By the end of this year, the United Nations warned recently, 377,000 Yemenis will have died from seven devastating years of war – in many cases killed by indirect causes such as hunger; in others, by airstrikes or missile bombardments. Seventy per cent of the fatalities are thought to be children under five.
As 2021 began, there were hopes that Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House might bring progress towards peace. His administration quickly announced it was ending all support for offensive operations by Saudi Arabia, which spearheaded the US- and UK-backed coalition fighting for the internationally recognised government overthrown by Houthi rebels. It also revoked the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group. But Mr Biden’s team overestimated its ability to help resolve the crisis. The diplomatic push soon faltered. In October, Washington announced a $500m military contract with Riyadh which includes support for its attack helicopters, used in operations in Yemen.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe that the UN has described as the worst in the world is deepening. Just before Christmas, the World Food Programme said that it had been forced to cut aid due to insufficient funds, three months after it warned that 16 million Yemenis were “marching towards starvation”. Four million people are displaced. This was the poorest country in the region even before the war broke out, with 47% of the population living in poverty. The UN has since warned that it is on course to become the poorest in the world, with 71%-78% of Yemenis now below the poverty line. Already inadequate infrastructure and services have been devastated, with schools and hospitals targeted. Both sides have shown a ruthless contempt for civilians.
The UN special envoy Hans Grundberg warns that the recent escalation is among the worst in the conflict. The Iran-backed Houthis have intensified their offensive on Marib, the last major stronghold of the government that they ousted, stalling talks. Coalition airstrikes on the airport at the capital Sana’a, held by the Houthis, halted aid flights this month, although rebels now say they can resume on a “temporary” basis. The war has become increasingly complex as the secessionist Southern Transition Council along with al-Qaida and Islamic State cells have seized their opportunity. But above all, it has been supercharged by the regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. As one young Yemeni observed: “We are just a battlefield.”
Saudi Arabia, which expected a quick win, has little to show for the billions that it has poured into this war. Though its ally, the UAE, withdrew most troops two years ago, Riyadh is still in search of an exit. That it is talking to Iran, after they cut ties in 2016, is a significant advance. But the two sides have very different reasons for engaging, and the lives of Yemenis are low in either’s priorities – many suspect that the Houthis hope to derail the talks, believing that a military victory is within their grasp. They have sharply increased missile and drone attacks on Saudi targets.
With borders and airspace sealed, the world has largely been able to ignore the war’s impact on Yemen’s civilians. But the conflict must not be allowed to slip down the agenda again. Its grim and entrenched nature is not cause to give up on diplomacy, but all the more reason to renew the determined efforts required if Yemenis are to have a real future.