The Yemen Humanitarian Crisis Explained

Brynn Hopper, Staff Writer (Online)

9 September, 2019

7-year-old Amal Hussain of Yemen courtesy of Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

7-year-old Amal Hussain of Yemen courtesy of Tyler Hicks/The New York Times


Widespread press coverage of the humanitarian crisis occurring in Yemen has been minimal, eclipsed by the fighting in Syria and Iraq against Isis. Although, not unlike its neighbours, Yemen has fallen victim to intense violence amid a civil war.

Building tensions in the Middle East culminated in the Arab Spring of 2011. The movement, though the impetus for the downfall of oppressive authoritarian rule, has overtime induced crippling instability and human suffering in an already vulnerable nation. So, how did striving for the ideals of democracy in Yemen transgress into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?

It all began with a transition that was intended to bring political stability. Yemen’s Arab Spring forced long standing authoritarian leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of power. Deputy Minister Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi then became president in November of 2011. The prospect of stability embodied in this transition quickly succumbed to external factors.

The Houthi rebel group located in Yemen’s northwest is religiously Zaydi; a deviation from Shia Islam. Although the group did support the overthrow of President Saleh, it opposed the transitional government; for without proper representation, it was perceived to be no variation from the previous regime that had been in conflict with the group since 2004.

Enacting meaningful constitutional change was susceptible to attack given the nation’s pre existing tensions, weak infrastructure and the fragility of a newly erected government. Resentments soon progressed to full-fledged military conflict in 2014. The Houthi rebels overpowered government resistance, established control of the capital city of Sanaa, and forced Hadi into exile.

What was formerly a civil war between the Yemenis government and Houthi rebels intensified with international involvement. In March of 2015, a Saudi Arabian led coalition backed by 10 other countries including the United States launched air strikes against the Houthi, aiming to restore power to Hadi’s government.

It is important to note that the United States is not exempt from the bloodshed in Yemen. The US has long been an ally of Saudi Arabia, providing the arms to engage in war. Despite the US claiming that involvement in Yemen is strictly a counter-terrorism measure targeting an active branch of Al-Qaeda, the bulk of fighter jets used to inflict civilian casualties are American exports.

Indiscriminate bombings continue to produce mass casualties in marketplaces, hospitals and schools. The strikes on Al-Hudaydah seaport has severed the lifeline that the population is reliant on for humanitarian supplies. An air, sea, and land blockade implemented by Saudi Arabia has produced the deadliest famine in decades; isolating the war’s victims from the help they desperately need.

The crisis is a result of stark political differences, the economic benefits of arms deals, and external enablers; which ultimately speaks volumes about the gross disregard for human life. Saudi Arabia’s intervention surpasses the primary means of Yemen’s restoration. The conflict in Yemen has developed to represent larger regional interests. Iran, a Shia majority state, has provided logistics and weaponry to the Houthi to ensure their continued successes. Saudi Arabia being religiously Sunni, is adverse to the influence of Iran in such close proximity to its borders.

The proxy war has entered a stalemate since the escalation of violence in 2015, proving to be an ever-increasing detriment to the livelihood of the Yemenis civilian population. After four consecutive years of fighting, the UN has verified that at least 17,700 civilians have died or been injured as a result of fighting between government forces and the Houthi rebels. Adding that approximately 3.3 million people remain displaced in 2019, upped from 2.2 million in the year prior.

Approximately 24 million of 29 million Yemenis citizens are in need of humanitarian assistance. That is an astounding 80 percent of the population. The 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview report concluded that 14.3 million people are classified as malnourished. Children under the age of five account for 2 million of those suffering from malnourishment. In addition, the steadily diminishing supply of clean water, readily available access to health care and deplorable sanitary conditions have induced a cholera epidemic.  

Images of skeletal bodies and transparent eyes amongst a backdrop of bombed buildings and terrorized people is difficult to ignore. The needless anguish of thousands of people is preventable given substantive international attention that is not fixated-on power imbalances and politics but on common humanity. Nonetheless, the Yemenis continue to suffer without access to basic human rights. It does not seem plausible that a fully functioning democratic government would amount after such destructive polarization and carnage on both sides. Unfortunately, undertaking extensive humanitarian intervention in Yemen can only begin once fighting ceases. Often referred to as the “silent war”, Yemen’s geopolitical insignificance means that starvation, suffering, and extensive poverty will inevitably continue so long as larger external powers engage in violence.