The horrifying images of starving children, women, and men coming out of Yemen tell a story to the world that we Yemenis have known for a while: the country is sliding into a wide-scale famine while all sides of the conflict turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions of innocent civilians.
While an alliance of the Houthi rebel movement and the ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to persecute their opponents in the areas they control, and besiege and shell Taiz, the country’s third-largest city, in an effort to consolidate their control over the central part of Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition besieges most of the country and indiscriminately targets civilian areas and infrastructure. The worst single incident took place earlier this month when an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on a funeral hall in Sana’a left an estimated 140 dead and 525 injured. With a crumbling health system unable to cope, the majority of the injured were not able to travel abroad for treatment as the Saudis have forced the closure of Sana’a airport for nearly two months.
Caught between the two sides, the Yemeni people have little to hope for, especially as they have lost faith in the “international system” which has so far showed total disregard for upholding international humanitarian law and basic human rights in the country. The UK, for instance, has shown unwavering support for the Saudi-led coalition, to which it supplies arms (Britain has sold more than £3.7bn of arms to Saudi Arabia since the airstrikes began), military advisors, and an umbrella to shield its activities from any international inquiry into human rights violations. A motion to withdraw support from the Saudi coalition until an independent UN investigation has examined whether its bombing campaign is in breach of international law was defeated yesterday in the House of Commons by 283 votes to 193.
The British government was equally happy to promote the Saudi justification of the funeral hall bombing as a “deliberate error” made by an “individual”. This justification attempted to convince people, in a darkly comic scenario, that the Houthi/Saleh alliance planted a junior officer in the coalition war room, who was then somehow able to force the funeral airstrike through the system in breach of operation procedures. At the least this is an insult to basic human intelligence, as the Houthi/Saleh alliance would have no incentive to target its own top military and political leaders, a number of whom were attending the funeral and were killed or injured. It is shameful that the UK has given credibility to this story.
Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East region even before the war started. As the conflict has escalated, the small economy that existed has crumbled. Social welfare transfers to the poorest of the poor stopped nearly two years ago. Private-sector jobs have almost vanished as the ongoing conflict, blockade, and airstrikes have targeted factories and businesses either directly or indirectly. Fuel shortages, water scarcity, import blockades, and the destruction of roads and ports have destroyed agriculture. The last lifeline for millions of Yemenis, public sector salaries, stopped in August.
The past year and a half has shown that neither persecutor of this conflict will achieve a military victory and nor, left to their own devices, will they reach agreement. The UK and other leading powers must find their moral spine and exert pressure on all sides to strike a deal.
A further thought: Yemen has been labeled in the past few months as “the forgotten crisis”. However, as a population of 26 million people runs out of options for its survival, it is hard to imagine that this disaster will continue to be contained within the country’s borders. By then it might be too late to “remember” the Yemeni crisis.
Rafat Al-Akhali is a Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, and a former cabinet minister in the government of Yemen.