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The Puppet Masters of Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis


“The question worth asking is: Who stands to benefit from the continual fueling, participation, and organization of a war that threatens to destabilize Yemen irreversibly?”


When Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman  was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011, many saw it as a symbol of democratic transition in Yemen following the Arab Spring. In the wake of the revolution, vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi became the new president of Yemen in an uncontested election. 

But as swiftly as peace arrived, it evaporated. The central government in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, still recovering its strength following former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s removal, found itself having to stave off challenges from southern separatists and northern Houthi insurgent groups. Then, in September 2014, insurgent forces led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi descended into the capital and forced President Hadi to agree to a “unity” government. However, the Houthis refused to participate in government proceedings and even shelled the president’s residence before placing him under house arrest. The government’s mass resignation was obtained shortly thereafter in January 2015. What followed was the dissolution of parliament and the declaration of a Revolutionary Committee under Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The constitutional declaration of 2015 was widely rejected by foreign governments and the United Nations (U.N.).

Many people are aware of these events, but few are aware that in the shadow of a bloody civil war, there is an equally deadly killer on the loose. Yemen is currently facing the worst cholera outbreak in recorded human history, infecting an estimated 2.3 million people and killing nearly 4,000. This comes as another painful blow to millions of already malnourished and starving Yemenis living through a debilitating famine. The confluence of these factors has created a country with one of the world’s highest number of immunocompromised individuals. 2020 ushered in the new decade, but as if the triumvirate of civil war, cholera and famine were not bad enough, a novel foe arrived. 

On April 10, 2020, the first Coronavirus (COVID-19) case was confirmed in Yemen. As of June 6th, 473 cases were officially confirmed, but reports suggest that the actual number of deaths may be vastly underestimated. Part of the reason for the disputed numbers is the deliberate suppression of COVID-19 data by the Houthi insurgency occupying the capital of Sana’a. The recent murder of Nabil Hasan al-Quaety, an award-winning freelance journalist, has further illustrated the imminent threat faced by those covering the situation in Yemen. His murder follows on a death sentence handed down to four other journalists in April 2020 by a Houthi-controlled court. The same Amnesty International report on these murders noted that the Hadi government and Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also been complicit in the abuse of human rights defenders and activists. All in all, these actions paint a picture that seems brutally divorced from the liberation movement that championed those very rights less than a decade ago. Historically, Saudi Arabia has attempted to suppress coverage of its engagements via control of news agencies in Canada, Australia and Pakistan among others. Therefore, focusing the spotlight on the crisis becomes infinitely more important.

It remains to be seen whether the funding shortages will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The fact that many Yemeni doctors are dying due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) further undermines the already severely crippled healthcare system. Claire HaDuong, head of Doctors Without Borders in Yemen, told Byline Times that the mortality rate in Aden might be as high as those affecting the United States (U.S.) and Europe. Yemeni researcher Fuad Rajeh also told the online publication that doctors are being detained by Houthi militants and are being threatened for attempting to speak to the media about the true extent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, several hospitals have been closed to the public with medical staff refusing to return until adequate PPE can be provided. In the interim, people are being redirected from one hospital to the next, in the hope that the receiving hospital is better equipped to manage the case.

The U.N. has requested urgent funding in light of forced stoppages of the majority of its relief work in the country. For example, the organization will have to cut its World Food Programme rations in half, thereby exacerbating a famine already crippling the Yemeni people. Another body under the auspices of the U.N. that has cut funding to Yemen is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This is particularly concerning given that the UNFPA is the only provider of vital reproductive health services to over 3.5 million women in Yemen. 90% of this life-saving service will be slashed if no funding materializes before July. The consequences are that 2 million women and girls of reproductive age will be put at risk of gynecological emergencies, and a further 48,000 are predicted to die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. 

The United Kingdom’s (U.K.) Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly commented in The National on May 21, 2020 that “…some of Yemen’s leaders have shirked their responsibilities.” While this observation is partially accurate, what Cleverly has omitted is that the U.K.’s support to the Saudi-led Hadi coalition has played a significant role in perpetuating Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. This leaves the nation grossly unprepared for COVID-19. The U.S. has offered to provide $225 million in emergency relief funds, despite being complicit in indirectly fueling the war. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also offered Yemen a relatively small sum of 8,400 test kits so far, but this pales in comparison to the 9.2 million test kits it is estimated Yemen will require to combat COVID-19. A targeted attempt to rescue U.N. aid programs in Yemen fell desperately short, with only $1.35 billion being raised in the virtual pledge event held on June 2, 2020. The Yemeni people face a multitude of threats in the form of famine, civil war, cholera and COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether the funding shortages will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For the 80% of Yemeni’s that rely on this aid, it may well be the case. 

In a statement regarding the Yemen Pledging Conference held on June 2, 2020, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call for a ceasefire, adding that: “Ending the war is the only way to address the health, humanitarian and human development crises in Yemen.” Mark Lowcock, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator, opened the conference by highlighting the role five years of war has played in the crisis. Lowcock remarked that the conflict ushered in: “economic collapse, hunger, disease, displacement and destroyed infrastructure. Yemenis themselves say things are worse today than at any time in their recent history. And yet so far this year, the world has offered less help than it did last year.” He added a stern warning that: “cutting funding to one part of the country or another because you are concerned about the behavior of those in control is tantamount to the collective punishment of the innocent and the vulnerable, people who have no say on who is in charge in the places they live.”

The Puppet Masters

Many commentators have sought to characterize the proxy conflict between the Saudi-coalition and the Iran-back Houthi insurgency as a sectarian one. The ideological struggle across the region between Saudi Arabia’s Salafi Wahhabism and Iran’s Shia Islam is partly based on the Wahabbi interpretation of the Shia sect as heretical. However, it does not fully explain the pattern of allegiances in the Yemen civil war. A more in-depth examination of religious identities within the Houthi movement disproves the superficial observation of the conflict as sectarian in nature. 

First, the majority of Houthis practice Zaydism, an ideologically distinct sect from the Twelver Shiism that serves as the official doctrine of Islam in Iran. The Zaydis view themselves as a wholly separate sect within Islam and one that more closely resembles Sunni doctrine than Shia. This is why several of former president Saleh’s supporters from the Yemeni army that have allied themselves with the Houthi insurgency are, in fact, Sunni. Further weakening the sectarian argument was the Houthi’s explicit violation of Iran’s recommendation that they not attack Sana’a in 2014. Moreover, the sectarian portrayal of the conflict fails to acknowledge the years of persistent inequality, failed economic reforms, and oppressive rule in Yemen. 

According to an April 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal, Yemen’s various factions driving the civil war at the time were on the verge of signing a deal before unprovoked Saudi-airstrikes derailed the negotiations. The question, then, is not why the civil war originally broke out. Nor is there a question as to what the effects of the civil war in Yemen will be. The question worth asking is: Who stands to benefit from the continual fueling, participation, and organization of a war that threatens to destabilize Yemen irreversibly?

The answer is one that exposes a myriad of foreign interests such as the U.K., U.S., and their perennial bedfellow, Saudi Arabia. This coalition stands in opposition to Iranian interests in the region as well. Only if one views Yemen as an untapped geopolitical weapon do the seemingly sporadic actions in the civil war begin to make any sense. Yemen has become a battleground for regional dominance by international actors split broadly into three categories: the Saudi-backed Hadi coalition, the Iranian-backed Houthi coalition, and independent competitors for territory such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). An assessment of each role-player uncovers the incentive for a destabilized and, therefore, an easily-manipulated Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia is the most visible foreign interest at play in the war. Before the events of the 2011 Arab Spring, Saudi fears over Yemen’s stability climaxed when the Ansar Allah movement mounted several challenges to the central authority in Yemen. The active rebellion emerged primarily as a result of socio-economic grievances in northern Yemen. The rise of the Houthi-led movement prompted military intervention by Saudi Arabia for the first time in decades. However, the operation backfired on the Saudi Kingdom as the military failed to make meaningful advances in the region. 

When the Arab Spring of 2011 arrived, a rejuvenation of formerly marginalized social movements across different political factions became an imminent threat to Saudi interests in the region. Former rivals such as the Houthi insurgency and the Hiraak southern separatist movement joined forces to unseat President Saleh. Sensing an opportunity to gain control of the region, the Saudi Kingdom formulated a transitional plan that would replace Saleh with a government unopposed to Saudi interests. Nowhere was this more evident than in the uncontested election which now-President Hadi won. But what interests would be furthered by increased Saudi presence in Yemen? Aerial bombardment by the Saudis has destroyed much of Yemen, but it is worth noting that the eastern Hadramawt region has remained relatively unscathed. The strategic bombing is a telling clue as to the motives behind Saudi intervention. 

The magnetic pull of Hadramawt on the Saudis lies in their ambition to construct an oil pipeline through the region. Saudi Arabia’s pipe dream was laid bare in a leaked cable which revealed that “A British diplomat based in Yemen told PolOff that Saudi Arabia had an interest to build a pipeline, wholly  owned, operated and protected by Saudi Arabia, through Hadramaut to a port on the Gulf of Aden, thereby bypassing the Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf and the straits of Hormuz. Saleh has always opposed this. The diplomat contended that Saudi Arabia, through supporting Yemeni military leadership, paying for the loyalty of shaykhs and other means, was positioning itself to ensure it would, for the right price, obtain the rights for this pipeline from Saleh’s successor.”

Herein lies the overarching aim behind Saudi Arabia’s involvement in perpetuating the civil war. Some skeptics may excuse this action as long as Yemen recovers, but the Saudi’s indifference to the interests of the Yemeni people is evident in their relations with AQAP. The Saudi-coalition has typically avoided any confrontation with the AQAP, using the terror group as an ally against the Houthi’s, as well as a potential check on ISIS forces. This method is a familiar ploy of the Saudi regime and mirrors its support of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as a proxy ally in fighting the Shia government of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. Saudi support of AQAP has emboldened the organization, which had been largely eradicated by the Houthi insurgency. The expansion of AQAP in the east of Yemen has also led the group to re-brand themselves as “Sons of Hadramawt” to win favor with locals friendly to the organization. This has not deterred AQAP from its mission to carry out jihad, which includes the imposition of Sharia law over the region. 

The U.S. has been complicit in indirectly funding Saudi operations in Yemen. Under former President Barack Obama, procurement of several different weapon types was facilitated a few months before the Hadi-government was driven out of Sana’a. Subsequently, U.S.-made cluster bombs were used in air-raids that destroyed parts of residential areas and rural hospitals. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon conceded that this action might rise to the level of a war crime. The Trump administration, in a continuation of policies started by the Obama administration, has approved billions of dollars in arms deals to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The reasons for continued intervention in Yemen were outlined by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2019. Pompeo stated: “Iranian malign activity poses a fundamental threat to the stability of the Middle East and to American security at home and abroad.” He added that Iran had “directed repeated attacks on civilian and military infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Iranian-designed explosives-laden drones and ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, who receive financial, technical, and materiel support from Iran.”

A press release by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) released damning statistics revealing that the U.K. also contributed over £6.3 billion in arms to the Saudi-coalition. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during his tenure as foreign secretary, approved over £1.2 billion of weapons in the form of aircraft, bombs, and missiles to Saudi Arabia. With American and British military personnel working in the command center with the Saudi-coalition, it is clear that the American and British governments’ respective involvement is anything but passive. The rapid mobilization of resources in support of the Saudi-coalition comes as a response to increased Iranian influence, which threatens U.S. and U.K political interests in the region.  

The UAE has also entered the fray. The reasons for UAE involvement in the Yemen civil war is multifaceted. The UAE’s co-operation with the Saudi coalition opens the path for further collaboration with the U.S. in combating terrorist groups such as AQAP in southern Yemen. An alliance with Saudi Arabia to combat AQAP is paradoxical, however, as the Saudi-coalition has refrained from attacks on AQAP in Yemen. This has not entirely derailed relations within the Saudi coalition as combating terrorist groups is only part of the Emirati interest in southern Yemen. 

The UAE also wishes to check the rise of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Yemen’s brand of the Sunni Islamist movement, Al-Islah, has become a key player in Yemen, and its alignment with the Saudi coalition has sparked fear in the UAE. The Emirati’s raced to align themselves with the southern separatist movement and even supported the formation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Predictably, fighting ensued in the southern region of Aden. President Hadi’s military force was comparatively small relative to the UAE allied forces and was promptly defeated in three days, thereby handing over control of Aden to the UAE-backed STC. 

Saudi Arabia, sensing a dangerous threat to its broader aim of overthrowing the Houthis, intervened to ensure that the STC would commit to fighting the Houthi’s. After the fight for control of Aden subsided, the STC decided to align with the Saudi-coalition and handed back some power to the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) forces. Control of the Aden government remains firmly under STC control with the Hadi-government ruling only as a proxy to the UAE-Saudi coalition. Involvement in southern Yemen has allowed the Gulf nation to exercise control over several of Yemen’s port cities, which benefits UAE commercial and energy interests. Herein, lies the Gulf country’s predominant reason for entering the conflict.

Unfortunately, the situation in Yemen is an all too familiar one. The promise of the Arab Spring never came to fruition for the Yemeni people.

Finally, one arrives at the opposing side, namely the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency. The Houthi insurgency has a long history in Yemen; however, the modern Houthi movement had its roots in the northern Yemeni region of Sa’ dah in 2004. Between 2004 and 2010, the Saleh government in Yemen and the Houthis fought six wars with the Houthis gaining positional power and support with each successive battle. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Houthis sought to adopt a more populist approach to its insurgency, and this, along with Saudi interference, has largely motivated their push for power. 

Some have seen Iran’s direct and indirect involvement in Yemen as an attempt to create an armed, stateless, non-Sunni actor that could be advantageous to Iran as a means of reaching its preferred political and military ends. Iran’s interference is only likely to have emerged once the war broke out in light of the fact that Iran had few direct institutional links to the Houthi insurgency before the civil war. Evidence of Iranian involvement in the war has increased since then with a public meeting between the Houthi ambassador to Iran and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confirming this trend. Leaked files from global intelligence agency Stratfor has revealed a growing consensus on Iran’s involvement in Yemen. This forms part of a broader tactic to expand Iran’s influence in the region. Iran has used a similar strategy in Lebanon and Iraq, where the support of local insurgencies paves the way for greater Iranian influence across the Middle East. As such, Iran’s intervention in the war appears to be an opportunistic attempt to destabilize Yemen with the hopes of installing a leader who will be on favorable terms with Iran’s regime. 

Who will speak for Yemen now?

Unfortunately, the situation in Yemen is an all too familiar one. The promise of the Arab Spring never came to fruition for the Yemeni people. The fragility of post-revolution states provides fertile ground for foreign interference. A power grab from factions within the country ensued backed by nations jostling for control over the region. Aid organizations such as the U.N. attempt to maintain non-partisan support of Yemen, but when the powerful interests fueling the civil war also fund the U.N., the situation reaches the impasse we see today. 

As the war drags on, the likelihood of a peace agreement in the interest of Yemenis becomes an increasingly improbable event. Both the Saudi and Iran backed coalitions have made significant investments in the war and are unlikely to cut their losses. Yemen will not recover so long as commercial and political interests remain unwilling to relinquish their bids for a country that could be key in unlocking the Arabian Peninsula. The situation threatens to descend even further into chaos, and the precarious position of the Yemeni people is best encapsulated in the words of U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock: “Yemen is now on the precipice. Right on the cliff edge, below which lies a tragedy of historic proportions.” COVID-19 may be the final push over that edge.

Cameron Joseph is a medical student at the University of Cape Town. He can be reached via email at

One thought on “The Puppet Masters of Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis

  1. Yemen was doomed before the outbreak of the war. A growing population needs to be fed. However, neither the local agriculture nor the almost nonexistent industry could provide enough food and jobs for the local population. Add tribalism and a patriarchal mindset, and that’s it.

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