For more than 18 months, the civil war in Yemen has devastated the nation and provoked a humanitarian crisis that can no longer be ignored. The conflict dates back to the failure of a political transition in November 2011, supposed to bring stability to Yemen, when intense pressure forced longtime authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However, the transition has been all but stable. Mr Hadi has struggled to deal with critical issues including attacks from Al Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south, as well as corruption and food insecurity.
The issue primarily boils down to those loyal to the internationally recognised government of President Hadi, and those supporting the Houthi rebel movement. The Houthi movement champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, and has conducted a series of rebellions during the previous decade.
However, the critical issue at hand is also that of Saudi Arabian influence in the civil war. Saudi Arabia went to war with Yemen along with a coalition of 11 countries in March 2015. Their aim was to restore the UN-recognised President Hadi and his government to power, and undermine the Houthi rebels’ attempt to take over the country.
Saudi Arabia’s air force has been a critical factor to the war. Their air superiority in Yemen and air strikes have, according to the UN, caused 60% of the almost 4,000 civilian deaths in Yemen. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has also largely failed in their mission to dislodge the Houthis from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The humanitarian disaster is undeniable, and although the Houthi rebels are far from blameless, the efforts of the coalition and the scale of their airstrikes have been disastrous in furthering civilian casualties. As it stands, 80% of the population is in need of aid, and since March 2015 over 6,800 people have been killed and a further 35,000 injured.
Meanwhile, the controversial role of the UK in Yemen’s civil war can no longer be ignored. The UK, US and Saudi Arabia have a defense and trade relationship, which essentially means that British and US military hardware is responsible for sustaining the air strikes by the Saudi campaign, the same air strikes responsible for the alleged 60% of all civilian deaths.
In light of a recent air strike attack on a funeral on the 8th October in Sana’a which left 140 dead and more than 500 critically injured, the UK has taken the unusual decision to investigate the attack. While initially denying responsibility, the coalition has since admitted accountability for the attack; however, it has blamed it on “incorrect information”.
Yet the UK stands in an uncomfortable position. Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has said that if it is revealed that civilians were knowingly targeted in its investigation of the funeral bombings on 8th October, the UK “could review” its defense relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia denies any misconduct in its air strikes, insisting that their abiding to a strict code, the Law of Armed Conflict, ensures they never deliberately target civilians, although this has been disputed by many Yemenis and the UN High Commission on Human Rights has condemned Saudi Arabia for “disproportionate amount” of civilian attacks. Furthermore, the UK promised to present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire, after their condemnation of the funeral bombings was rejected by Russia as not being strong enough.
So is the UK to blame? Owen Jones writes for the Guardian in which he condemns this nation’s “direct” interference in Yemen. In David Cameron’s terms as prime minister alone nearly £6bn worth of arms were sold to the Saudi dictatorship. According to Jones, the UK must accept direct blame for the humanitarian disaster that is Yemen.
There are those, like Jones, who believe that a forceful solution like this by the Saudi coalition forces cannot begin to solve the problems in Yemen. Yet it is also unlikely that Saudi Arabia will cease to use brutal force as a way to repel the Shi’a Houthi Rebels, as it is not in their nature to do so. It also remains doubtful whether the strong arms relationship between the US, UK and Saudi Arabia will be compromised.
The question that remains is whether the UK will take a stand and accept its own responsibility as well as those of the coalition. It seems they have already begun taking measures, including their UN draft resolution and their investigation into the funeral bombings. Moreover, could public awareness and pressure of the UK’s role in Yemen change UK foreign policy, as Owen suggests? It is clear that what is needed to end this humanitarian disaster is not more bombs, but it remains to be seen whether peaceful, diplomatic solutions could ever replace the current brutal, repressive ones.