Yemen: One year on, still the forgotten war

03/03/2016

by Andrew Cummings

Over two million people have been displaced and over 3,000 civilians killed – and yet the devastating war in Yemen continues to receive little attention. It now suffers a humanitarian crisis: over half the population face famine.

Yemen has always been fragile, but this time it is different. We are witnessing complete state collapse and fragmentation. It is messy, with different fractions supported by regional heavyweights. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is backed by a Saudi led coalition, whilst ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh supports Houthi rebels. When both sides clashed, Hadi fled the capital Sana’a to Saudi, only recently returning to the southern city of Aden, and a power vacuum formed allowing several extremist groups to overrun large swathes of the country.

Last April, and with little international attention, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) gained control of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city. Daesh (or ISIL) affiliates have taken territory along the southern coast and carried out significant terrorist attacks. Intense ground fighting coupled with air strikes from pro-Government coalition forces has displaced thousands. Yemenis have fled to nearby Somaliland and Djibouti, states hardly known for their stability.

Saturday marks the first anniversary of the conflict and there are signs that political wrangling may be shifting the balance of power. Recent talks between warring Saudis and Houthis led to a truce along the northern border, bringing to a halt missile attacks that has devastated several villages on both sides.

Coalition forces are taking on AQAP in Aden, providing pro-Hadi troops the vital air cover required to retake the Al Mansoura district of the strategic port city. Anti-Houthi forces have broken the blockade of Taiz port, Yemen’s third largest city, allowing a vital flow of goods into the country.

The announcement of a proposed ceasefire on April 10th followed by peace talks in Kuwait on April 18th renews hopes for a breakthrough and all-important political settlement.

Regardless, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis will continue. Whilst bombed out infrastructure can be repaired, the provision of basic services such as electricity, education and healthcare will need a concerted and long-term investment. Endemic water and food shortages - products of decades of mismanagement – will require fresh thinking and a new approach to the economic organisation of the country.

The fragmented central and local government structures need immediate support to begin the long and slow task of re-building. Whilst current humanitarian support is vital and urgently required, it is not a lasting solution to Yemen’s problems.

The international community’s lack of interest in Yemen is unlikely to change, particularly whilst Syria, Iraq and increasingly North Africa are attracting the majority of funds in the war on Daesh. Yemen’s neighbours, who have played such an active role in the conflict, may yet step-up. The UAE has, in recent years, emerged as the largest foreign humanitarian aid donor, giving more than double the 0.7% GNI aid target recently achieved by the UK, and providing nearly half of all of the aid pledged by countries to support Yemen. If done properly, targeted aid programming by the Gulf could demonstrate a commitment to deliver regional peace and stability through investment in re-building, not just through air power.

Money alone will not be enough. Interventions must be smart and deliver basic services to all accessible parts of Yemen through a mechanism that empowers Yemenis to prioritise their own needs and take decisions for themselves, rather than making them beggars of aid. In a country highly fragmented by war, the only way to deliver assistance is locally, working in governorates and at the district level to rebuild the trust between state institutions and the people.

Similar programmes have worked during active conflict in Syria. Yemen has the advantage that unlike in Syria even in ‘liberated areas’ salaries of local officials are still paid by the central government. In short, there is no practical reason why the risks cannot be managed and funding carefully targeted to support Yemeni citizens to rebuild their own communities.

By focusing on involving the Yemeni people in their own recovery, not only will sustainable interventions begin to tackle urgent humanitarian needs, local governance structures will be strengthened in preparation for a broader political agreement. Ultimately, the stability of Yemen must reflect the complex, tribal nature of the country and the paramount need for whoever is in power in Sana’a or Aden to accept a higher degree of decentralisation.

Yemen’s Gulf neighbours have supported President Hadi’s government to regain territory, they should also now support those same people to regain the trust of its citizens and build an inclusive and stable future.