Away from global headlines dominated by the Ukraine crisis, the brutal war in Yemen has turned seven. As the conflict in that benighted country enters its eighth year, experts are agreed that Saudi Arabia has failed abysmally in its campaign to defeat the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sana’a, most of northern Yemen, and govern 80 per cent of the population.
The Yemeni people are paying a horrific price for a war which has no end in sight. The Saudi intervention in Yemen has many similarities to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to former US official and foreign policy expert Bruce Riedel, the Saudis like the Russians greatly underestimated their opponents.
The Saudi mission was initially code-named Operation Decisive Storm; it has proven to be anything but decisive. Its architect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, told Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan in 2015 that the Houthis would be toppled “in a matter of a few weeks”. Mr Brennan has since noted in his memoirs that he wondered what Mr Salman “was smoking.”
Riedel points out that Saudi ground forces never even got close to Sana’a and seemed to assume the rebels could be defeated with air power, a strategy which they got spectacularly wrong. The impact on the Yemeni population caught between the Saudi forces and Houthi rebels has been devastating. Ordinary Yemenis have no place of refuge in the region to flee to from the incessant violence. Experts peg the number of internally displaced persons in Yemen at close to four million.
Poverty is both acute and widespread. What’s made matters worse is the Saudi blockade of Yemen as the latter imports most of its food and medicine. According to the World Food Program, at least half of Yemeni children under the age of five ~ that is 2.3 million kids ~ are at acute risk of malnutrition.
The United Nations estimates 377,000 deaths in seven years of war, the vast majority from malnutrition and related causes. The humanitarian catastrophe is complete. With the war in Ukraine blocking exports of grain from the two combatant countries which together comprise nearly 35 per cent of global wheat exports, food prices are going up, and the suffering in Yemen, the poorest country of the Arab world, is likely to intensify.
The Saudi blockade also prevents fuel from getting into the country which is destroying the already decrepit infrastructure. Yemen has been forgotten. International efforts to end the war ~ which US President Joe Biden suggested would be a priority ~ have not come to pass.
The Houthis are undemocratic, fundamentalist, armed insurgents. But the first two adjectives of the previous sentence can be ~ and often are ~ applied to the Saudis too. Any peace deal, therefore, would need to be enforced by a third party. And the world just doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it.