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Why is the West Turning a Blind Eye Towards Yemen

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As much of the western world turns its focus on U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, igniting fears of increased violence in the Middle East, it largely ignores the world’s currently most caustic human rights crisis just over 1,000 miles south. In Yemen, a static and uncompromising internal conflict between a Saudi-led coalition of formal military forces and militias and Iranian backed Houthi Rebels has waged for the past two years. Although the battle has reached a territorial stalemate, the Yemeni civilians populations continue to be caught in its crossfires. With little evidence of a resolution approaching, the humanitarian consequences will only increase without investing significant peacebuilding efforts.

Origins of the Conflict

The birth of the internal disrest dates back to the Arab Spring of 2011 [1]. Public protests and a failed assassination attempt on then ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh ignited calls from other Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, for Saleh to step down and allow his vice president, Abd Abdullah Mansour Hadi to take over. However, an attempt to draft a constitution proposing a federal parliament fell through after the Houthi Rebels claimed it unfairly apportioned territory to them with little resources. The Houthis, who had previously rebelled against Saleh, responded by joining the former president in open rebellion against the Saudi led coalition.

Now the Houthi led rebels hold the country’s capital of Sana’a, and have successfully frustrated the Saudi led efforts through guerilla tactics utilized by insurgent groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. They have forced current President Hadi to flee to the port city of Aden, and have won the loyalty of much of the state’s military who have remained faithful to Saleh [2]. At the same time, they lack the resources to fully recapture the nation and maintain autonomy. Furthermore, the recent assassination of Saleh has ignited tension among anti-Saudi forces, dealing a blow to their organization and unity [3].

They are, however, supported by Iran, who relish the opportunity to exasperate their regional rival and fellow heavyweight in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. With Iran’s support, the rebel groups have just enough force to maintain themselves as a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to unify the nation under a constitution.

While the Saudi led coalition’s initial intentions may have been noble, the Houthi evasion tactics of hiding among civilian populations have led their military efforts to be accused of humanitarian war crimes [1]. Given the stalemate of the ground fighting and the statisticity of its battle-lines, the Saudi forces have largely turned to aerial attacks against the rebels. These attacks, as is true with air-strikes in general, have been largely non discriminatory in their targets and have been widely criticized for targeting schools, mosques and hospitals within Sana’a. They have also blockaded precious resources from reaching the capital, something which was recently condemned by President Trump, and not only affects the rebel forces but also the citizens of the city.

The citizens of Yemen now find themselves caught between not only a civil war between rival Yemeni forces, but also in a battlefield between the region’s two superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The financial and military support of these two, each with their own allies in the West (namely Russia for Iran and the U.S. for Saudi Arabia), has inflamed the conflict to a humanitarian crisis. Over 8,600 people have died since March of 2015 [2], with a further 49,000 have been injured [1]. The immediate human cost of the conflict has only been compounded by disease, famine and a desperate need for basic necessities. The UN estimates that nearly three fourths of the nation’s population is in need of humanitarian aid [1]. Infrastructural destruction has caused a host of issues, including the ruin of buildings and roads, as well as a failing sewage and water systems leading to the worst cholera epidemic in recent history [1]. Power outages and a lack of fuel has limited hospital capabilities to treat injuries and disease [1]. This host of issues is only furthered by the Saudi led blockade, keeping necessary resources from reaching those most in need.

The West Turns a Blind Eye

In light of these atrocities, Yemen is in desperate need of both humanitarian aid and resources, as well as political influence in helping to broker a peace agreement.

Compared with the Syrian civil war, the conflict in Yemen has received far less attention from Western institutions [1]. A cynic would assert that this could be due to the physical separation of the nation from European shores. Syrian refugees attempting to escape the atrocities of the conflict were dying in the Mediterranean directly south of Europe and coming into Europe with significant psychological and physical trauma resulting from the conflict. In contrast, the conflict in Yemen is half a continent away.

Without taking a direct focus in the conflict, however, the West is indirectly involved. Saudi Arabia in particular receives support and weapons from the West, most notably the United States. The current accusations of their war crimes must at least partially fall back on the nation that has supplied them with vast stores of weapons. Perhaps the conflict is justified in the eyes of the U.S. as a means to limit Iranian influence. However, the tactics that the Saudi-led forces are employing in Yemen are proven to result in massive humanitarian costs and little progress in eradicating insurgent militias. Perhaps the West is wary of aggravating the new Saudi crown prince, who has made significant strides in modernizing the country’s political and social atmosphere. Still, the humanitarian costs of both the Saudi airstrikes and resource blockade cannot go unmentioned. U.S. President Donald Trump recently rebuked the blockade of resources by Saudi Arabia, however his words must be backed up with a strong commitment to providing aid to the Yemeni people and halting deadly and unproductive aggression.

Why the Conflict Deserves more Attention

Although the devastating conflict is receiving less attention than it deserves, it is necessary that developed countries attempt to broker peace sooner rather than later.

First, the humanitarian costs are already devastating and exponentially worsening the economic and social reality of what was already the Middle East’s poorest country prior to the war [1]. War, particularly internal conflict, is incredibly detrimental to a nation’s economy far after conflict has ended, meaning that the damage from the current war will continue its harm far into the future. Peace and rebuilding efforts, regardless of the side who maintains political control, are necessary to protect civilians and allow them growth opportunities.

Photo by Almigdad Mojalli on Wikimedia Commons

More immediate and relative to Western nations, however, is the potential for Yemen to become a haven for terrorism groups. The chaotic social and political atmosphere in Yemen mirrors others such as Afghanistan and Iraq that have allowed militant groups such as the Islamic State to rise both in influence and capabilities [1]. Instability and humanitarian dangers can lead populations to turn to radicalized terrorist groups. Ongoing conflict, supported by Saudi and Iranian weaponry, also offers opportunities for terrorists to arm themselves. As has happened in Iraq, weapons that were originally traded with Saudi Arabia by the West could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations and be used against western interests. If the humanitarian horrors of the current war and its lasting effects aren’t enough to inspire attention, perhaps the future dangers of increased terrorist capabilities as a result of the conflict can pull Western aid and influence to the region.

U.N. led efforts to broker peace have similarly taken a one sided approach, beginning with an initial demand for a full and complete surrender of the Houthi forces. While the Houthis do deserve blame for the start of the conflict, they can hardly be named as the more deadly of the two sides. This demand for a full surrender takes a naive and unrealistic approach to a complex situation. Rather, an attempt at a recreation of the national constitution and of democracy, combined with a phasing out of Saudi influence in the region seems the best route.


[1] “How Yemen became the most wretched place on earth.” The Economist. November 30, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[2]”Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?” BBC News. December 02, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[3] Shane, Scott. “Ali Abdullah Saleh, Strongman Who Helped Unite Yemen, and Divide It, Dies at 75.” The New York Times. December 04, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

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