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Yemen no longer fertile territory of Arabian Peninsula

8th Jun 2018
Yemen no longer fertile territory of Arabian Peninsula

Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes over Es-Sebin Square in Sana’a, November 15

(Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/AA)

Mohammed Al-Jabri in Sana’a, Yemen

Three years of conflict in Yemen, the poorest Arab state, has resulted in the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. It is the longest and  deadliest civil war Yemen has seen in decades and taking its toll on 29 million people across the country that is slightly larger than twice the size of UK. Armed groups fight an internationally recognized yet weak Government to control a collapsed state on brink of famine which is already convulsed by endemic poverty, food insecurity, displacement, illiteracy, unemployment, and declining economy. But how has the impoverished country, also known as Arabia Felix which means fertile, got gripped in such crisis?

The conflict had its root following a coup d’état in September 2014 in Yemen’s Sana’a by Houthis, a rebel group also known as Ansar Allah, against Yemen’s elected President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi. Houthis had fought the Government in northern Yemen from 2003 to 2010.

They participated in a 10-month national dialogue in 2013 in Sana’a but later started an offensive to control more areas in the north. Government forces did not, however, intercept them. It was no later than September 2014 that Houthi insurgency took over the capital city of Sana’a.

Most army units and commanders, as well as tribal leaders, were still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who gave support to Houthi fighters in their coup and later allied with them through the formation of a political supreme council in July 2016 to run the state.

The signed national dialogue outcomes included relinquishing weapons seized from army institutions and formation of a new federal structure of six regions.

Houthis justified their coup to topple the corrupt Government and stop fuel subsidies cuts. They took over Government offices and military facilities. President Hadi and his Government officials were placed under house arrest but later managed to flee to the south. The Parliament was dissolved and a Revolutionary Committee was established by Houthis to govern the country.

The UN Security Council described Houthi leaders as spoilers of peace.

The advance of Houthi offensive continued southwards using air force and military ground machinery. They took over the port city of Aden, which forced President Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015. Local media reported he first fled to neighbouring Oman before moving to Saudi Arabia, where he is now based.

The move triggered a state of protracted instability and turmoil as other armed groups, including al-Qa’ida, expanded. Foreign embassies and diplomatic missions left the country. Houthis started official contact with Iran to mitigate international isolation and signed an economic partnership with it.

Military intervention

Hadi requested UN Security Council to authorize the use of power by willing countries to deter Houthis aggression. He also requested intervention from the Gulf States as well as the Arab League. On March 26, Saudi Arabia began extensive military intervention with the participation of other eight Arab countries.

Within hours, the Arab Coalition forces tightened their grip on Yemen’s airspace and sea borders and destroyed Houthi’s defence machinery.

The Coalition also supports a pro-government national army, which managed to take back areas from Houthis in the southern and eastern regions of Yemen. According to the Government, its troops control 85 per cent of Yemeni territories. But an estimated 23 million people live in Houthi-controlled areas or 13 out of 21 governorates.

As well as targeting military camps, the Coalition airstrikes had bombed infrastructure and civilians targets. But the UN said the airstrikes accounted for the majority of more than 5,000 civilians killed during the conflict.

Currently, the fighting between Houthis and national army is active in northern parts of Yemen including Saada, Taiz, Hudaidah, Al-Baidaa, Al-Jawf and Sana’a. Hadi forces have recently captured most of Nehm District which is a few kilometres from the capital Sana’a.

Houthis follow an authoritarian system in the areas under their control. They alienated major political parties and politicians. Last December they killed their sole ally, former President Saleh as he turned against Houthis calling for negotiations with Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Since September 2014, Houthis have been unable to run state institutions. Civil servants under their controls have not been paid their salaries since August 2016. According to a humanitarian needs overview report, schooling was disrupted in 12,240 schools in 13 out of 21 governorates during the 2016/2017 school year due to non-payment of salaries, affecting an estimated 4.5 million students.

Moneer Al-Omari, a political analyst and researcher, says what keeps Houthis alive is the differences between the Yemeni forces and the conflicting agenda of some members of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition. “Houthis are not in a strong position anymore and are suffering a great deal in a war of attrition,” he adds.

The conflict in Yemen is also viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Houthis have launched ballistic missiles into Saudi lands including Riyadh.

Troubled south

Troops were deployed by the Arab Coalition to the port city of Aden following the pushback of Houthi fighters in July 2015. The Government was later headquartered in Aden but was exposed to attacks.

However, from Aden, other rebels have been advocating for the independence of the southern regions since 2007. The rebels included mostly retired military and civil employee personnel, voicing economic and social grievances practised by northern leaders. Sporadic clashes with Government security have been reported since then. The rebels got momentum and in May 2017 when they established the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which announced ‘its partnership with the Arab Coalition to counter the Iranian tide in the region’. The rebels themselves helped in the pushback of Houthis from the South.

But Hadi’s Government is not in favour of the STC establishment, and earlier this year his troops quelled an attempt by the former to control Government offices and military camps in Aden. The STC demanded the change of ‘corrupt government’. President Hadi and his Government described the move as a coup against ‘legitimacy’, in which tens of people from both sides were killed and injured.

The STC is backed and militarily supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which, analysts say, seek to have the upper hand over the southern region for its interest through a member of the Arab Coalition. Last month, Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies, a local think-tank, said the UAE seeks to have a ‘foothold’ in the southern regions to control power resources.

But despite these new escalations, al-Omari thinks the STC cannot control the entire southern region ‘especially when some regions like Hadramout do not wish to be part of what the STC calls Southern Arabia.’ “The choices of people in the South will influence any future arrangements and the shape of the state, but I do not think that things will go beyond that,” he explains.

This region is faced with a wave of assassination and explosion attacks. Several religious scholars, politicians and security officers have been killed since the end of 2015.

Paid price

World humanitarian and aid organisations warn that the situation in Yemen is alarming. The conflict resulted in more than 8,000 deaths and over 50,610 injuries, and over 3 million refugees. 22.2 million people need assistance, an increase of over 1 million since June 2017, plus 8.4 million people are at risk of starvation.

The situation is further exacerbated by outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria, especially in northern regions. As of March 10, 2018, the local health authorities reported a total of 1,294 suspected diphtheria cases including 73 associated deaths.  The cumulative total of suspected cholera cases reported since April 2017 to 10 March 2018 is 1,076,472 with 2,265 associated deaths across the country.

As of August 2016, the conflict was estimated to have resulted in damages of almost $7 billion and economic losses of over $7.3 billion from reductions in production and service delivery. In October 2017 the World Bank estimated that Yemen’s gross domestic product (GDP) had contracted by about 37.5 per cent cumulatively since 2015.

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