Three years after Ali Abdullah Saleh transferred power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the civil war in Yemen shows no sign of abating, with Houthi militias and the Hadi government locked in combat. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its coalition continue to jockey with Iran for influence, only intensifying the violence.
With no end in sight, the death toll in Yemen has surpassed 10,000, over half of those being civilian casualties. Overall, Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies are responsible for a majority of the 5,000 deaths in Yemen, largely through their campaign of air strikes, but also because of the effects of the crippling naval blockade. In 2015, when it first intervened in Yemen, Saudi Arabia placed a naval blockade on Yemen, a country that imports 90 percent of its goods. This has severely restricted the import of food, water, and fuel into the country. This left the country on the brink of a man-made famine. With a severe lack of food in the region, prices are estimated to have inflated to 150 percent. As a direct result, Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, with at least two-thirds of its more than 20 million population needing humanitarian aid.
The humanitarian crisis is exacerbated by a lack of adequate health facilities and infrastructure. According to the UN, just under half of Yemen’s hospitals are closed or barely functional; leaving at least 16 million people are without clean water or sanitation. As a result, Yemenis are not only facing starvation, they are also facing cholera and diphtheria outbreaks. Since a cholera outbreak in April 2017, more than a million Yemenis have contracted the disease and more than 2,000 have died. Without clean water, cholera will continue to run rampant. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Yemen also saw a diphtheria outbreak in October 2017, affecting more than 1,300 people, 80 percent of whom are children. In an attempt to combat this, in March 2018, the WHO completed a diphtheria vaccination campaign that targeted 2.7 million children that aimed to slow the spread of diphtheria. However, there have been increasing concerns of new “superbugs” – antibiotic-resistant diseases – thriving in a country without adequate medical infrastructure.
Women and children are among those most severely impacted by the civil war, constituting 76 percent of displaced Yemenis. In 2017, 2.6 million women and girls were at risk of gender-based violence and 52,000 women are at risk of sexual violence, leading to a 36 percent increase in the number of women in need of gender-based violence services. An average of five children die each day, while the number of children fighting malnutrition reaches devastating new heights. In addition, the number of children not in school has risen to over 2 million as more than 2,500 schools are no longer functioning. Moreover, since March 2015, over 2,000 boys have been recruited to fight and almost fifty percent of women have been married under the age of 16.
But perhaps the most visible aspect of the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen is its air strike campaign. The Yemen Data Project has catalogued 16,749 air raids by the Saudi-led coalition from March 2015 to March 2018, 31 percent of which have targeted non-military sites. During these three years, the coalition averaged 453 air raids a month and 15 a day. 423 air raids were recorded in March 2018. While the Yemen Data Project could only identify 203 air raids, it has been able to determine that at least 54 percent of those hit non-military sites.
The Saudi-led coalition is not the aggressor in the war. In retaliation to some coalition air strikes, Houthi forces have attacked populated Yemeni and Saudi cities with missiles. According to Human Rights Watch, these attacks have violated the laws of war because of their focus on civilians.
On 20 March 2018, the same day US President Trump was scheduled to meet Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the US Senate voted on a bipartisan bill sponsored by Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Despite several serious allegations of war crimes by the coalition and Saudi Arabia’s position on the UN draft blacklist concerning the killing of children during war, the bipartisan bill was killed 55-44. Though this demonstrates the high level of concern about Saudi Arabia’s conduct during the war, President Trump is looking for Saudi Arabia to buy more American-made weapons. Since MbS came to town, the State Department has informed Congress of four distinct arms deals to Saudi Arabia that would exceed $2.3 billion. The deals included 6,600 TOW 2B missiles, 96 TOW 2B fly-to-buy missiles, and continued Maintenance Support Services on Saudi Arabia’s helicopter fleet. Perhaps the most concerning is the 5 April deal where the State Department approved a $1.31 billion sale of howitzers to Saudi Arabia.
Prior to MbS’s visit to the US, he visited the United Kingdom (UK), where he received £100m in aid, which has been described as a “national disgrace”. The UK has been a significant supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. In May 2016, Amnesty International found that UK-made munition cluster bombs were used in Yemen, despite the UK’s denial. This finding did nothing to halt its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, however. In fact, in the beginning of 2017 arms sales to Saudi rose to $1.5 billion.
MbS’s world tour also brought him to France, where French President Emmanuel Macron restated his support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. However, despite 75 percent of French citizens wanting Macron to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, France has been increasing its arms sales to the kingdom and more generally; it is currently the fourth largest arms exporter in the world.
Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for the war in Yemen. As long as the conflict continues civilians will continue to suffer from malnutrition, famine, cholera, and diphtheria in large because of the Saudi coalition’s airstrikes and blockade. Saudi Arabia’s western supporters, in particular the US, UK, and France must take the situation in Yemen seriously and suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately. Only with sustained international pressure will Saudi Arabia halt its attacks on civilians. More than that, however, the US, UK, France, and other international actors must call on Saudi Arabia to end their airstrike campaign and blockade on Yemen permanently and press the kingdom to quickly reach a political solution to the conflict.
McKenna Holman is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB