Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yemeni People Suffer as the World Turns its Back

Yemeni people
Yemeni children carry water at a supply center in Sanaa, Yemen, on April 16, 2015. Photo Corbis

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel in Yemen. It’s not even a tunnel. We are in a deep, dark grave dug by Yemenis with Saudi aid,” blogger Haykal Bafana writes on Facebook. As melodramatic as it sounds, it could be an accurate assessment of the situation in Yemen in July 2015.

Peace talks held in Geneva in June failed before they even started. The quasi-legitimate but UN-backed Yemeni government in exile joined the talks not to negotiate but to force Houthi rebels to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which condemns the war and demands that “all Yemeni parties, in particular the Houthis” end the violence.

The Houthis did not even attend, seeing no strategic gains in the talks. As one of the stronger parties in the conflict that broke out more than three months ago, they are also in a position to drag their feet.

The Houthis conquered more territory than they did before the Saudi-led coalition bombings started in March 2015; they even regularly shelled villages and military positions across the Saudi border. Despite threats from the Saudi government in Riyadh to send ground troops, no Saudi boot has yet to be seen on Yemeni soil.

A humanitarian ceasefire that began on 10 July and was due to last until the end of Ramadan was broken the next morning. Both parties blame each other for not observing the ceasefire. Without accurate reporting on the ground, it is hard to say who is right. “Can we stop the truce please?” Bafana writes. “It was much quieter before the truce.”

Other than a black sense of humour, the Yemenis do not have much left to fall back on. Those who survive the Saudi shells and the Houthis’ anti-aircraft missiles are on the run and/or face an almost complete lack of electricity, water, fuel and medicines. Food prices have rocketed, which can be attributed in part to the Saudi sea and air blockade.

“The Saudi’s are partly responsible,” says political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani. “At the beginning of the campaign, they didn’t allow tankers into Yemeni ports. Then the Houthis aggravated the problem by bombing the refinery in [the main seaport] Aden. The Saudis supply the bulk of Yemen’s fuel needs free of charge, though, so we can’t be too hard on them.”

It has also been rumoured that the Houthis are imposing a war tax on goods. “It is an illegal levy, mostly extortion that is not determined by law and the amount is at the discretion of the field commanders,” confirms al-Iryani, who calls it a scam to line fighters’ pockets.

For some, the war tax is proof that the Iranians are not backing the Houthis financially, as believed, or at least asserted, by Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. It should be noted that Iran has so far not come to the rescue of the Houthis or the Yemeni people in general.

In fact, no one has come to the rescue of the Yemeni people. Aid organisations have made attempts, but with ceasefires that last only hours and difficulties in getting aid to those in need rather than to black markets, they will be unable to improve the situation substantially.

Neither does the international community seem keen to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the conflict. Oil, many Yemenis believe, is more important to the West than their lives. At the same time – a common contradiction – Yemenis say that foreign meddling in their domestic affairs is what got them into their current mess in the first place.

“Leave us alone,” they say, “we will solve our own problems.” Whether they can, however, remains to be seen. It is not simply a matter of Saudi Arabia against a united Yemen. Within Yemen itself, deep rifts have existed for years, if not decades.

Yemen Divided

The country is divided between north and south and between the Sunni Islamist Islah party and the ruling General People’s Congress, with additional divisions within those parties. There is outright hatred between the south and the Houthis, between Islah and the Houthis and between some powerful northern tribes and the Houthis.

None of the warring factions has a majority. There are too many people with too many conflicting interests. There are also too many weapons, which have caused too much destruction, both physical and psychological. A Saudi intervention may very well serve only as a steppingstone to something even worse.

Current events in Aden – where the pro-Saudi coalition has recaptured the airport and several Houthi-controlled districts – could be the test case. In the south, the breakthrough was widely celebrated, not because of a desire to see the return of exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but because it is believed that it could signal the establishment of a de facto southern state.

But do the Saudis really want an independent southern state or do they hope that by recapturing Aden they will finally bring the Houthis to the negotiating table? It remains to be seen how the Houthis will react. It also remains to be seen if a partition of the country – should that be the final outcome – will work.

Other questions remain as well. Who would run the south? The weak Hadi government? And would that be acceptable to the southerners, who have always considered Hadi an archenemy for his role in the 1994 civil war between north and south? Even more troublesome is the al-Qaeda flag that has recently appeared on the streets of Aden.

As to the north, who would lead there? Are the Houthis capable of running a country? It is unlikely. Would the Houthi opponents in the north accept their leadership? And would the Saudis accept an anti-Saudi regime on their southern border? Even the Houthis’ allies – army divisions loyal to the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh – will have a hard time accepting a Houthi-led state.

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