The world has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which made its first appearance in Wuhan, China, before spreading to other parts of the world. This has led to the majority of the world’s nations imposing some form of lockdown to combat this virus. It has led to postponements of the Olympics in Tokyo, the French Open in France, and the Coachella in the United States. Other than postponing these events, this virus has had a positive impact on the people of Yemen. Due to fears of spreading this virus, the Saudi Arabia-UAE coalition and the Houthis in Yemen have agreed to a ceasefire. This war has been going on since 2015 and has been called one of the worst humanitarian crises by the UN (Al Jazeera). This ceasefire came into effect on Thursday, April 9, 2020. The UN sees this as an opportunity to finally begin peace talks and finally bring an end to this war.
Why is this war happening?
The war in Yemen has its roots in 2011 after the Arab Spring movement forced the authoritarian Prime Minister, Ali Abdullah Salah, to hand over power to the new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi faced a number of problems once he became president, ranging from attacks from jihadists, and separatist movements to unemployment and food shortages (BBC News). Seeing the vulnerability of the current president, the Houthi movement which champions the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, took over the northern province of Saada and its neighboring provinces (BBC News). Some disillusioned Yemenis also joined the movement and gradually took over Sanaa, the capital, after joining forces with Saleh and then drove Hadi abroad (Al Jazeera).
Since then, some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE decided they needed to stop the Houthi movement from taking over Yemen. They believed that the Houthi movement was a sign of Iranian influence in Yemen due to the possibility that the weapons being used by the Houthis were from Iran (Al Jazeera). This led to the formation of a coalition of these countries that would fight the Houthi movement in Yemen.
What has transpired since then?
Since the war began in 2015, the war was expected to go on for a few weeks with the Saudi Arabia officials feeling Yemen will be peaceful sooner rather than later. Since then, however, there has been a military stalemate between both sides where more than 100,000 deaths and even more have been injured at that time (BBC News).
The president of Yemen, Hadi, is now based in Saudi Arabia while his government continues to function from Aden after the Houthis have taken over Sanaa. This war also saw Saleh, the estranged president joins forces with the Houthis as they now have a common enemy. However, Saleh switched sides in 2017, declaring on television that he wants to talk to the coalition (Al Jazeera). Two days later, the Houthis killed Saleh (Al Jazeera)
Human Cost of the war
This crisis in Yemen has been called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. According to the UN, Yemen is on the brink of the world’s largest famine (Robertson et al.). October 2019, Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project — ACLED—have said that there have been more than 100,000 fatalities, including 12,000 who were killed in direct attacks (BBC News). These attacks include attacks from the ground as well as bombs from the sky released by the coalition. There are also around 2,000,000 children who are acutely malnourished and are on the brink of death at only 5 years old (BBC News). More civilians have died due to preventable diseases such as malnutrition, poor health, and other diseases. It is also unclear what effects COVID-19 will have on the country if it spreads rapidly in Yemen and if the government will have the means to help the Yemeni people.
Ceasefire– what can it mean for this long war?
While the COVID-19 has put the economy on hold all across the world, it may have had a favorable impact on Yemen. The ceasefire due to the fear over the spread of the virus has given both parties a great excuse to stop the war. The UN has also recognized this opportunity and has begun thinking about scenarios of peace talks about stopping this war.
Mohammad Abdel Salem, a spokesperson of the Houthi movement, said that the group sent a comprehensive plan to the UN in hopes of ending the war sooner rather than later (Robertson et al.). Shortly following this, special envoy Martin Griffins sent a proposal to both the Saudi-UAE military coalition, as well as the Houthi rebel group (Al Jazeera). The plan called for a nationwide ceasefire, including naval, air, and ground hostilities. It also called for starting peace talks. The Yemeni people are welcoming the end of this conflict, especially with the threat of COVID-19. University student Aman Abd al-Rahman is one of the many Yemenis who feel the nation has suffered enough. “We want to live and learn. If coronavirus appears, Yemen will be facing an unprecedented crisis(Al Jazeera).”
Is COVID-19 the only reason this war may end?
With the ceasefire currently in effect, one must wonder whether we should be thankful for COVID-19 for potentially ending one of the worst wars in the world in terms of the human cost. One must wonder if the virus didn’t appear, whether this war would end. This war has been called a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
We must also think of the possible consequences Saudi Arabia and the nations which supported them, such as the USA and France, will face. According to the UN, these parties may possibly face charges for war crimes in Yemen (Al Jazeera). The agenda to stop the war has been pushed by all parties involved, including the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and the allies.
The Yemeni crisis is an example of civil conflict spurred by feelings of insecurity and discrimination. The Zaidi Shia Muslims felt marginalized and saw the struggles of the new president as a perfect opportunity to start the Houthi movement. This is an example of a civil war caused by structural and political factors, as discussed by Brown in his article, “The Causes of Internal Conflict” (Brown). A major reason for these factors has been a weak state. The state under Hadi has become extremely weak and as a result, the Houthi movement started with not only the Zaidi Shia Muslims but also some disillusioned Yemenis who didn’t regard Hadi as a legitimate leader. It will be interesting to see how Yemen tackle this issue if peace is achieved. Will they try consociationalism and give all ethnic groups representation in the government or will international powers such as Saudi Arabia oversee the political transition? This will be interesting to see and will be critical to stabilize the political environment in Yemen as well as create a network so that the population receives the aid they need to live a proper life.
Al Jazeera. “Saudi-UAE Unilateral Ceasefire in Yemen Begins; Houthis Balk.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 9 Apr. 2020, www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/saudi-uae-coalition-declares-2-week-unilateral-ceasefire-yemen-200408185013981.html.
“The Causes of Internal Conflict: An Overview.” Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, by Michael Edward Brown, The MIT Press, 2001.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ali Abdullah Saleh.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Mar. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Ali-Abdullah-Saleh.
Magdy, Samy. “Report: Death Toll from Yemen’s War Hit 100,000 since 2015.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 31 Oct. 2019, apnews.com/b7f039269a394b7aa2b46430e3d9b6bc.
PeoplePill. “Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi: Yemeni Mashal and Politician – Biography and Life.” PeoplePill, peoplepill.com/people/abdrabbuh-mansour-hadi/.
Robertson, Nic, et al. “Saudi Arabia Declares Ceasefire in Yemen over Coronavirus.” ROBERTSON ET AL., Cable News Network, 9 Apr. 2020, edition.Robertson et al..com/2020/04/09/middleeast/saudi-yemen-coronavirus-ceasefire-intl/index.html.
“Yemen Crisis: Why Is There a War?” BBC News, BBC, 10 Feb. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423.