As the world comes to grips coping with the deadly spread of coronavirus, familiar conflicts and security issues have persisted in the Middle East. While much of the world has been put on hold, Yemen, a country approaching five years in armed conflict, is still racked by internal conflict and foreign proxy war.
In early April, the Saudi-backed coalition declared a two-week ceasefire at the peak of coronavirus concern worldwide. But within days fighting resumed and skirmishes between Saudi-backed forces and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have continued.
Now, the conflict has taken a new geopolitical and domestic turn as UAE-back separatists exchanged fire with Saudi-backed forces and declared self-rule over areas it controls in the south of the country. UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with the sides they backed in this conflict, were previously allies in the fight against Houthi rebels, but with that relationship now frayed the conflict has taken on a new and even more uncertain dimension.
And amidst war, medical professionals are concerned about the lack of preparation and capability to respond to a coronavirus outbreak. Thus far Yemen has been spared from a widespread coronavirus outbreak with 12 confirmed cases; but with little border control and an already overtaxed health system, the country is acutely at risk.
Mohammed Alsamaa of Save the Children told the BBC, “there is still tension everywhere. It is more urgent than ever that the conflict stops. No-one can go to hospital or a clinic if there’s war going on and this outbreak – when it comes – could be unspeakable.”
State of Conflict
In a conflict that has devastated Yemen, leaving over 100,000 dead, millions displaced and the country pushed to the brink of famine, patience wore thin within the Saudi coalition of forces fighting Houthi rebels.
The southern separatists have refused overtures from the Saudis for some temporary ceasefire, and in a conflict that looks to have no end, the Saudis have shown wariness themselves.
Before declaring the ceasefire in April, Saudi Arabia was in daily talks with the Houthi rebels about a resolution to the conflict. Saudi Arabia wanted to hold peace talks between the rebels and the Saudi-supported, internationally-recognized government of Yemen.
But the rebels dampened hopes of a resolution to the conflict by ignoring the Saudis’ attempt at a ceasefire in April, claiming it was an insincere offer.
The Saudi-led coalition has been repeatedly accused of war crimes in Yemen and evidence has been brought forward by human rights lawyers of unlawful attacks against civilians. Saudi allies including the United States and the United Kingdom have been accused of turning a blind eye to these crimes and funneling arms to Saudi-backed combatants.
The viciousness and immense human loss in Yemen have done little to move the needle on an end to the fighting, but with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the world economy and Saudi Arabia putting resources into an oil war with Russia, the international community’s distaste for the Houthi rebels and their own war crimes could precipitate a further retraction of foreign activity in Yemen.
The long-standing conflict has thrown Yemen into a horrendous humanitarian disaster. Not only have lives been lost due to the conflict itself, but the fighting has caused immense displacement and a four-year famine.
In 2019, the United Nations reported that 70% of Yemenis, 20 million people, are food insecure and 10 million of those only one step away from famine.
Before coronavirus, Yemen was already dealing with a massive public health crisis. Since January 2020, the country has recorded 110,000 cholera cases, and according to UNICEF, 5 million Yemeni children are at a heightened risk of contracting cholera. Cholera had already claimed the lives of 3,886 people from October 2016 to November 2019.
In April of this year, the north of Yemen has been rocked by flash floods, further adding to the country’s despair and increasing the region’s risk to cholera. The floods have disrupted the nation’s water supply and diminished access to clean drinking water in the country’s north.
Since fighting started in 2015, Yemen’s healthcare system has been under immense pressure and reports have warned it is on the brink of collapse. Only half of Yemen’s health facilities have been functional since the war broke out, and many have been destroyed in bombing campaigns.
A temporary ceasefire or resolution to the foreign intervention in the conflict will relieve much strain on Yemen, but without adequate investment in health services and a great push to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other health emergencies the country will continue to be a humanitarian disaster.
Thus far, no major foreign power in the conflict has made adequate assurances to the health and well-being of Yemen.
Crucially, the United States cut tens of millions in aid to Yemen after arguing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been getting their hands on the funds. The United Nations warned 31 of its 41 programs in Yemen could be shut due to the lack of American funding.
The World Health Organization also announced it is preparing to cut 80% of its funding to Yemen after the United States announced it would unilaterally pull funding from the health organization.
The American strategy of isolationism and anti-Iran antagonism has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, and the White House has doubled down on these efforts despite the spread of coronavirus in Iran and domestically.
With President Trump renewing tensions with China and doubling down on Iranian sanctions, the United States has clearly chosen antagonism over collaboration in the face of its own domestic public health crisis.
Other important foreign actors in Yemen’s crisis are also looking inward to solve immense crises, so Yemen and other foreign conflicts may fall to the wayside. Without any resolution, that could mean more hunger and health crises for Yemen, while the biggest culprits of the violence escape without punishment.