Fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continues to harm civilians, drive displacement in the region, and restrict humanitarian access. In February 2021, Houthi rebels launched an offensive to seize Marib, the last stronghold of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, and in early March, Houthi rebels conducted missile airstrikes in Saudi Arabia, including targeting oil tankers and facilities and international airports. The Saudi-led coalition responded to the increase of attacks with airstrikes targeting Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The offensive has been the deadliest clash since 2018, killing hundreds of fighters and complicating peace processes.
How did the war start?
The conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011.
As president, Mr Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.
The Houthi movement (known formally as Ansar Allah), which champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and fought a series of rebellions against Saleh during the previous decade, took advantage of the new president’s weakness by taking control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas.
Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis – including Sunnis – supported the Houthis, and in late 2014 and early 2015 the rebels gradually took over the capital Sanaa.
The Houthis and security forces loyal to Saleh – who was thought to have backed his erstwhile enemies in a bid to regain power – then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Mr Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015.’
Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at defeating the Houthis, ending Iranian influence in Yemen and restoring Mr Hadi’s government.
The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France.
After six years of war, what is happening in Yemen?
Two months ago, with the war in Yemen entering its seventh year, the UN secretary general, in his appeal to funders at the annual pledging conference, reminded everyone that “More than 16 million people [in the country] are expected to go hungry this year. Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions. The worst hunger is in areas affected by the conflict.”
Yemen today has a population of 30 million people, with three million currently displaced. They are either hosted by relatives or in camps and informal settlements where they are dependent on humanitarian supplies since there is no employment and they are far from their lands. Another million have returned home after various periods of displacement.
More than 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas, and half of them depend heavily on agriculturally related activities. But the war has also encouraged many urban people to return to their villages.
So, why are people dying of hunger?
Yemen’s agriculture has for decades been unable to feed its population, which explains why Yemenis migrated to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – and earlier to the UK, US, South-East Asia and East Africa.
The situation in Yemen worsened significantly in the past three decades due to the water crisis, as well as other aspects of global warming, neo-liberal development policies and rapid population growth. In 1990, when the Republic of Yemen was established, it had 11 million people.
These factors have reduced the country’s self-sufficiency in grains (sorghum, maize, millet and wheat) to, at best 30%, with full self-sufficiency only for poultry, fruit and vegetables. Thus, the country depends on imports for 90% of its food, including staples such as wheat, rice, sugar, or tea.
Prior to the war, almost half of Yemenis were living in poverty, a figure which has now risen to more than 80% as a result of the collapse of the economy since the full-scale war started in 2015.
In 2014, the World Food Programme assessed that more than 40% of the population was food insecure, an ‘UN-speak’ euphemism for hunger. So given this situation and six years of war, it is little surprise that in 2021, the number rose to 54%.