Written by Morgan Phillips
The modern Yemeni state was formed in 1990 after the Yemeni Arab Republic, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, unified with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, supported by the USSR. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the Yemeni Arab Republic, became the new leader.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, pro-democracy protests called for the ousting of Saleh charging him with running a corrupt and autocratic government, and human rights groups charged Saleh and his officials with using brutal violence to quell the protests. As international and domestic pressure mounted, Saleh stepped down in 2012, and his vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, replaced him.
After Hadi came to power, the Houthi movement, first formed in the 1980s, began to criticize him after opposing Saleh’s government for decades. In 2014, the Houthis held mass protests demanding a new government. By the end of the year, the Houthis had captured most of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, forcing Hadi to resign in 2015. Hadi’s resignation moved Saudi Arabia to intervene. Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign to drive back the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. By 2018, Saudi Arabia had crafted a coalition of Arab countries to fight the Houthis, including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, and Pakistan.
The Actors Involved
The Houthis, backed by Iran, fight against Hadi’s internationally recognized government for control of Yemen. Iran provides the Houthis with military support in order to challenge the U.S. and Saudi dominance in Yemen.
Hadi’s government is backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states. The coalition is also supported by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia fights to prevent the Houthis from controlling Yemen and preventing Iranian influence in the area. The U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier, backing Saudi Arabia to ensure Saudi borders and ensure the free passage of the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which is vital for the global transport of oil. The U.S. also has ongoing counterterrorism efforts to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.
A Country on the Brink of Famine
Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is the worst in the world, largely because of widespread hunger. Over half of the population is food insecure, and 83.3% of Yemen’s population, or 24 million people, currently need aid.
Food insecurity in Yemen stems from an economy that has reduced imports, of which Yemen is reliant on for 90% of its goods. The war has caused food prices to escalate and the currency to depreciate, leaving families unable to buy food. Aid agencies have been limited in their ability to help because of the lack of funding. The United Nations warns that a famine in Yemen in 2021 may not be preventable.
Yemen’s civil war has “spawned an intractable political, military, and humanitarian crisis,” the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. Before the war, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world. Because of the war, the economy continues to collapse, the currency continues to depreciate, and foreign reserves continue to deplete.
The land, sea, and air blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition has prevented supplies of food and medicine from getting into Yemen while only half of Yemen’s health facilities remain operational. Those that are functional lack medicine, equipment, and staff. Inaccessibility to adequate medical facilities has led to diseases and viruses like cholera and COVID-19 to run rampant.
Attacks on civilians are another result of the war. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. rely on air and drone strikes to combat the Houthis, which indiscriminately kill civilians. The Houthis and coalition forces have tortured, arrested, and forcibly disappeared civilians since the start of the war. The war has also displaced over three million people and created thousands of refugees.
On Feb. 5, 2021, the Biden administration ended U.S. support for the Saudi coalition’s operations in Yemen, halting the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Later in February, the war front shifted to the Ma’rib locality as the Houthis intensified their military offensive, advancing throughout the province. Yemeni government forces announced in late February their plans to expel the Houthis from the Marib governorate, with conflict likely intensifying in the following weeks.
On March 2, Britain cut some of its aid to Yemen, citing COVID-19’s impact on financial constraints. Britain will provide at least $120 million this year, which is down from the roughly $228 million pledged last year.
On March 7, Houthis fired drones and missiles at Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in Ras Tanura and attacked military targets in three other Saudi cities. The Saudi-led coalition responded with airstrikes on Houthi military targets in Sanaa and other regions in Yemen.