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Despite a lull in violence, Yemen still strangled by humanitarian crisis

The two sides have weaponized the economy for over eight years. It's a game of chicken with the people caught in between.

Analysis | Reporting | Middle East

Since the United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen expired last October, the warring parties have maintained an uneasy suspension in hostilities. Hope for another truce, ceasefire, or other negotiated settlement currently appears to be in the hands of Omani-brokered talks directly between the Saudis and the Houthis, and not the UN-led track that yielded the first truce. 

Despite the pause in fighting, and the limited easing of import restrictions that were part of the truce, there is still a humanitarian crisis raging in Yemen. “Many people expected that conditions would improve,” Annelle Sheline, research fellow at the Quincy Institute, told Responsible Statecraft in an interview. However, “many are frustrated that very little has actually gotten better.” Food prices remain too high for many to afford, especially as salaries remain unpaid

One of the most harmful effects of the Saudi blockade was a fuel shortage that forced hospitals to shut off generators and ventilators, exacerbating what has often been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since the truce, the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) has started to clear more fuel shipments to enter Yemen. Yet Sheline writes in a recent report for the Quincy Institute that “the fuel currently permitted remains inadequate for economic activity to resume.”  

Further, almost no general cargo outside of fuel and food have been imported through the port in Hodeidah since 2016. “This has crippled the economy and prevented critical life saving medicine and medical equipment from reaching millions of Yemenis in need,” Hassan El-Tayyab, the Legislative Director for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told RS. The truce allowed flights to resume out of the Sana’a International Airport, but flights remain limited to a few per week, with one flight to date going to Cairo, and the rest to Amman. These flights remain inaccessible for the majority of Yemenis. 

“The remaining restrictions on movement and access are a form of collective punishment,” says El-Tayyab. “The blockade needs to be lifted as a humanitarian act and decoupled from the ongoing politics.”

The results of those ongoing politics are uncertain. One of the primary sticking points of the current negotiations — and one of the central reasons that the recent truce lapsed in October is the Houthis’ desire that Saudi Arabia pay salaries for all state employees. 

In addition, the Houthis want Saudi Arabia to lift all restrictions on traffic in and out of Sana’a airport and Hodeidah seaport in exchange for a Houthi promise not to launch missiles or drones across the border. The Saudis also want the Houthis to agree to establish a buffer zone along the border.

In a sign of some progress, on February 26, Reuters reported that Hodeidah received its first ship carrying general cargo in years and that they “have to be vetted by a U.N. body established to prevent arms shipments from entering Yemen.” According to Reuters, “In the past seven years, Djibouti-based UNVIM has given approval only to ships carrying specific goods like foodstuffs, fuel and cooking oil.” An official from Yemen’s internationally recognized government called the measure a “trust-building step” in the ongoing negotiations.

“As long as they [the Saudis and the Houthis] are talking, the truce will last,” Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni analyst at the Sana'a Center, told RS. “But when they get to a point when they lose hope of making a deal with the Saudis, the fighting will resume.” 

In the meantime, absent pressure from the international community, al-Iryani does not see much hope for a substantive improvement to the crisis. “The two sides have weaponized the economy for over eight years. So if the Saudis don’t get what they want, they’re going to close the ports again, they’re going to close the airport again. They’re going to return the situation to what it was,” he says. As for the Houthis, “they don’t want to improve the humanitarian situation because it weakens their ability to mobilize people for war. (...) so if the war isn’t coming to an end, they don’t want to see any improvement to the humanitarian condition.”

This doubled-edged stalemate is why El-Tayyab and others believe that the crisis must be addressed separately from any future political solution. “Yemenis should not be held hostage to the politics of very problematic warring parties,” he told RS.  

The Houthis, whose regime is not only predicated on extreme repression, have also implemented their own siege in the southwestern city of Taiz and have been accused of diverting aid for their benefit, while maintaining that they cannot afford to pay public sector salaries. As analysts have noted, the longer the war carries on without a long-term solution, the more entrenched and powerful the Houthi leadership will get, and the more they may continue to pursue hardline outcomes in negotiations.

However, the truce did not lapse only for these reasons. As Arwa Mokdad, a peace advocate with the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, wrote in October of last year, “The foreign policy establishment in Washington has firmly placed blame for any breakdown in negotiations — and, now, the collapse of the truce — on one party, the Houthis, who they appear to deem incapable of dialogue, despite all sides of the conflict committing war crimes and violating the brief, six-month truce.” 

The international community continues to support import restrictions on Yemen, as codified by UN Security Council resolution 2216, which demanded that "the Houthis withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen and fully implement previous Council resolutions.” 

But as the conflict has dragged on, the realities on the ground have evolved, and the Houthis have continued to consolidate power and now believe that they are negotiating from a position of strength. A recent International Crisis Group report asserts “It is only a matter of time, in the Houthis’ estimation, before their conditions are met or they overrun the country.” As al-Iryani told RS,  they now seek a “victor’s peace.”  

This impasse means that there is a meaningful risk that hostilities could be renewed at any point, which raises questions about U.S. involvement. For now, as Sheline notes in her recent report, the United States is not involved in dropping bombs, since Saudi Arabia has refrained from any new airstrikes since the initial truce agreement last April. But in the absence of a formal agreement, the threat of Saudi airstrikes persists, which could be especially acute if the Houthis decide to reinitiate transborder attacks.

In December 2022, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), planned to introduce a War Powers Resolution that would have required the administration to end U.S. support for Saudi military actions in Yemen. Sanders eventually withdrew the resolution, in exchange for a commitment from the Biden administration to work with his office on ending U.S. involvement in the war. Such a resolution would have prevented Washington from providing assistance in future Saudi coalition airstrikes, though some have argued that a WPR does not account for evolving conflict dynamics in Yemen and risks legitimizing Houthi propaganda. 

There is only so much that U.S. policy can do to change the conditions on the ground. But the political deadlock cannot distract from the continued humanitarian crisis, and that is where the international community can still play a role. As Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently concluded, “The urgent imperative is to halt the blockade entirely and get aid to the Yemeni people. A new U.N. Security Council resolution should call for the complete end of the blockade and freedom of movement for Yemenis. That should be America’s priority.” 

A homeless man sits on the side of a street in the port city of Aden. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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