Situated on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has long been the poorest country in the Arab world. Today it is the site of a horrific, internationalized civil war, and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
According to the United Nations, 14 million Yemenis — half of the country’s pre-war population — are facing extreme food insecurity, bordering on famine. Thousands of people are starving to death and dying from preventable diseases, while an average of eight civilians die from bombs and bullets every day.
For 33 years until the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, Yemen was ruled by the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh and his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). In November 2011 Saleh stepped down, but remained in control of a large portion of Yemen’s military and several billion dollars in stolen wealth.
The post-revolution transition process was hailed by world leaders as an example to be replicated. But in reality it was undermined by the machinations of the pre-revolution elite, as well as Yemen’s powerful Gulf neighbors, and a group called Ansar Allah — popularly known as the “Houthis” — a militant political and social movement from Yemen’s far north.
The Houthis had clashed with the government for several years before the revolution in a series of wars that destroyed much of the infrastructure in Yemen’s northwest provinces and displaced more than 250,000 people. Following Saleh’s removal from power, the former ruler and his wing of the GPC allied with the Houthis to stage a coup against Yemen’s fragile transitional government, which was headed by Saleh’s former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
After seizing control of the capital San’a in September 2014 and officially dissolving the government in February 2015, the Houthi-Saleh forces swept across much of the country. President Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden, which he declared the provisional capital. When the Houthis took Aden, Hadi fled again – this time to Saudi Arabia.
On March 26 2015, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a coalition of several other countries launched a military intervention at Hadi’s request. The ostensible goal was to restore Yemen’s “legitimate” government to power and remove the Houthis from San’a.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE also want to shape whatever state emerges in Yemen. Iran, which supports the Houthis, is mainly interested in weakening the Saudis and the UAE financially and militarily by keeping them bogged down in Yemen.
The Saudi and UAE-led coalition’s intervention — dubbed Operation Decisive Storm — started with a relentless campaign of airstrikes on Houthi positions across the country. From the outset this air campaign has been characterized by indiscriminate attacks on alleged military sites in the midst of populated areas.
While no official figures are available, total civilian deaths from violence number well over 10,000. Monthly fatalities have increased by 164% since June 2018, when UAE and pro-government forces launched a disastrous new offensive on the city of al-Hudaydah, home to Yemen’s most vital sea port.
The Houthis have lagged behind the coalition in terms of civilian casualties inflicted, but not for lack of trying. The UN has estimated that coalition airstrikes are responsible for at least 60% of civilian casualties. Though they lack an air force, the Houthis have routinely shelled civilian neighborhoods, laid hundreds of thousands of landmines throughout the territory they’ve ceded since 2015, and detained, disappeared, or tortured thousands of innocent people.
The main cause of suffering in Yemen has not been the violence itself. Instead, the extreme humanitarian crisis is largely the result of disastrous economic decisions by Yemen’s legitimate government in exile, and of an illegal blockade on humanitarian and commercial traffic imposed by Saudi Arabia.
Due to those factors — as well as the Houthis’ appropriation of state wealth and manipulation of the black market — the price of food, fuel, and other necessities has skyrocketed, while Yemen’s currency has plummeted to roughly a third of its pre-war value. This means that even in parts of the country where staple goods are not in short supply, they are far too expensive for most Yemenis.
Photograph by Alex Potter
Photograph by Alex Potter
Photograph by Alex Potter
Photograph by Alex Potter
If you’re in the U.S., you can help end the war by contacting your members of Congress today, and urging them to support congressional efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention.
Click here to automatically email your representatives, or go to Chapter 05 at any point during this story to read about other ways you can make a difference.
Since the start of the Saudi-led intervention the U.S. has provided logistical and intelligence assistance to the coalition’s air campaign. The U.S. has also sold billions of dollars’ worth of ordnance, aircraft, and weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2014. U.S. involvement stems in part from the longstanding security partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and partly from concern over Iran’s influence in the region.
In October 2016, after a year and a half of reckless airstrikes and civilian casualties — some of which were carried out with U.S.-made bombs — the Obama administration began to reconsider its blank-check support for the coalition. President Obama halted the delivery of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that had already been sold to Saudi Arabia, and announced that the U.S. was “reevaluating” its other forms of assistance. But U.S. refueling for coalition warplanes continued, and there were more than enough bombs already in the coalition’s arsenals to keep the air campaign going. Meanwhile, the administration consistently refused to address the devastating Saudi blockade of Yemen.
One of President Trump’s first foreign policy decisions upon taking office in January 2017 was to unfreeze the PGM delivery, and restart negotiations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on additional arms sales.
Spurred by pro-peace activists and human rights advocates, a group of U.S. senators led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut introduced a “resolution of disapproval” to stop the PGM delivery. The measure came close to passing, with 47 out of 100 senators voting in favor, but the sale went ahead.
Since then, the Trump administration has quietly increased U.S. support for coalition operations while refusing to provide Congress or the public with information about the specific parameters of that assistance. In the spring of 2018, it became known that U.S. Army special forces were operating inside Saudi Arabia, assisting in the effort to locate and neutralize Houthi ballistic missiles. The administration had deliberately withheld this from Congress until the story was broken by news outlets.
While Saudi Arabia receives most of the attention for the intervention in Yemen, the UAE is perhaps even more deeply involved in the war. The Saudi navy maintains the blockade of Yemen’s sea ports, and the Saudi air force carries out some airstrikes, particularly those on San’a and Sa’dah rather than those near the front lines of active combat.
The majority of the coalition’s combat airstrikes are conducted by the UAE, though the coalition is deliberately opaque about such aspects of its operations. Beyond the air campaign, the UAE has put boots on the ground in Yemen — something Saudi Arabia has been very reluctant to do. UAE forces also train and supervise a number of Yemeni militias fighting on various fronts, and newly formed internal security forces across southern Yemen. Sudan also supplies several thousand troops to the coalition’s war effort in exchange for financial support.
The United States isn’t the only western power that backs the coalition. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and other European states have all sold arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the conflict.
Yemeni researchers, international organizations, and a special expert group established by the UN Human Rights Council have found that all parties in Yemen’s war have committed grave violations of human rights and the laws of war. These violations begin at the macro level and define the very nature of the war; for example, the Saudi-led coalition’s illegal blockade of Yemen’s ports and its use of starvation as a weapon of war likely constitute crimes against humanity.
At the tactical level, the coalition’s bombing of populated areas, farms, fishing boats, and civilian infrastructure are likely war crimes, as are the coalition’s use of banned and inherently indiscriminate weapons like white phosphorus and cluster bombs.
Photograph by Will Picard
Photograph by Will Picard
The Houthis have similarly relied on indiscriminate weapons, and have deliberately starved and besieged Ta’iz — one of Yemen’s biggest cities. Both sides have also illegally detained civilians. The Houthis have arrested or disappeared thousands of political opponents and dissidents, subjecting many of them to torture. Coalition forces —specifically the UAE and its local proxies — have also arrested dozens, if not hundreds of people.
Most of these prisoners have been held incommunicado at facilities that are not controlled by the Yemeni government, and have been subjected to torture and rape.
Responsibility for these crimes extends beyond the parties themselves. Every state that provides arms or assistance to the warring parties — including the U.S., UK, Germany, France, Spain, Qatar, and Iran — does so with full knowledge that their arms are being used illegally.
The war has affected every aspect of life for Yemenis across the country — even in places far from the front lines. Some of the ways in which war disrupts people’s lives are obvious: in addition to the many tens (or perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Yemenis who have been killed, roughly four million people have been displaced from their homes since the fighting began, with around half a million people forced to flee the city of al-Hudaydah and surrounding areas between June and November 2018.
The war affects people in slightly less obvious ways as well. Shortly after the war began, the Yemeni government moved the headquarters of Yemen’s Central Bank to Aden, and fired or replaced much of the Bank’s management, which contributed significantly to the economic crisis in Yemen. The government also froze salary payments to government employees inside Houthi-controlled territory, and stopped paying salaries for many civil servants in “liberated” areas as well. By some estimates, nearly a third of the population depends directly or indirectly on government salaries.
The Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign has deliberately targeted all elements of Yemen’s food supply. The coalition has bombed farms, killed fishermen, destroyed factories, mills, and markets. The Saudis and Emiratis have even bombed food warehouses operated by international aid organizations. They have also targeted water treatment plants, depriving millions of people of clean water. This has led to the largest cholera outbreak in recorded history, and accelerated the spread of other diseases.
In contested areas and areas under their control, the Houthis have established countless checkpoints with which they restrict the movement of goods, and extort businesses, aid organizations, and ordinary citizens. The Houthis have also built a brutal system of surveillance and repression, forcing Yemenis in Houthi-controlled areas to live in constant fear of violence from the forces that claim to be defending Yemen from external aggression. The Houthis even subject civil servants and other citizens to re-education programs.
Civil wars with external intervention are generally longer and more difficult to end than strictly internal conflicts. That means that if Americans want to see an end to the suffering in Yemen, they need to do everything they can to pull the U.S. and its allies out of this war.
There are currently efforts underway in both houses of Congress to end U.S. support for the coalition. On December 13, Senate Joint Resolution 54 passed with 56 votes. This resolution, which now needs to win a vote in the House of Representatives, would force the president to withdraw all U.S. forces involved in the conflict, including those that provide refueling to the coalition’s warplanes. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently sent a letter to House leadership demanding an opportunity to vote on the bill before the end of the year.
In early November, the U.S. administration announced an end to refueling operations in an attempt to ease congressional pressure, but the administration could reverse this decision at any time. Members of Congress have also blocked a new sale of PGMs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and have pledged — for now — to prevent any further arms sales to the coalition states. But in order for S.J.Res.54 and other key measures to pass and these restrictions to stay in place, ordinary Americans need to pressure their representatives to support them.
HERE’S HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION TODAY…
If you’re in the U.S. you can help end the war by contacting your members of Congress today, and urging them to echo Congressman Hoyer’s call for a vote on Senate Joint Resolution 54, and to support all future legislation to end US military support and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. Your representatives and senators will only care about Yemen if you do; your voice truly does make a difference. Click here to automatically email your representatives, and then use the phone script below to call your representative’s office.
To make sure your voice is heard, call the congressional switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
Ask to be connected with your representative. When you’re connected, say:
My name is [your name] and I live in [your town]. Representative __________ should support Congressman Hoyer’s demand for an immediate vote on S.J.Res. 54, and they must support future legislation to end US military support and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Only a clear and decisive message from Congress will end US complicity in Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe.
Written by Will Picard
The staff of Yemen Peace Project collected interviews for this story in San’a, Sa’dah, and al-Hudaydah.
Journalist Mohammed Ali Kalfood contributed additional interviews from al-Hudaydah.
Air strike data from Yemen Data Project
Design by Surasti Puri