Yemen’s humanitarian decline continues amid devastating war

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

The Saudi-led war in Yemen began in 2015. Since then, it’s become one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions lacking adequate food, clean water and medicine.

In Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, the streets are lined with trenches reminiscent of World War I in anticipation of a ground invasion. Residents speak of frequent rains of flyers dropped by Saudi and United Arab Emirates jets warning civilians to pack up and leave. Street cleaners tell of sweeping up body parts and washing away blood left behind from aerial bombings.

This is the latest stage in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which began in March 2015 as an effort to restore a Saudi-backed government. It has since descended into a fight to propel the stature of Saudi and UAE leaders, who staked their reputations on the assault.

The conflict catapulted then Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman onto the world stage. The well-funded and Western-supplied Saudi and UAE military were supposed to have won the war in a couple of weeks. The Saudi capital, Riyadh, would then have walked away with a friendly government installed in Sana’a, its new young and ambitious monarch having won the title of an assertive leader swift to use ‘decisive force’. The UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, bin Salman’s chief coalition partner, would also have fostered his regional pursuit of influence and prestige while initiating his military as a regional power.

But, four years later, the so-called Arab coalition forces are bogged down in a quagmire that has devastated their southern neighbour, creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Millions of people are without adequate food, clean water and medicine. The country is at risk of a third cholera epidemic amid the ongoing violence. Instead of winning hearts and minds, many Yemenis now routinely refer to both Saudi and UAE forces as ‘mercenaries’ for their extensive use of foreign troops from different parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Iran-allied Houthi guerrilla fighters – once a ragtag, lightly armed group banished to caves and mountaintops – are gaining military experience and skills. They have succeeded in firing missiles on Riyadh. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ largest producer had to stop its oil delivery through the Red Sea – albeit only for a few days – after similar Houthi missile attacks.

The fact that the Houthis have now mostly stood their ground after four years of war has confounded the Saudis and Emiratis even further. Part of the increased Saudi and UAE ferocity is their bid not to be thwarted by guerrilla fighters when they have spent billions of dollars on modern Western weaponry and regularly receive intelligence and refuelling aid from the United States military.

Part of the increased Saudi and UAE ferocity is their bid not to be thwarted by guerrilla fighters when they have spent billions of dollars on modern Western weaponry

And so, despite the laws of war that prohibit attacks on civilians, on 11 August, Saudi-led coalition fighter jets bombed a bus in Dhahyan district, resulting in the killing of 47 civilians, mostly children, and wounding dozens. Hospitals, restaurants, wedding parties and schools have also suffered in the continuing onslaught.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, an international humanitarian group, says civilians now wholly bear the brunt of the regional power play: ‘The imposition of a full blockade on Hodeida Port in November 2017 set off dramatic inflation across the country that has since continued, despite the resumption of imports. The inflation has made basic goods and fuel unaffordable for most people.’ 

Shireen Al-Adeimi, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, says that the majority of Yemenis lost their jobs or continue to work without salaries after the Saudi-backed government led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi moved the Central Bank to Aden, causing most government workers to lose pay. ‘It’s difficult to describe the situation without using extreme terms,’ she says. ‘My own family members tell me how unaffordable things have become in Yemen, and of course, for millions of people, nothing is affordable anymore... The health sector and the economy have been the hardest hit.’

Recently announced plans by Saudi and UAE forces to intensify the battle for the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah Port have incensed aid groups, who warn of further suffering for the city’s 600,000 inhabitants and the rest of Yemen. Hodeidah is the main port of entry left open for shipments of food and medical supplies for the 75 per cent of Yemenis who now depend on outside aid for survival. 

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some 350,000 inhabitants have already left the port city, and a sustained battle or siege there could endanger the lives of as many as 250,000 civilians.

‘The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die,’ says Trevor Thrall, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The coalition seems to have no exit strategy except to try and save face before their own disgruntled populations, who are whispering about the war’s cost and impact on their countries’ image. The situation is becoming increasingly embarrassing for war leaders like Mohammed bin Zayed, but particularly to Mohammed bin Salman.

‘[Salman] has vastly underestimated how difficult a task occupying Yemen would be, and for him to quit now would essentially acknowledge that he has indeed failed despite the incredible military prowess Saudi possesses and the sheer number of countries involved with the Saudis,’ Al-Adeimi says.

For Riyadh and the UAE, the goals may indeed have shifted. Increasingly, the conflict is drifting away from a political solution, but ‘continues to leave civilians facing mass atrocity crimes’, says the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The group, which advocates on behalf of civilians trapped in conflict, says that the UN should ‘immediately impose sanctions on any party responsible for the deliberate obstruction of vital humanitarian assistance to civilians’.

Many analysts agree, however, that the only hope is serious international intervention. It could help the Saudis and the Emiratis to save face. But, crucially, it may also save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at