Analysis: the world's worst man-made humanitarian disaster is down to conniving coalitions locked in callous conflicts

"Ruling Yemen is like dancing on the head of snakes" Ali Abdullah Saleh (1942~2017), former president of Yemen

A country strategically located in the Middle East, Yemen is home to an ancient civilisation mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. Its rich culture introduced coffee and frankincense to the world, and its people built the world's first skyscrapers. Despite such marvels, this Arab nation remains mired in poverty, starvation and bloodshed.

In ancient times, the country was known as Arabia FelixLatin for happy or flourishing, but today’s Yemen is neither happy nor fortunate as it faces the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. According to the UN, at least 15,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the fighting broke out in March 2015. Out of an estimated 30.5 million population, 24.1 million people remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. A staggering 3.6 million have been internally displaced, while over eight million are at risk of famine. Moreover, a cholera outbreak has affected over one million while recent flooding has put 59,000 people at risk.

So how and why did Yemen get into such a precarious situation? The seeds of today’s conflict were sowed back in 1990 when Marxist-led South Yemen agreed to merge with North Yemen following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Four years later, the Southerners changed their mind and attempted to secede which led to a two-month-long civil war. Republic of Yemen, the entity unified by Ali Abdullah Saleh, defeated and annexed the south, much to the chagrin of pro-secession southerners who accused him of power grab and economic marginalisation. The resentment continues to this very day. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, journalist Iona Craig on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen which the UN says could become the worst famine in recent memory

Born to a poor family in 1942, Saleh joined the Yemeni army and rose to the rank of colonel in 1978 when he was elected as the president of North Yemen following the assassination of Ahmed bin Hussein Al Ghashmi. Saleh consolidated his autocratic rule through corruption, nepotism, and aggrandisement, while the country grinded in economic hardship and became one of the poorest nations in the Middle East. Al Qaeda’s bombing of USS Cole off the coast of Aden in 2000 and 9/11 attacks almost after a year later turned Yemen into a frontline state in Bush’s war on terror. Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and remains a major jihadist stronghold.

Saleh supported the CIA’s covert operations, including drone attacks on suspected Al Qaeda targets in several Yemeni provinces. He also declared a crackdown in 2004 on the Houthis, an armed movement led by Yemen’s Zaidi sect that demanded reforms and autonomy. The Zaidis are a distinct Islamic sect much closer to the Sunnis than other Shias, despite upholding the Shia belief that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was his legitimate successor and not Abu Bakr.

Instability continued in Yemen throughout the 2000s due to raging Houthi insurgency in the north, separatist movement in the south and Al Qaeda-led terror attacks across the country. Invigorated by uprisings across the Arab world in 2011, Yemenis escalated daily protests in Sana'a and other parts of Yemen and demanded Saleh’s downfall.

From RTÉ Radio 1's World Report, Iona Craig reports on the apparent failed assassination attempt on Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012

After months of persistence and increased violence – including an attack on his life – Saleh eventually agreed to a political transition and handed over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in February 2012. Though supported by regional powers including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Hadi struggled to deal with contentious issues like corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and fractured loyalty of the Yemeni army and security forces.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), enjoyed support from forces loyal to Saleh who also hailed from the Zaidi sect. Both exploited the political instability and captured Sana’a in September 2014. The move prompted Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in February 2015.

In a bid to oust the Houthis from power, a joint Saudi-Emirati coalition, supported and aided by other Arab and Western countries, launched intense airstrikes beginning in March 2015 and imposed a tight economic and logistic blockade including the closure of airports and ports. They also accused Iran of providing weapons to Houthis, a charge Tehran strongly denied.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Andre Heller Perache, head of mission with Medecins Sans Frontier in Yemen, discusses the problems faced by the people there in 2015

Reports suggest that Iran unsuccessfully dissuaded the Houthis from overtaking Sana’a and toppling Hadi. Bent on territorial expansion and consolidating power, the Houthi-Saleh alliance,went on to briefly capture Aden before driven out by a coalition of forces loyal to Hadi, secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), Muslim Brotherhood aligned-Islah party, and other tribal groups.

The fractured alliance between Ansar Allah and General People’s Congress (GPC), led by Abdul Malik Al Houthi and Ali Abdullah Saleh respectively, came to an ugly end in December 2017 when the latter had a major falling out with the former and urged his supporters to rise up. Houthis reacted by swiftly killing Saleh and defeating his forces within two days. This incident left the Houthis pretty much fighting on their own against a Saudi-UAE-led coalition.

Meanwhile, rifts between anti-Houthi coalition partners also came to a major boil in January 2018. In August of this year the STC, supported by UAE airstrikes, seized government facilities and military bases in and around Aden after accusing Hadi’s administration of corruption and mismanagement. The infighting put Saudis and Emiratis in an awkward position as Riyadh expressed continued support for Hadi while Abu Dhabi extensively backed STC separatists. The UAE-backed forces also attacked Islah forces after accusing them of destabilising southern Yemen.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, a special report on Yemen and the world's forgotten war

The secessionist movement’s success may result in the unprecedented re-emergence of South Yemen as an independent country as no other former state has been resurrected from its ashes in contemporary history. While denying any immediate interest in proclaiming independence, STC believes it is "inevitable without which there will be no peace." The end of this complicated conflict is nowhere in sight as regional powers are locked in a vicious power struggle with the help of their proxies while Yemenis continue to pay a heavy price with their blood and resources.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ