Four years ago, I wrote about how Yemen was in the midst of a food crisis which would devastate the country for generations if left unrestrained. Today, Yemen is firmly at the center of a hunger catastrophe which has led the United Nations to conclude that an entire generation is being crippled by hunger. In 2012, the UN reported that nearly half of Yemen's 26 million strong population was food insecure (meaning they were unsure as to where their next meal would come from). Today, the World Food Programme reports that at least 1 in 5 people are "severely food insecure", which in simple terms means that without assistance, 1 in 5 Yemenis not have any food to eat.
Yemen's food problems have been compounded, if not caused in part, by the brutal civil war which has ravaged the country's basic infrastructure, crippled its previously barely functional healthcare services and blocked vital sea and air passages for imports. Collectively, these factors have resulted in the country facing a man-made famine, which is incomparable to any other catastrophe to take place on the Arabian Peninsula in modern times.
Despite being located in a region of relative wealth and neighbouring the world's largest oil producer, Yemen has always been the poorer sibling in the Arabian Peninsula. Even prior to the outbreak of the hostilities, Yemen had one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. The conflict has meant this has risen further, with approximately half of the country's under-5s now stunted. Indeed, the true of cost of the conflict is being borne by Yemen's children. Media reports state that sick children in Yemen's fourth-largest city of al-Hudaydah, sleep three to a bed in the city's main hospital and are without the most basic of medicines. Elsewhere in the country, Amnesty International has reported how Saudi military aircraft pounded a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Yemen's northwestern province of Hajjah with a US-built bomb.
Although relatively deprived prior to the war, Yemenis have generally managed to get by. Primarily, this was achieved by means of a wide diaspora network spread across the world, a vibrant informal economy and access to cheap imports. However, underlying the conflict is the complete shutdown of airport and seaports in the country by the Saudi Coalition which has acted as a major catalyst in Yemen's man-made famine. The blockage has prevented imports of basic supplies at a time when the country depends on imports for approximately 90% of its food. The remaining 10% which comes from inside of the country has been significantly hampered by the Coalition which has bombed over 357 different agricultural sites inside of the country . This is particularly stark considering that only 2.8% of Yemen's total land is cultivated for food.
However, even more pressing is the international blockade of money transfers and the collapse of the domestic banking system in Yemen, which has meant the tradition life-line afforded to Yemenis by money transfers from the large diaspora community outside of the country, is no longer operational. Together, these factors culminating in a strategic assault on the Yemeni people has changed the social fabric of the country, whereby more than 80% of Yemenis now rely on aid to survive with illness and malnutrition is now widespread among all demographic groups.
Yemenis across the economic spectrum face the full brunt of the war in both physical and economic terms. Over 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the start of the war, of which at least half are civilians. While those who have manage to surrive have already started to report psychological problems stemming the trauma of war. Though 18 months has passed since the start of the conflict between the Houthi rebel (allied with the ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and allegedly supported by the Iranians) and the "legitimate" Government of Yemen, there appears to be no end in sight.
Abdu-rabbu Mansour Hadi, the controversial "President" in exile continues to nominally lead a Coalition force of Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia. Despite a long-drawn effort by the Saudis and their Coalition partners, Houthi strongholds such as the vital cities of Sanaa and Taiz remain firmly under their control. Although the port-city of Aden in the south of the country was "liberated" by the Coalition in July 2015, there is little progress to show for the victors as the city, led by a rag-tag resistance group is largely lawless and its only economy is that of war. Indeed, Hadi has proven himself to be an ineffective leader with a force of little to none of his own and arguably limited popular support among Yemenis. This begs the question of whether the Saudis were ill-informed when choosing their front-man for this conflict.
For outsiders, Yemen has always been a complicated country to understand. This reality has become even more aggravated since the outbreak of the conflict, partly due to the fluidity of war and the sheer amount of misinformation propagated by both sides. Often relegated by Western governments as a "Saudi issue", successive American and British governments have adopted a hands-off policy when it came to Yemen, largely delegating all Yemen issues (with the exception of terrorism) to the Saudis. The immediate consequence of the 2011 Arab Spring in Yemen and now, the long-drawn-out conflict, have proven this policy to be disastrous. The Saudis have demonstrated that they know as much about Yemen as they do about their own British or American manufactured weapons (that is very little).
Indeed, in the last 18 months alone, the Obama Administration has authorized weapon sales worth more than $22bn alone . While in the face of growing criticism among the British public, the Saudi Foreign Minister visited London to plead with the British Government not to suspend arms sales, as recently as last month. The Saudis and their Coalition partners are unwilling to walk away without a victory. The victory being the annulation of the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels and the return of Yemen firmly into the Saudi (Sunni) sphere of control, no matter the human consequences. Saudi Arabia has proven that it will go to virtually any length to prevent the establishment of a proxy-Iranian, Shia state on its southern border. Such lengths include accusations of war crimes in the targeting of civilian sites such as October's funeral attack in which, Saudi bombing killed at least 140 people in a single incident. Britain has recently increased its total Yemeni aid budget to £100 million but this drop in the ocean compared to £3.3 billion in arms Britain sells to the Saudis to enable such attacks.
A key concern is that the Saudis are unable to separate the Houthis from civilians and in the process, are destroying the essential infrastructure for Yemen's reconstruction post-conflict. Indeed, even lawyers for the US Government have expressed similar concerns regarding the use of American weapons by the Saudis in Yemen. This highlights the two overarching realities which apply to this conflict. The first being that without Western-made weapons, Saudi Arabia will be unable to continue with its bombing campaign in Yemen - preventing further civilian deaths. While the second, is that bombs generally do not achieve long-lasting peace - without negotiation and peaceful reconciliation, there will be no real victory for either side.
The last set of peace negotiations in Kuwait failed because the Saudis (represented through Hadi) had no real impetus for peaceful negotiation, favouring all out military dominance over a Yemen with some Houthi representation in its ruling establishment. It is in this regard that the West possesses a unique position to influence the Saudis, leveraging America and Britain's weapon sales to the Kingdom for lasting peace in its poorer neighbour. However, for this to occur both countries need to perceive Yemen as more than just a "Saudi-backwater" and ensure it becomes a foreign policy priority. This is a tough ask considering the crowded foreign policy space and Saudi's existing suspicion of America caused the Iran deal.
Nonetheless, without decisive action on behalf of the US and Britain, the conflict is likely to drag on for more time to come. Not only would this be the worst possible outcome for civilians in Yemen, furthering the impact of the man-made famine, but it would also be a catastrophe for Western foreign policy in the region.