The Yemen War: No Longer A Forgotten Conflict?

The Yemen War has been receiving more attention than usual during October 2018. The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul has much to do with this. Somehow, many of those who had been quiet for years are starting to realize how the Desert Kingdom infringes human rights at home and abroad. At the same time, some Western politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, who have been opposing the war since its very start, encounter now a more receptive audience.

While the outrage around Khashoggi’s murder still needs to be converted to effective opposition to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, something seems to have changed. Although French President Emmanuel Macron has labelled as “populists” those who argue for a halt in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the debate is at least on the table now.

Moreover, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said Oct. 31 that all parties need to take part in UN-led peace talks within the next 30 days. It is an evidence that the Trump administration, if it wanted, could apply far more pressure on the Saudis to force a negotiated settlement. The easiest way to achieve so would be to stop refuelling Saudi jets bombing Yemen. Having said this, it is the first time the US calls Riyadh to apply a ceasefire in Yemen.

The Yemen War has often been considered as the paradigmatic example of a “forgotten conflict”. Whereas it is true that there are many other conflicts raging on in the world which have received less coverage, the Yemeni case has an important specificity. This particularism is to be found in the mismatch between the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the attention it has received in the media, especially in Western countries.

Different United Nations bodies have repeated once and again that Yemen is “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Most of the inhabitants of the country (estimates put the figure around 80%) are in need of humanitarian aid. Cholera and malnutrition have taken their toll in a population that has been the poorest of all Arab countries for decades.

More eyes are probably looking to Yemen now than ever since the start of the conflict. However, this increasing attention needs to be sustained in the future. And more importantly, it has to go hand in hand with a deeper comprehension of the dynamics behind the Yemeni upheaval. Some approaches that have proven misleading are yet too often resorted to.

This is the case of the portrayal of the Yemen War as a Sunni-Shia clash or the assumption that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates basically share the same interests in Yemen. Moreover, Saudi interventionism in its southern neighbor should be traced back to, at least, the 1962-1970 Yemen Civil War and the 2004-2010 Sa’dah wars. While Mohammed bin Salman is a key character in the current crisis, some dynamics are a poisoned inheritance of the past.

It is reasonable to consider that the Yemen War has temporarily lost its status of “forgotten conflict” during the last month. Nevertheless, at the same time it is logical to be skeptical about how long this international attention will last. Meanwhile, there is a window of opportunity to ask for accountability to those who sell weapons to the Saudi-led coalition and to the coalition itself. Around one third of all the airstrikes carried out by Saudi Arabia and its allies have hit non-military targets, and the total number of casualties, usually set around 10,000, appears to be very low since most people who die are not counted.

This makes the more necessary that the Yemeni conflict is no longer forgotten. Ultimately, nonetheless, it might be more urgent for the Yemen War to be understood as much as its enormous complexity allows. Only thus will the world be able to put an end to the enormous suffering of the Yemeni.

Note: For a thorough and balanced approach to Yemen politics and society, Marieke Brandt’s work is highly recommendable. Brandt is a postdoctoral researcher in Social Anthropology at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. She has recently published the book “Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict” (London: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2017). For a condensed version of some of the main arguments of the book, see

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