The war in Yemen

Published: December 6, 2017
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Speaking on BBC World News on 5th December, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima was the latest head of an international aid organisation to say that the war in Yemen is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. She is right and the war shows no sign of abating. Indeed, the assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh on 4th December is more likely to extend rather than curtail the conflict. It was Saleh who was the Yemeni President for 33 years and was only dislodged in 2012 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Yemen is by far the poorest of the Arab nations, and since the exit of Saleh has been consumed first by toxic politics and then the proxy war being fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran for the last three years. The war has been stalemated for months but the killing continued, primarily of civilians. A blockade of its ports was recently lifted but not enough aid is getting in to relieve the suffering of millions.

The death of Saleh was quickly claimed by the Houthi rebels, who will see it as a considerable victory. He probably signed his own death warrant when he effectively switched sides and sought a dialogue with the Saudis and their allies. With no Saleh the rebel Houthis are the power in the land in north Yemen, and have not been significantly weakened by Saudi bombing and are unlikely to be inclined to peace negotiations or reconciliation. It is they who have fired ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia prompting finger pointing between Iran and the Saudis as to who supplied the missiles.

Yemen has been a fractured country for decades. In 1970, the government of then South Yemen adopted a communist form of government and North and South Yemen were only unified as a single country in 1990. There have been varying levels of conflict between north and south ever since. Modern conflicts in the Middle East tend towards proxy influence — Syria — if not outright control as well as a catastrophic longevity. There is going to be work for Oxfam in Yemen for years to come.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2017.

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