Explainer: What is the Yemen war?

Dawn.com looks at the origins of the Yemen war and why it continues to rage on.
Published January 18, 2022

A country marked by war, large-scale destruction and perennial hunger, Yemen is once again in the spotlight following an attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by its Houthi group.

On Monday, a possible drone attack, claimed by the Houthis, sparked an explosion that struck three fuel tankers in UAE's Abu Dhabi and another fire at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport that killed three people and wounded six.

The next day, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which is fighting the Houthi group in Yemen, carried out strikes in that country's capital — the deadliest since 2019.

Here Dawn.com takes a look at why there is a war in Yemen, what the Saudi coalition is doing and who has suffered the most in this war.

Who is fighting in Yemen and why has it been so bloody?

Yemen's war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and began a march south to try to seize the entire country. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen's internationally recognised government in March 2015.

The war has killed some 233,000 people, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure, according to the United Nations.

The aid group, Save the Children, estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five have died from starvation or disease since the war began.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic rages unchecked as Yemen's healthcare system has been decimated by the war and the Houthis suppressed information about the crisis.

The war has seen atrocities from all sides. Saudi airstrikes using American-made bombs killed schoolchildren and civilians.

The UAE paid off local Al Qaeda fighters to avoid fighting and controlled prisons where torture and sexual abuse were rampant. The Houthis employed child soldiers and indiscriminately laid landmines.

Why is Yemen at war?

Situated along the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen had been split in the Cold War between a Marxist south and a northern republic.

The two nations became a unified Yemen in 1990, fought a civil war in 1994 and later came under the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who once described governing his nation's myriad of tribal groups, militant groups and alliances as "dancing on the heads of snakes".

Saleh began losing his grip on power during the Arab Spring protests a decade ago. He ultimately agreed to have his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, take over.

Hadi's government struggled and Saleh, seeing a second chance to regain power, had his forces side with the same Houthis he had battled as president as they swept into the capital in 2014. Saleh ultimately switched sides again to back Hadi but his luck had run out — the Houthis killed him in 2017.

Iran, seeing the opportunity to aid a war of attrition against its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has backed the Houthis. Arab countries, the West and United Nations experts say Iran has armed the Houthis with everything from assault rifles to ballistic missiles, something long denied by Tehran despite evidence to the contrary.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies fear the Houthis could grow as powerful as Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah militant group. The Houthis already launched drone and missile attacks deep into the kingdom.

All the while, Yemen's issues such as endemic poverty, lack of water and other resources have worsened. The war merely compounded the misery, and the country of 29 million people is now on the brink of famine.

What's happening right now?

Last year, US President Joe Biden announced ending support for Saudi Arabia's military offensive in Yemen. The same year saw an increase in the number of Houthi attacks targeting Saudi Arabia, especially its civilian infrastructure. Riyadh, in turn, has launched multiple strikes.

Yemeni forces backed by the UAE last week joined coalition troops fighting the Houthi movement around the central city of Marib in a renewed push to secure the prize of an energy-producing region as the UN warned of military escalation.

UN special envoy Hans Grundberg told the world body earlier this month that in the seventh year of conflict the warring parties seem to be seeking military victory.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are pressing their assault on the key city of Marib, the last government stronghold in northern Yemen, and there is renewed fighting in the southern province of Shabwa where Yemen's internationally recognised government has recaptured three districts from the Houthis, he said.

Elsewhere, airstrikes have increased not only on the front lines but also in Sanaa, including in residential areas, and in the city of Taiz, he said, while fighting continues in southern Hodeida, where the country's main port is located, and attacks have increased on neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

UN's deputy humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham said fierce fighting is continuing along dozens of front lines and in December, 358 civilians were reportedly killed or injured, "a figure that is tied for the highest in three years".

The human cost of the conflict

The war has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and left millions on the brink of famine, in what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Just the numbers of dead and suffering are staggering.

The US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) put the number of dead at 156,000 as of January 14.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Data Project, which tracks the coalition's activities in the country, recorded 8,828 civilian casualties due to 24,276 air strikes.

Over 10,000 children have been killed or maimed during the conflict, according to the UN, which estimates that 80 per cent of the people in the war-torn country need humanitarian assistance and protection and more than 13 million are in danger of starvation.

Unicef spokesperson James Elder said last year that Yemen's humanitarian crisis was the world's worst, adding that it is violent and protracted, has caused economic devastation, shattered services for every support system such as health, nutrition, water and sanitation, protection, and education.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has said that responsibility for human rights violations, some of which may be international war crimes, rests on all parties involved in the conflict.

Major Houthi attacks on coalition partners

Here are some of the recent attacks on the Saudi Arabia-led coalition claimed by the Houthis.

In May 2019, drone attacks claimed by Houthi rebels shut down one of Saudi Arabia’s major oil pipelines. Later the same month, Houthi rebels also launched a drone strike on military hangars in Saudi Arabia's Jizan airport near the Yemeni border,

In February 2021, a civilian plane was engulfed in flames after Houthi rebels launched a drone strike on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, days after the US moved to delist the insurgents as terrorists.

Later in March, Houthi forces fired drones and missiles at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, including a Saudi Aramco facility at Ras Tanura vital to petroleum exports, in what Riyadh called a failed assault on global energy security.

In November 2021, the Houthis said they had fired 14 drones at several Saudi Arabian cities, including at Saudi Aramco facilities in Jeddah.

Earlier this month, Houthi rebels seized a ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeida, a long-contested prize of the grinding war in Yemen.

Header photo: A Houthi militant stands on the rubble of the house of Brigadier Fouad al-Emad, an army commander loyal to the Houthis, after Saudi-led air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen. — Reuters/File