by Anna Gordon
The Yemeni civil war has left 22 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The Secretary-general of the United Nations referred to the conflict in Yemen as “the world’s worst human rights crisis.” Over the past two weeks, battle has raged over the city of Hodeida, the main port through which aid workers have been able to bring food and water into the country. The Arab-led coalition has claimed that this battle is necessary in order to oust the Houthi rebels. But in the meantime nearly 300 civilians have been killed in the first six days alone.
American media has framed the war in Yemen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran. But this type of thinking often fails to accurately describe events in the Middle East as a whole. Additionally, Yemeni religious groupings are particularly unfit for this kind of analysis because the Sunni-Shi’ite divide has never been a major factor in Yemeni politics until very recently. This simplistic thinking has helped justify American foreign policy which continues to participate in the war through arms sales to the Saudi regime.
The conflict in Yemen goes back to long before Iran had any interest in the area. Saudi Arabian presence in Yemen, however, is nothing new. Yemen was originally two separate countries: North Yemen and South Yemen. When they were united in 1990, it was the first time both regions were ruled by one nation state. The North had been associated with a heavier Saudi Arabian influence. The South, on the other hand, had been under British imperial rule for over a hundred years, before finally gaining its independence in the year 1968. Northerners were predominantly Zaydi, a type of Shi’ite Islam. Most Southerners were Shafi’i, which is a form of Sunni Islam. However, unlike Sunnis and Shias in other parts of the Arab world, Zaydis and Shafi’I are fairly similar to each other in terms of practice, so religious tensions were rare.
In 1990, oil reserves found near the border of the North and South prompted the two countries to unify, believing there would be great economic benefits. The North’s ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, then became president of Yemen as a whole.
Saleh remained president of Yemen for 22 years. The Houthi rebel movement grew out of opposition and resentment against Saleh and Saudi Arabian influence. While Zaydi revivalism was a part of the Houthi agenda, it should not be understood as the fundamental cause for conflict as Saleh himself was also Zaydi.
From 2004 to 2012, Saleh would fight six mini-wars against the Houthis. All the while, the Yemeni economy continued to suffer. When protests broke out across the Arab world during the Arab Spring of 2011, Yemenis took to the streets against Saleh, demanding his resignation for his failure to improve economic life in Yemen.
Once this happened, The Gulf Co-operation Council sought to install Adrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was widely considered to be a Saudi puppet leader by most Yemenis. Hadi had little internal support. Hadi was eventually forced to flee back to Riyadh, where he currently resides. While Saudi Arabia, the UN, and the West continue to refer to Hadi as the internationally recognized leader of Yemen, he has little indigenous support.
The Houthis, on the other hand, were able to take advantage the situation and take over the capital of Yemen, Sanaa in 2014. The Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Sulman, believed that a Houthi government was a threat to Saudi Arabian influence, and launched Operation Decisive Storm, a military intervention with the intent of ousting the Houthis and restoring the Hadi government. Since 2014, Saudi Arabia has blockaded the country and launched airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians. To the Saudis’ surprise, a clear military victory did not occur quickly.
Yemen suffers from the worst cholera outbreak in history and 2.9 million women and children are considered to be acutely malnourished by the United Nations. The death toll from fighting is estimated to be 16,200, but the indirect death toll due to the lack of access to food, water, and basic medical care is thought to be much higher.
Yemen has often been ignored by world powers because of its lack of resources and extreme poverty. But, it has a population nearing 28 million people that rivals Saudi Arabia’s. It is imperative that we Americans stop thinking Yemen as a country in which we have little strategic interest in, and start focusing on the civilian lives that are affected by our continued weapons sales and support of the Saudi intervention.