national leaders of every nation need to realise that it takes just one wrong decision, of taking their citizens for granted, to make their country a playground for despots to lord over another and end up stifling the public. Ultimately, no one wins, people lose and the country gets doomed. 

Samruddhi Pathak is MA DLB student in Jindal Global University.

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