In these times of a pandemic, the need to talk about the war in Yemen is greater than ever. March 2019 marked the completion of five years of brutal conflict which has relegated the second-most resource rich country of the Middle East to be the poorest.
Years of conflict and coups has rendered Yemen’s central state fragile and fragmented. Currently, as a result of the Riyadh agreement of 2019, the country is split between two governments: the internationally recognised governance led by President Mansour Hadi retains control of the south while Houthi rebels hold power over much of the northern part of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. This division of power is besmirched by shifting frontlines and regional disagreements between the Saudis and the Emiratis. As of April 20, there were strong indications of an “imminent war” between the two sides. Additionally, local proxies are constantly fighting their own battles on part of their foreign backers in order to protect the latter’s interests in Yemen. On April 8, the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral ceasefire. However, fighting from the Houthi side continues unabated. The group rejected the ceasefire and presented their own peace plan.
Covid-19 affords an exit strategy for the Saudis out of a costly conflict. Given the Houthis’ increasing ability to strike both, military and civilian targets, together with the kingdom’s deteriorating domestic situation (in wake of falling global oil prices and pause of all religious tourism), Riyadh simply cannot afford to engage on unnecessary fronts.
The forthcoming contagion sparks little fear in the Yemenis. They are already accustomed to death. Since January 2020, civilian fatalities have been escalating at unprecedented rates. One in every three casualties has been a child. With more than 100,000 deaths since 2015, the war in Yemen has been called the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster”. These numbers exclude the mortalities caused by war-induced famine and cholera.
On the April 10, the Yemeni government reported its first case of Covid-19. Five years of warfare have badly impaired the country’s health structure as well as people’s immune response. The division in the governments has resulted in the absence of a functioning health ministry. Ninety-three per cent of the country’s medical resources are impoverished. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the only organisation which is operating nationwide. Health specialists have warned that in these circumstances, Covid-19 could disseminate faster, with much more lethal implications compared to other countries. The recent flash floods in the northern part of the country will further supplement the forthcoming danger by inhibiting any relief efforts.
It is also worth noting that Yemen has an import-based economy. These necessitates hard currency which in turn requires foreign exchange as well as a stable Yemeni riyal to uphold an appropriate exchange rate. Since oil is the main source of income for the country, the government will find it difficult to fund imports and pay public wages in the global economic onslaught brought about by Covid-19.
Presently, the dominating idea surrounding the war in Yemen is that decentralisation through democracy is the only way peace can be attained. This narrative fails to take account of the fact that any form of decentralisation would inevitably rely on the existence of an effective representative central government which has the ability of dividing power, all the while guaranteeing the country’s sovereignty and sponsoring the state’s key institutions such as foreign affairs and defense. In other words, decentralisation should be viewed as a future goal once stability has been achieved and not as a means to an end.
The new battle that Yemen now faces will be intense and all-consuming. The country cannot afford to fight on two fronts — a war and a pandemic — at the same time. Covid-19 provides a unique opportunity to silence the guns once and for all, make hard decisions, and take ownership of realising a conflict-free Yemen through peaceful means.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2020.
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