The Forgotten War: Yemen

By Michael Picanso | YEMEN

Yemen is an Arab country on the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Yemen is slightly larger than California in size.  Yemen’s population of 28 million is Muslim and very young. In fact, 46% of the population is under the age of 15. It’s characterized by a population divided into tribes. It’s also the poorest country in the Middle East. It’s rapidly growing in size along with its problems. To put it in perspective, only 4.3 million people lived in Yemen but it’s now predicted that by 2050 around 60 million people will reside in the west Asian country.

The country is currently divided into two factions. On one side are the Houthis, or the ‘rebels’, who are adherents Zayidism which is a branch of Shi’a Islam. The Houthi are ideologically aligned with the Iranians and with the supporters of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Then there is the government lead by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi which is allied with the Saudi Arabian led coalition. The conflict is seen outside as a proxy war between two rivals: the Iranians and Saudis but its just as much about an old ruler (Saleh) trying to keep his replacement (Hadi) out of power.

In February of 2012, Saleh, who ruled for over 33 years handed power over to Hadi after the 2011 protests around the middle east collectively known as the Arab Spring occurred. The breakup of the Saleh government opened the door to groups of Islamists to come in. They included everything from Al-Qaeda to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. This is where it started: The Houthi who are basically seen as a tribal militia that are adversaries with the tribal militias supported by these Islamist groups. As soon as Saleh stepped down, this vacuum of leadership in Yemen gave way to conflict between the groups. This conflict began in rural areas and has now spread to everywhere in Yemen. The newly installed president Hadi lacked the power to do anything because he had no original base of support, his only legitimacy was from the U.N. and outside western powers, as a result, he aligned himself with the Islamists.

The Houthi’s rebelled against this and made their way to the capital, Sana’a in September 2014 and chased away Hadi’s government to the port city of Aden. The Houthi-Saleh alliance is one out of necessity as they were once enemies back when the Houthi rebellion started in 2003. The Houthi have had unclear goals since but Saleh only has one: to keep Hadi out of power. They are opposed by Hadi, the political establishment who loathe Saleh, and the Saudi Monarchy. These groups are fighting over Yemen and it’s being destroyed in the process. The country is not united but split apart: it has two de-facto capitals, Sana’a and Aden.

On the 25th of March 2015, the Saudi coalition began air strikes against the Houthi in Yemen which produced a devastating armed conflict which has persisted since. Over the next two years, the conflict has spread to the entire country.  Much of the world has ignored the crisis and is blind to its destructive impact. It’s important to note that countries such as the United Kingdom have sold these weapons that are used against the Yemeni people. This has consequences as it has led to the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals, schools, and Yemeni homes.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen has called out politicians like Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

“With such a clear and continuing risk that any British arms sold to Saudi Arabia could be used to commit breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen, the UK should immediately suspend all such arms sales.”

In conflicts like this, the civilians are the victims. More than 12,000 of them have been killed and injured causing a humanitarian crisis. This crisis includes disgusting human rights abuses and war crimes that are being committed. This causes immense suffering to the Yemeni people. Around 80% of the population is in need of some form of aid. Famine and cholera are ripping through once vibrant and historical communities, aid is being blocked by political borders and schools that once fostered education for children are now held captive by militias teaching those same children how to wield AK-47 rifles.

All sides are guilty of war crimes. For example, The Houthi’s have fired explosives into residential areas controlled by opposing forces. This has happened especially in Ta’iz city where it has happened at least 45 separate times killing numerous Yemenis. On the other side, the Saudi led coalition has launched airstrikes into Sana’a and other northern cities killing and injuring thousands. The coalition also has carried out an air and sea blockade which prevents the aid and necessities going into Yemen furthering the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict. In addition, both sides have detained critics, journalists, human rights advocates and members of religious minorities such as the Baha’i faith.

Yemen is a country in desperate need of international aid. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the Red Cross are groups that anyone can donate to and support.

Yemeni tribes have a long and surprising tradition of being able to resolve conflicts but many see the damage as too far gone. Yemen will never be the same.

“Yemen Crisis: How You Can Help.” CNN, 24 Apr. 2014,

Kasinof, Laura. “The Conflict in Yemen Is Less a Proxy War Than a Clash of Personalities.” Slate Magazine, 18 Oct. 2016,

“Amnesty International.” Yemen 2016/2017,


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