War has raged in Yemen since 2014, and with particular intensity since the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. With the new US administration withdrawing the country’s blank cheque support of the Saudi and Emirati bombing campaigns, there may be scope for a negotiated end to the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet today.
Fighting continues in Yemen despite the large numbers of deaths to disease and malnourishment among the population. Among the perpetrators of violence include not only the Houthi rebels who have seized cities and held large amounts of territory, but also ISIS, Al Qaeda, the internationally recognised government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The latter two actors, especially Saudi Arabia, have wrought great destruction on Yemen through their air bombing campaigns aimed at dislodging the Houthis from their positions. With the backing of Barack Obama and Donald Trump they have tried (and failed) to defeat the rebel Houthis while being documented by Human Rights Watch as committing large numbers of attacks on civilian targets including hospitals, mosques and farms among others. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was Saudi Arabia’s bombing of a school bus containing children, which killed at least 26 and wounded a further 19 in 2018.
Far from improving the security situation, Saudi Arabia’s venture into Yemen has resulted in reprisal attacks from the Houthis, mainly on border outposts. The most spectacular attack occurred in September 2019, when a massive drone attack was launched on key Saudi oil facilities, reducing the global oil production by 5% for a time. While the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, UN investigators deemed this not to be the case, placing their suspicion on Iran instead (the Houthis’ main backer).
With the strategic situation on the ground at a stalemate and casualties mounting, new US President Joe Biden has made his first major foreign policy decision by cutting the US’s support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, though has pledged to continue defensive support for Saudi Arabia from Iranian and Houthi missile and drone attacks. The US will also suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and appoint a special envoy to Yemen with a view to advancing peace talks between the Houthis, pro-government forces and their backers.
In addition, Biden has reversed an eleventh hour decision by the Trump administration to designate the Houthi rebels as a “terrorist organisation”, which had crippled relief efforts in Yemen and threatened to cause further starvation and malnourishment among hundreds of thousands of people. It is hoped that these measures will reduce the scale of the violence being committed and lay the groundwork for peace negotiations in the future.
However, such efforts may be hampered by the UK’s refusal to follow suit with Biden’s move. UK Foreign Office Minister James Cleverley said that he had “noted” the US’ move but would continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, claiming that British arms sales licences are granted with great care to follow humanitarian law. Saudi Arabia represented 40% of the volume of arms exported by the UK between 2010 and 2019.
Nevertheless, pressure appears to be growing on the Conservative government to halt its arms sales with Saudi Arabia, with Conservative chair of the Defence Committee noting that Biden’s suspension of arms sales was aimed to pave the way for peace talks, and that the UK’s position could undermine peace efforts.
For the time being, peace looks a long way off in Yemen with all sides seemingly eager to carry on fighting. However, Biden’s moves to reverse the Obama and Trump administrations’ support for Saudi-led offensive operations will at least avert famine and reduce civilian suffering in the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula. In the longer term, the hope will be for violence to be reduced further until the parties can return to the negotiating table and arrive at a settlement which allows for Yemeni civilians to return to as normal a life as possible and for a government which puts the interests of the Yemeni people first.