Since 2015, Yemen has been devastated by a complicated and on-going war that has killed and injured thousands, and left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Airstrikes launched by an international coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, target the Houthi rebels belonging to the Shi’a branch of Islam. These airstrikes, as well as a battle on the ground, have caused tremendous suffering and death for civilians. In response to the belief that Tehran was smuggling weapons to the Iranian-backed Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition implemented a near-total blockade which has resulted in restrictions on food, medicine and fuel being imported into Yemen.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has created the world’s largest food security emergency, and water supplies are also reaching critically low levels. In response to the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has purchased 750,000 litres of fuel to operate Yemeni water plants pumping out groundwater. The purchase is intended to provide clean drinking water in the rebel-held cities of Hodeida and Taiz for one month.
In mid-November 2017, Saudi Arabia lifted its blockade in parts of Yemen to allow aid to resume. This alone, however, is not sufficient to provide for the 27 million Yemenis currently suffering. Fighting on both sides has targeted hospitals, schools, civilian housing and even funeral gatherings. Yemen is not only experiencing life-threatening starvation, but the country has also had a significant outbreak of cholera and other diseases. The fuel purchase is not something that the ICRC would traditionally carry out but, according to ICRC spokesperson Iolanda Jaquemet, it is being actioned as a last resort and in response to the urgent situation in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition has justified its extensive air-strike campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Governments supporting Saudi Arabia, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, however, have been criticised for exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia that have been destined for use in Yemen. The White House has claimed it has evidence that Iran is helping to fuel the Yemeni war; a timely claim that has emerged just as the Saudi-coalition is facing intense criticism for the blockade that is adding to the disaster in Yemen. Regardless of who is more “blame-worthy”, or who is simply acting in defence of hostile actions against other international actors, this tit-for-tat response from both sides in the Yemeni war ultimately cannot continue without potentially wiping out large numbers of the population.
In addition to what is already an intricate set of alliances, the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on 4 December 2017, increases the complexity of the war. Saleh ruled Yemen from 1978 to 2012. In a dramatic turn of events in the days leading up to his death, Saleh abandoned his allegiance with the Houthis and instead pledged his support to the Saudi-led coalition; it was a decision that resulted in his death at the hands of the Houthis. Saleh had a strong following as president and it seems that Saudi Arabia had hoped that Saleh’s decision to switch sides would tip the balance of the war. Saleh’s death is now likely set to escalate an already bloody conflict.
The ICRC’s fuel purchase may provide some short-term relief, but it is far from being a sustainable and long-term solution to alleviate the suffering of millions of Yemenis. Although it may prove difficult, given the Iran-Saudi rivalry and the geo-political alliances associated with that dynamic, greater international action is required to further prevent what is already a significant humanitarian disaster. Despite the reactions that former-President Saleh’s death may also invoke, the reasons for the ICRC’s fuel purchase cannot be forgotten. Yemen relies on 90 per cent of its goods being imported; it is critical, therefore, that food, medicine and fuel are supplied to civilians.