How Did the Conflict in Yemen Begin?
When the popular protest broke out in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States supported the rebels. They armed and funded the rebels all in the cause of democracy. With Saudi Arabia, the other GCC countries with the exception of Qatar wholly supported the idea of democracy but in Syria only.
Part of the reason for their support was that Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad is a Shia Muslim. The Saudi foreign policy from the time of King Abdullah is based on sectarian divisions. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know Abdullah had insisted that the US attack Iran and disliked the Zardari government in Pakistan because of his sect.
The American and Saudi pro-Sunni policy became clear, if it wasn’t already, during the Arab Spring. Where they supported a Sunni uprising against a Shia President in Syria, they opposed a Shia uprising against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia even financed and armed SIS as a counterweight to Hezbollah.
Just as Saudi Arabia intervened to counter a Shia uprising in Bahrain, it is doing so in Yemen. Nearly 80% of the Yemenis are Sunni. The Saudi-led coalition is fighting against the Houthis, who are Shia. Sunnis in Yemen are settled in the South and Southeastern region of Yemen, those are not battlegrounds.
The coalition is bombing areas where there is a predominantly Shia population. One reason for that is that majority of the Yemeni Sunnis remain loyal to the Saudi-backed President Haidi. But that is not to say that Sunnis haven’t suffered in the conflict as I will show in this article.
Houthis, on the other hand, are aligned with supporters of the former President Saleh and want shared power. Saudi Arabia and the US allege that Iran backs the Houthis, which might well be true. However, that does not justify the horrors that Saudi-led coalition has inflicted upon them.
Coalition Bombing is not the direct leading cause of casualties in Yemen
According to recent figures, 15,000 Yemenis have died as a result of Saudi aggression. But other experts estimate that deaths due to starvation, disease, and lack of proper healthcare services run into tens of thousands.
The only bit of attention the war in Yemen gets from the global media is when the Arab-coalition bombs a wedding ceremony, funeral, or a school bus. The other time when it carries out precision strikes on infrastructure with logistics support from the US and the UK, the war goes unnoticed. The strikes to cut off highways and take out centers of civilian operations may not cause the greatest number of immediate casualties but they usually carry the greatest impact.
Without highways, motorways, bridges, and roads, transportation is impossible for the opposition forces but it is also impossible for the civilians, who may need to go to the hospitals, schools, and food markets. Such sophisticated strikes that aim to cripple for opposition forces usually cause the greatest civilian casualties due to their trickle-down effect.
Last month, the Legal Centre for Rights and Development in Yemen put out a statement showing the number and type of buildings the coalition bombings had destroyed. To share a few stats from the statement, the coalition bombings have destroyed:
- 420,000 houses
- 930 mosques
- 888 schools
- 327 healthcare facilities including hospitals
- 38 news reporting outlets
- 749 food stores
- 621 food trucks
- 629 private businesses
- 362 fuel stations
- 310 poultry and livestock farms
Before the conflict began, Yemen had one of the worst healthcare networks in the world. It has only gotten worse after the coalition bombings. Maternity hospitals are running over capacity as they have to treat bomb injuries and accident victims with open wounds. To cater to those cases, they have to turn pregnant women away, who have no choice but to give birth on the hospital’s stairs.
Beds that expectant mothers should be resting on, comfort elderly people with serious injuries. Many more of the sick that need medical help usually cannot afford to pay for a taxi to the hospital. The system of private hospitals and clinics was never great, to begin with, but now the inflation has made them unaffordable for the majority of the population.
Private practicians, pharmacists, and doctors are selling their equipment and drugs for dollars and Saudi Riyals. State hospitals purchase drugs and equipment from them because the newly imported ones are costly and the state is unwilling to buy them in the face of growing economic crisis. A lot of doctors and other medical staff have left the hospitals due to payment disputes but some are still treating the sick. Why the government cannot pay its’ workers and buy the required drugs and medical equipment, I will later in the article.
Migration Trend Worsening the Yemeni Crisis
Yemen was not a self-sufficient country before the conflict. It had to import about 90% of its’ food items. The agriculture sector in Yemen only contributed 10% of the total national GDP. It received no investment from the state or private sector due to understandable reasons.
Yemenis living in rural areas were moving to urban cities. From 2010 on, Yemenis have been moving from rural to urban areas at the rate of 4.8% a year. Thus for planning reasons, the government already short on resources focused on investing in urban areas to cater to the demands of a growing population and ignored the rural areas completely.
However, life in urban cities wasn’t easy either but it was still a lot better than in rural areas. There was a middle-class culture on the rise where you could send your kids to colleges and open them up to opportunities that you didn’t have. Healthcare systems though inadequate, were there if you ever needed emergency services.
But when the conflict with Saudi-led coalition began, they specifically bombed urban centers. The former capital of Yemen Sanaa when it fell to the rebels, was subject to incessant bombing campaigns. They targeted schools, hospitals, food stores, and private businesses, not to mention tens of thousands of houses and apartments. Obviously, it wasn’t just Sanaa, the bombing campaigns stretched to the majority of urban areas under the rebel control.
As a result of these assaults on cities, Yemenis sought refuge in rural areas and villages in the country-side. Now since the Yemeni government had focused on developing the urban cities and ignored the rural areas, there are no or little resources left for Yemenis to live on. Life in rural areas was always difficult, now with the influx of urban population, it has only become more so.
There are no resources to settle and provide for the Yemenis seeking refuge in those areas. They may be safe from coalition bombings, they lack sanitation, clean water, food supplies, and basic healthcare facilities. As a result, Yemenis are dying of starvation, diseases, and lack of healthcare. So where bombs kill a few dozen people at a time, they initiate a chain reaction that ultimately results in deaths of thousands of civilians.
This is one of the ways the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni nations is inadvertently hurting Sunnis in Yemen.
The civilians living in the north and northwestern areas of Yemen along the Saudi border have fled to Sunni majority areas in the south and southeast. Those areas, like much of Yemen, were already battling food shortages as coalition strikes took out even food delivery vans to use famine as a weapon. Now with a growing number of people moving into those areas, the food situation is worsening by the day with little attention from the Western and Muslim media alike.
The human rights and independent media outlets that do cover the Yemeni war in its’ true context, lack the viewership that more popular media outlets have.
Use of Famine as a War Weapon
As said before, Yemen imports nearly 90% of its’ food items so naturally, the food prices are high. From the year 2008 to 2014, inflation in Yemen rose by some 70% while the wages have not increased. During the same time period, the Yemeni Rial lost nearly 30% of its’ value against the US dollar.
After the 2015 conflict, the inflation has further increased and the Yemeni Rial has lost over 10% of its’ value against the US dollar. Due to the coalition bombings of food stores, food vans, and lack of supply routes, the cost of imported food prices has skyrocketed. Before the conflict began, UN reports said that 45% of Yemenis were ‘food insecure’. The conflict has only worsened their plight.
Yemeni Economy in Absolute Tatters
The poor management of the Yemeni economy after the conflict has further exacerbated this problem. Before the conflict, Yemen had a central bank in Sanaa. It wasn’t perfect but it kept the wheels of the economy turning. Proceeds from oil sales and port revenue flew to the central bank from where the money was used to pay salaries of government employees.
President Hadi used these jobs to keep the popular discontent under control. Offering thousands to work for the state was a way to bribe people. Due to this, Yemen paid salaries to tens of thousands of ghost workers that didn’t even report to work let alone do an adequate job. Nearly $5 billion from Yemen’s national budget of $14 billion goes toward salaries. Despite high numbers of government employees, services to the public were not satisfactory.
Once Sanaa fell to the rebels, President Hadi moved it to Aden, from where it was managed or rather mismanaged. For several weeks, it did not even have a SWIFT code, which kept it out of the international banking system. These days, it is a central bank only in the name. Money from oil sales and port revenues rather than going to the Yemeni central bank go to a bank account in Saudi Arabia.
Due to this, government workers who lived on low salaries don’t receive their salaries for months. These salaries weren’t sufficient, to begin with, and inflation made things harder each year for the vast majority of Yemeni people. But whatever purchasing power their salaries had, it has virtually disappeared. What has also disappeared is the state funding to hospitals across the nation.
Even if the coalition bombing stops, it will take months and years until Yemen recovers from the devastation. Just on the financial side of things, Yemen needs about $14 billion in emergency funds to stabilize the economy and begin some work to improve the healthcare system and repair the infrastructure. New food supply routes would need to be built. All of this is unlikely to come about in the absence of a strong central bank.
Even if the Houthi offers for peace are accepted, there will be few immediate benefits beyond the cessation of bombing campaigns. If Saudi Arabia suspends the embargo on food and medicine supplies, it will be hard to deliver them to areas to which highways and motorways have been destroyed. In the face of the best case scenario that many are rightly hoping for, Yemenis might still face hardships for months or even years to come.