Yemen has long been a hotbed of unrest. Years of conflict concurrent with a battle of egos has broken down the most resource rich country in the Middle East into the poorest. The violent playground that Yemen has become breeds conflict involving domestic, regional and international actors. Next year will see the sixth anniversary of the war that has now reached calamitous proportions.
The world's most under-reported battlefield has cost more than a quarter of a million lives, with 80 per cent of the population in dire need of humanitarian assistance and 3.6 million people internally displaced. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the destruction of an already primitive, fragile and decimated infrastructure that has long been at the mercy of drone strikes. Cholera continues to be a threat, with 180,000 new cases reported in the first eight months of this year alone. Economic activities in Yemen have dropped by 50 per cent, while the poverty rate has increased to as much as 80 per cent.
The UN reports that by the middle of next year, five million Yemenis will have fallen into critical hunger levels. Around 150,000 children have already starved to death. According to UN estimates, the death rate in Yemen is five times the global average, a figure which is expected to get worse as aid funds dry up due to the global recession. Already a number of humanitarian agencies, including those dealing in food assistance, have had to shut down their operations. Without a doubt, even if the war in Yemen were to end within the next ten years, the country's development has been stunted for generations to come.
As Donald Trump prepares to leave the White House, he is going to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). There is no doubt that the manoeuvre is politically motivated because its objective is not only to increase the pressure on Iran and its allies, but also complicate President-elect Joe Biden's efforts towards renegotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal which Trump pulled out of in 2018. The FTO designation is reckless as it impedes the work of humanitarian relief organisations struggling to get food and other basic amenities to Yemenis into the northern Houthi-controlled areas, thereby compounding an already precarious situation; more than 24 million people rely on aid to survive. Furthermore, international donors as well as companies such as those dealing with commercial shipping would be discouraged from operating in Yemen, fearing US sanctions for "dealing with an FTO". The UN has received less than half of the $3.4 billion aid it had sought this year.
The onus is on the US to reverse the world's worst humanitarian disaster because without American support since 2015 the Saudi-led coalition would not have been able to intercede in the war in Yemen to restore President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power. During his time in office, Trump further increased US support for the Yemen war and even vetoed a bill aimed at ending US involvement in the country.
Incontrovertibly, US interests in the Middle East depend fundamentally on stability in the Gulf area. Given Yemen's geostrategic location, not only in terms of key commercial waterways, but also its proximity to US allies, the current volatile situation in the country portends a severe threat to Washington's interests.
While the beginnings of peace need to be Yemen led and owned, the incoming US administration can do much to support this process, starting with the basic decision to focus on national reconciliation. Or will it opt for an alternative path?
In light of the current situation on the ground in Yemen, the prospects of national reconciliation appear dim, despite UN efforts. The peace talks have stalled and both sides are increasingly embedded in their positions. UN efforts have also suffered from a lack of clear and comprehensive support from the US. However, a long-term route premised on a one piece at a time approach towards peace can change all of that.
From the time that Biden enters the White House, he has a golden opportunity to salvage the lives of millions of Yemenis. Within his first hundred days in office, he can broker a durable ceasefire between the coalition and the Houthis that builds up to an interim agreement which at least opens up the country for the safe passage of humanitarian aid.
Next, the Biden administration can follow through with promises made during the lead up to the presidential election to retract support for the coalition forces, in terms of funds and weapons. It should be pointed out that the US has the right kind of influence to persuade or even coerce parties involved in the war to stop perpetuating the conflict.
During his campaign, Biden stated unambiguously that he was opposed to US involvement in Yemen and threatened to cut off arms sales to the Saudi coalition. If he perseveres, there is an opportunity — albeit a very narrow one — that Yemen may yet be spared from total destruction. As it stands, though, it is teetering on the edge.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.