Yemen’s struggle between Saudi bombs and Western neglect

At first, the crisis in Yemen followed the script of a typical “Arab Spring” revolt.

Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past few years the spotlight of world politics has focused in large part on diplomatic efforts to restore stability in the Middle East, on humanitarian assistance to asylum-seeking refugees and on military assistance to support the struggle of moderate allies vis-à-vis Islamic extremism. In most cases, though, these debates addressed the crises in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, there is another major battleground of this ever-volatile region that has been almost entirely forgotten – and that is Yemen.
At first, the crisis in Yemen followed the script of a typical “Arab Spring” revolt. In the heat of the anti-regime uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of the capital Sana’a calling for the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh – the autocrat who ruled the country since 1990.
But the vortex of popular turmoil and regime backlash turned increasingly violent and Saleh barely survived an assassination attempt. So in early 2012 he stepped down and handed the reins to his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, initiating what was intended to be a two-year transition.
In 2014, however, Hadi sought an extension to his term. At that point the Houthis – a Shi’ite movement from northern Yemen, allegedly supported by Iran, that had already clashed with the regime on several occasions in the previous decade – rejected the deal and began a violent insurrection, which soon escalated into a full-scale civil war. After months of clashes the rebels seized Sana’a, and later the presidential palace. Hadi was cornered. Initially he found shelter in the southern city of Aden, but eventually he fled the country.
The escalation did not go unnoticed, though. Following the president’s departure, on March 25, 2015 a US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by other Arab Gulf states launched a fierce military campaign in support the internationally-recognized Hadi government, and to prevent the Houthis from taking over the country.
Flash-forward one year, and the situation in Yemen is nothing short of a disaster. All the parties involved – coalition and rebels alike – committed serious human rights violations, including the bombing of heavily populated civilian areas, hospitals, schools, markets and even refugee camps. Since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention over 6,000 people have been killed – roughly half of them civilians, including over 1,000 children. The fighting has displaced 2.4 million people – close to 10 percent of the total population – while half of the country’s population has been classified as food insecure. That is partly due to the blockade enforced by the coalition, which severely reduced the inflow of vital goods – including food and medicine.
Also running water and electricity are in short supply.
So where are the diplomatic efforts and the calls for humanitarian assistance? Why isn’t Yemen on our everyday headlines just like Syria? Why is this crisis sinking into silence? There are several answers to these questions.
One is that in the lawlessness of this broken country, those who are supposed to deliver the headlines are repeatedly harassed, threatened and at times even assaulted and illegally detained. Consequently most local journalists have escaped, while the few that chose to remain are living in fear. As for the few foreign reporters that are still out there, they would rather keep a low profile in order to avoid trouble. This, however, means that Yemen hardly gets any media coverage. Less coverage means less exposure, which makes it harder for this crisis to climb the priority list of an already congested international agenda.
But there is more.
A second reason is the colossal failure of the United Nations. Last October, as a result of intense diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands was forced to withdraw a Human Rights Council draft resolution that would have dispatched UN investigators to inquire about human rights violations by all the parties involved. Eventually even the US and the UK ended up backing a different resolution, drafted by the Saudis on behalf of the Group of Arab States, that generically called for “technical assistance and capacity-building” for Yemen. Later, in February, the Security Council, too, passed its own resolution. Yet, it merely renewed last year’s sanctions against the Houthis and their pro-Saleh allies, without ever mentioning or condemning the actions of the Saudi-led coalition, and their disproportionate and often indiscriminate use of military force.
This leads us to a third explanation, which is the politically calculated reticence on the side of the US and Europe toward Saudi Arabia’s violations of human rights – both domestically and, as in the case of Yemen, abroad. With large parts of the Middle East crumbling under the pressure of civil wars, sectarian clashes and Islamic extremism, the West suffers a chilling shortage of reliable allies these days. And the Wahhabi kingdom, a key player on several fronts in the region, is not a partner worth alienating. Besides, Saudi Arabia is a particularly convenient ally to have in the Yemeni arena. With its mere presence it is preventing the country from spiraling out of control the same way Syria did after years of international neglect.
Is the strategic gain really worth the humanitarian cost? Last week on March 26, the day that marked the first anniversary of the beginning of the coalition’s campaign, thousands of Yemenis massed in the streets and squares of Sana’a. Their message seemed clear: no matter how much they may dislike the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is far worse. As for the US and Europe, nobody will ever admit that the humanitarian crisis is not enough of an incentive to take any decisive action. But the deafening silence of their governments and media speaks louder than a thousand words.
The author recently obtained a master of international affairs in international security policy from Columbia University.
Today he is an analyst for an international business consulting firm.