Last week, the government of Yemen started to administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The vaccination campaign has become the latest source of dispute in a country that has been at war since 2014.
The internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi exercises ever-decreasing control over Yemen’s territory. Its principal military opponent is the Houthi rebels who occupy most of the country’s north. Almost all of the 360,000 doses that Yemen has received through the World Health Organisation, enough to cover only a small fraction of the country’s population, are to be administered in the south. The government claims to have offered 10,000 doses to the Houthis, but accuses the Houthis of refusing to run a vaccination campaign in densely populated areas such as their capital, Sanaa. The Houthi administration does not report COVID-19 cases. The government does, but testing rates are low and the official figures understate the extent to which the pandemic is affecting the country.
Throughout Yemen, whether in government or Houthi areas, a decrepit public health system is under extraordinary pressure. Médecins Sans Frontières has long described the health system as “broken” and warned in late March of an exponential increase in observed COVID-19 cases. The health system continues to fail to deal with a cholera pandemic that has affected around two million people since the beginning of the civil war.
Even individual deaths become a source of tit-for-tat allegations in a public relations war. A Houthi leader, Zakaria al-Shami, died in mid-March. Houthi officials claimed that his death was due to COVID-19. The government briefed Arab media that he was killed in a successful military operation. That narrative, true or not, suits the government and its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, who are keen to show that they are gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
Most senior Yemeni government officials, including President Hadi, operate from the distant comfort of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. That betrays the chasm between the government’s leaders and the day-to-day experience of Yemenis, as well as the reality that the government is largely a client of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been active participants in the war since 2015 and lead a regional anti-Houthi military alliance that includes the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s enthusiastic participation in Yemen’s civil war has been a project of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. The Saudi intervention was originally conceived as a short and decisive intervention, but has become an unmitigated failure. There are finally signs that Saudi Arabia is looking for an exit door, having opened negotiations with the Houthi-supporting Iran and having lost the reliably supportive ear of US President Donald Trump. But it is not clear whether bin Salman will ultimately be willing to stomach the humiliation of a withdrawal from Yemen that does not come on terms that he can present as favourable.
Many of the parties involved in the conflict have made significant geopolitical miscalculations, but the real disaster is the humanitarian one. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has for the third consecutive year named Yemen the country most at risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. Aside from the multiple disease outbreaks, food prices continue to skyrocket and infant malnutrition is at the highest rates ever recorded. One of the principal causes of the food shortages is an air and sea blockade that the government and its regional allies have imposed to try to damage the Houthis. International aid has dried up. The United Nations raised only half of its intended target in a recent campaign directed at donor countries. The United Kingdom cut its aid to Yemen from £164 million in 2020 to £87 million in 2021, citing budgetary pressures arising from its domestic COVID-19 response.
Sadly it seems as though the mounting humanitarian disaster is unlikely to provoke any of the principal actors in the conflict to seek a genuine the resolution. Instead, all signs suggest that the crisis is being used as a bargaining chip. Saudi Arabia offered the Houthis a ceasefire last month. The terms of the offer included a partial lifting of the blockade to lessen the burdens on aid reaching Houthi territory. The Houthis responded by accusing Saudi Arabia of using the humanitarian crisis as leverage and argued that the blockade must be lifted completely. The Houthis themselves ignore the humanitarian disaster to consolidate their military position. Their ongoing attempts to wrest control over the Marib region have led tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. If Marib falls, the Hadi government will have little if any foothold in its own country. The southern secessionist movement, which exercises effective control over much of the south despite being nominally a part of Hadi’s government, will assert the right to negotiate with the Houthis itself.
The Biden administration’s efforts to back away from the Saudi-led alliance have been a positive development. Riyadh considers the change of US policy to be a cynical effort to appease Iran ahead of negotiations for a revived agreement on nuclear enrichment. Whatever the motivations of the Biden administration, the change in US policy has been accompanied by a perceptible shift in Saudi Arabia’s attitude to the Yemen conflict. The fact that Saudi officials are now in direct talks with Iran about Yemen is promising. Less promising is that by all accounts Yemen remains bound up as an element of broader geopolitical negotiations that extend to other proxy conflicts such as Syria. Yemen’s humanitarian disaster is likely to be alleviated only by each side and its regional backers treating it as a discrete and urgent priority, even more urgent than resolving the political conflict. One of the greatest dangers is a hasty, forced, and simplistic settlement that perpetuates further war.
Raihan Ismail is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow and a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU.
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