Yemen completed 1000 days of war in December since the Saudi-led coalition air strikes began at the end of 2014 in response to Houthis’ advance onto the capital Sana. More than three years on, the humanitarian situation is dire due to the incessant and indiscriminate bombing and blockade by Saudi Arabia (SA). The UN estimates more than three quarter of Yemen’s 28 million population need humanitarian help; famine is looming.
The wrecked sewage system has resulted in one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recent memory. More than eight thousand Yemenis have died so far, including children and women, according to the WHO. An international aid group says an estimated 130 children or more die every day in war-torn Yemen from extreme hunger and disease. More than 50,000 children in Yemen are expected to die by the end of the year as a result of disease and starvation caused by the stalemated war. Yet the tragedy of Yemen has not attracted the required international attention and response it deserves.
The weekly Economist says that is because the Yemeni conflict seems far from Europe unlike the conflict in Syria which produced a huge outflow of refugees into Europe provoking West’s interest in the conflict. As a result, more policy and political attention is being devoted to Syria. Meanwhile, calls for restraining Saudi actions in Yemen are growing louder. A bit about it later, first what has triggered the most recent escalation.
The rise of the young Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince, to a position of authority in Saudi Arabia, has provided a powerful stimulus to Saudis’ excursions abroad. Yemen was the first neighbour to taste the aggressive intent of new Saudi policy under the young prince. Mohammed bin Salman ordered air strikes on Yemen in 2014 as a statement of Saudi Arabia’s intention to expand and entrench its footprint in the neighbouring countries and the wider region.
Yet the bombing of Yemen has gone on without producing much gains for Saudi Arabia on the ground. The Houthis remain entrenched despite the superior Saudi airpower and its allied forces on the ground. The SA’s Yemen campaign was floundering until it got a huge boost from the election of Donald Trump, the new US President. As a result, Saudi interference in the region has found a new urgency and purpose, according to observers.
Not surprisingly, this move has coincided with President Trumps’ change of tone on Iran which has grown more harsh and bellicose in recent months. President Trump has given strong hints of not only withdrawing his support for the Iranian nuclear deal but also adopting aggressive measures to restrict perceived Iranian influence in the region. To achieve this wider goal, Saudi Arabia seems to have been given a free rein under the new crown prince.
This has seen Saudi Arabia going on the offensive in Yemen with renewed bombing and blockade of the country. The apparent provocation for this renewed escalation of hostilities was the firing of the missiles deep into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis and its alleged regional patron Iran. This was interpreted as growing Iranian military assertiveness in Yemen and beyond. Saudi Arabia and its allies responded by blockading Yemen ports in November, further worsening the famine conditions.
Though the blockade has been eased in the wake of international protest, the strangulation of Yemen continues through regular bombings. This escalation is timed with Saudi’s larger moves in apparent concertation with the US.
As part of the larger Saudi plan, Saudi prince forced the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister. Hariri explicitly accused Iran and Hezbollah of creating disorder in the country. The resignation and the associated statement was widely believed to be extracted under duress. However, the Saudi action was roundly critiqued in Lebanon for treating the country’s prime minister as Saudi vassal. This led to Harriri’s higher approval ratings in Lebanon. Within days, France stepped into to limit the damage by playing a role in the restoration of Saad Hariri.
The US-Saudi concert has also reconfigured the political landscape in Yemen recently. Sensing the change of US tone and support for Crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s adventurist actions in the region, the ever-pliable ex-strongman of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, switched to the Saudi-backed regime by breaking off with the Houthis whom he courted in 2012 after his ouster from power because of the Arab Spring. Saleh’s ouster came through after an agreement by the Gulf Cooperation Council which saw installation of Mansour Hadi as president. The Saudi-backed new president has not been able to establish his writ in Yemen despite Saudi-led coalition’s full-throated support.
Mansour Hadi lives in exile in Saudi Arabia from where he runs the affairs of his shrunken government. The Saleh-Houthis alliance was crucial for the Houthis who have made considerable gains on the ground in recent years. However, the Houthis reacted angrily to Saleh’ desertion by killing him on December 4, ending the career of a chameleonic strongman spanning over 40 years.
What has been missing, though, from the Western mainstream media reporting is the role of Western governments in arming Saudi government with latest weaponry and technology which is being used in Yemen. The Western backing for Saudi Arabia in Yemen furnishes an additional reason for dumbing down the Yemen conflict in the Western press. However, criticism of the Saudi actions in Yemen is growing lately in the West.
In recent month, human rights and humanitarian organisations have raised voice over the long bombing campaign which has led to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. In the UK, the role of British government in relation to Yemen crisis has also come under scrutiny in recent months. This has grown after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party. Since his assumption of office criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the use of British arms in the Yemen conflict has become mainstream. This has spread to other parts of the world where criticism of Saudi Arabia’s strangulation of Yemen is being increasingly voiced.
In some media commentaries, there lurks some discussion of whether Saudi actions in Yemen constitute war crimes. Looked at this way Pakistani parliament acted wisely in not committing its troops to Saudi-led Yemen adventure. The parliament needs to stick to this position and assert its control over Pakistan’s Yemen policy to avoid future legal and political complications arising out of its any on-off mooted involvement in the Yemen imbroglio.