Unless a planned assault on the Red Sea port of Hodeida is prevented and the war ended, says Mark Lowcock, the United Nations humanitarian chief, a “great big famine” will follow soon, and Yemen will endure what Lowcock believes will be the worst humanitarian disaster in our lifetime. Some 14 million people, more than the entire population of Pennsylvania, are living in pre-famine conditions, one economic shock away from starvation. A fight for Hodeidah would tip the worst humanitarian crisis in the world into the worst famine in a lifetime.
So it’s odd that the perception in Washington is that a recent burst of attention directed toward Yemen by Trump administration officials and lawmakers is some kind of breakthrough. Calls for peace talks unaccompanied by concrete action and debates on the Senate floor are likely to be too little, too late — if they amount to anything at all.
Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world when protests broke out in 2011, inspired by revolts elsewhere in the region. There was plenty to protest about. Some 43 percent of its population lived on $2 a day or less. It was also dangerously dependent on its dwindling supply of oil. The unemployment rate was as high as 70 percent for Yemenis under 25, while service delivery was deteriorating along with the court system. But none of this was a priority for Yemen’s political elite or the international players with a presence in Sanaa.
The U.S.-backed regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh responded first by trying to brutally put down the protest movement, and then by using the unrest as cover to settle its own internal scores. Western and regional powers mainly worried that the growing power vacuum would provide an opening for extremist groups. By the time a compromise was struck in November 2011 to have Saleh vacate the presidency in favor of his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, half of Yemen’s population was below the poverty line, and the country’s children were among the most malnourished in the world.
Hadi meant to focus on restructuring the military and security forces, restoring basic services, and stabilizing the economy. The military restructuring, seen by U.S. officials as a top priority, went ahead. The economy, however, languished. By the time the Houthis, a northern Zaydi Shiite rebel group, arrived on the outskirts of Sanaa in September 2014 with the quiet backing of Saleh, many northern Yemenis thought they couldn’t be much worse than the existing political elite. (They were: After demanding that the government lower fuel prices during a September 2014 siege of the city, they raised them again a few months after taking control.)
Then, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia, which sees the Houthis as a Hezbollah-like Iranian proxy, entered the escalating civil war between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the local groups that stood up to it, claiming that they were fighting on behalf of Hadi, who had fled to Riyadh. Alongside its blistering aerial campaign, the coalition headed by the Saudis also blockaded Yemeni ports, leading to fears that the country would soon run out of food, fuel and medicine. The United Nations scrambled to assuage Saudi fears that weapons would be smuggled into Yemen on container ships, setting a pattern that would be repeated again and again: the international community finding itself in the role of firefighter, trying to limit the damage as the Houthis, the Hadi government and the coalition each attempted to weaponize the economy.
Now, Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates — the Saudis’ main partner in Yemen — are massing around Hodeida, a trade inlet that accounts for some 70 percent of all basics like fuel, food and medicine imported into Yemen. It’s the only source of supplies for about 10 million people. A battle for the port and city would probably be long, brutal and destructive. It would cut off trade for weeks or months, causing shortages and price spikes that would push food and clean water even further out of reach for millions of Yemenis.
Given the gravity of the situation, it is dispiriting to learn that the Trump administration, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has spent the past several weeks agitating against a British-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on Yemen that, among other things, explicitly demands the protection of the Hodeida port. The U.S., Saudi and Emirati argument is that, if passed, the resolution would undermine U.N.-led consultations aimed at generating an agreement on confidence-building measures and working out a framework for formal negotiations due to start Thursday. The talks are, unquestionably, an important step in that direction, but if they do not prevent a battle for Hodeida, they will have been for naught.
The U.N. resolution was an opportunity for the international community to draw a line in the sand on the port. In fact, a cynic might argue that U.S. calls for peace talks in October — which were followed by a renewed UAE offensive and a thunderous declaration of support on all fronts for the Saudis from President Trump — were more about staving off impending congressional action on Yemen, and buying time and plausible deniability when the fight for the port begins.
When the famine comes, the United States will not be alone in its culpability. Yemen represents a long-term failure of the international system and the U.N. Security Council in particular. As the country slips into unimaginable, desperate hunger, it’s important to understand that what is happening was utterly, tragically predictable. The people who should have known knew. They just had other priorities.
Peter Salisbury is a consultant analyst at the International Crisis Group and a senior consulting fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program. You can follow @peterjsalisbury on Twitter.