The fast and relentless downward spiral continued unabated to the final days of this brutal year for the Arab world’s poorest country which has been driven to the brink of famine by a protracted war that is caught between a diplomatic impasse and military standstill.
For Yemen, this gruelling year came to a reverberating end with the assassination of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was shot by his Houthi allies a few days after he offered to “open a new page” in his relationship with Yemen’s neighbours in exchange for a “halt to the aggression” and “lifting of the blockade”. The Houthis read this as “treason”.
Saleh, the sixth president of North Yemen and the first ruler of unified Yemen, had remained in power from 1978 to his overthrow as the result of the popular uprising against him in 2011. He was succeeded by his vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Following Saleh’s overture to Riyadh, in late November, skirmishes erupted between his forces (the majority of the Yemeni army had remained loyal to him) and Houthi militia forces in Sanaa. The fighting continued for several days. Then, as Saleh attempted to flee the capital and seek refuge in his home town, his convoy was intercepted by a Houthi force and he was shot. One of his sons was given permission to bury him in his village, Beit Al-Ahmar in the Sanjan region near Sanaa. The fate of his relatives and others who had accompanied him in his last moments remains unknown.
Hamoud Nasser Al-Qudami, a Yemeni diplomat and academic close to the circles of the internationally recognised government of President Hadi, maintains that Saleh’s death has flung open the doors to chaos. Gulf forces felt that he was the only figure capable of restoring stability to the country. “The army, as a whole, is loyal to Saleh, as are most of the civil servants. The former president also had an extensive network of tribal allegiances,” he said.
Saleh, in the course of more than three decades of rule, had grown adept at playing Yemeni political forces against each other. He called it “dancing on snakes’ heads”. He died from a bite of one of those snakes.
His relationship with his killers was consistent with the whole of the intricate Yemeni drama. When president, his regime engaged in six rounds of combat against the Houthis in their stronghold in the northern province of Saada. The Saleh regime’s war against the Houthis, which was backed by the Saudis, lasted from 2004 to 2010.
However, when forced from power, he allied with his erstwhile adversaries in order to overthrow the adversaries who replaced him, namely Hadi, the Congregation of Reform (Islah) Party (the political front of the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the secessionist Southern Movement. His new-founded alliance made it possible for the Houthis to seize control of Sanaa in September 2014, which occurred some weeks after popular protests against Hadi’s decisions to lift fuel and food subsidies in deference to IMF recommendations.
After some months under virtual house arrest, Hadi fled to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia in February 2015, after the Houthis captured Yemen’s southern capital as well. Although the Saudi-led Arab coalition succeeded recapturing Aden and driving the Houthis out of the southern provinces, the battle lines between the Saudi-backed Hadi camp and the Houthi-Saleh alliance have since refused to budge.
The war dragged on due to the military stagnation and the diplomatic standstill that set in after the collapse of several rounds of negotiations in Kuwait and Switzerland. By the end of 2016, the UN warned that Yemen, together with four other countries, was on the brink of famine.
Famine was not the country’s only plight. With the destruction of essential infrastructure (electricity and water stations, roads and bridges) in the first year of the war, Yemen began to suffer severe shortages of medicine and fuel.
Yemeni civilians were the first to suffer. Some 9,000 of them were killed as a direct result of the fighting. If UN agencies blamed the Houthis for many of the deaths, they acknowledged that the vast majority were killed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s intensive bombardments of civilian targets.
Arab coalition warplanes targeted hospitals (such as the hospital in Hajjah that is run by Doctors without Borders), schools (according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and bridges, electricity stations, water plants, ceramic factories and even milk, tea, carbonated beverages and paper handkerchief factories, as The New York Times reported.
The Saudi-led coalition aerial attacks destroyed the port of Hodeida, Yemen’s chief maritime outlet through which the country receives 70 per cent of its food, medicine and fuel supplies, according to Reliefweb.
One of the highest civilian tolls in a single attack occurred with the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing of a funeral service reception hall in Sanaa in October 2016, killing 140 and wounding 600 more. The Arab coalition promised to investigate.
This year nearly fulfilled the warnings of UN and other humanitarian relief organisations working in Yemen that the country was on the brink of possibly the worst famine the world has seen for decades. Two-thirds of the Yemeni population are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. UN agencies such as UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme estimated that 20 million Yemenis would be at risk of famine if the blockade were not lifted entirely.
The Yemeni crisis has cost $808 billion in humanitarian relief from 2010 to August 2017, according to the UNOCHA’s Financial Tracking Service.
Cholera was another sign of the severity of deterioration in conditions in Yemen. The epidemic spread alarmingly in August 2017, with the number of people affected almost reaching a million (900,000 according to Save the Children, nearly triple the previous record of 340,000 cholera victims following the Haiti earthquake in 2011).
Save the Children estimates that, in 2017 alone, 50,000 Yemeni children were killed by the war, malnourishment and cholera. According to UNICEF and the World Food Programme, the number of Yemeni children suffering from malnourishment reached 12.5 million this year.
The Houthis, officially called Ansar Allah, emerged as the strongest opponents to Saudi Arabia in Yemen since the rise of their movement at the outset of the century. Riyadh has repeatedly accused them of receiving support from Iran. Tehran has strenuously denied this, in contrast to how it boasts of its support for the government in Baghdad, the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Nevertheless, Saudi officials continue to insist that their war in Yemen is to prevent that country from falling into the hands of Iran.
Saudi political science professor Turki Al-Hamad urges a more radical solution. “If we struck the head of the Iranian octopus, it would lift its hands from all the Arab countries it controls,” he wrote on his Twitter account, referring to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as Yemen.
Many believe that the Yemeni crisis is one of the manifestations of the Sunni-Shia power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.
Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being behind the ballistic missile that the Houthis fired in the direction of King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh but that was intercepted by Saudi air defences. Riyadh responded by sealing off all Yemeni land, sea and air ports, triggering urgent warnings by the UN, the EU and other international agencies that the blockade would cause the worst famine the world had seen in decades.
The US, for its part, urged its Saudi ally to take into consideration the plight of civilians in Yemen while Congress urged the Trump administration to reduce its support for Riyadh and especially for its war in Yemen.
As 2017 draws to a close, peace is still far out of reach for Yemen, which is caught in the snare of regional warfare, the reshaping of political alliances and the calibrations of power balances as it sinks further into clutches of humanitarian disaster. As is always the case with war and conflict, civilians — especially the weakest, economically and socially — inevitably pay the highest price.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly