Dr Khaled Fattah, Yemen expert and former advisor to the UN Special Representative for Yemen during the Yemeni NationalmDialogue process
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO, Save the Children, former PM Denmark
Alistair Harris, CEO & Founder, A.R.K. Group, former UK and UN diplomat
What is the origin of the conflict in Yemen?
“The conflict in Yemen is not new”, stated one of our panellists. “It’s a complicated geostrategic problem that defies any simplistic solutions.” Although the current conflict has its roots in a failed political transition in 2011, a product of the Arab Spring uprising, the country has long been viewed as “a republican hut in a neighbourhood of monarchical villas”, particularly by the rest of the Middle East. Since the Houthi rebels took control of Sana’a in 2014, the country has been badly divided, caught up in a manmade crisis that has become impossible to resolve without sustained international cooperation.
What is the situation on the ground?
According to panellist Helle Thorning-Schmidt, “Yemen is the worst place on earth to be a child”. 2.3m people are displaced internally, with half of those being children. 85,000 children are estimated to have died from starvation over the last three years and diseases are emerging in the country that were eradicated from the rest of the world over ten years ago. Bombing vulnerable locations like schools, hospitals and outdoor spaces has become “the new normal”, with civilians paying the price.
Women and girls are being particularly badly affected, with huge reverses in gender equality and an increasing number of families too frightened to send their girls to school. There are other challenges too: the collapse of the state means that many public sector workers, such as teachers, haven’t been paid for over two years, while ministers’ salaries are being paid by the Saudi government, further exacerbating the vulnerability of ordinary Yemenis.
What about humanitarian aid?
While efforts are being made to provide humanitarian aid to the citizens of Yemen, access to water, healthcare and food supplies is restricted and frequently used as a weapon of war. Key ports are under the control of armed actors, meaning that the population is being strangled by man-made famine. Aid workers are forced to spend more time at borders and checkpoints, hampering their ability to reach the people they’re trying to help.
What actions are being taken by the international community?
The Yemen war owes much of its complexity to the external factors affecting the conflict. The country has become a playground for external interests, with many global powers nervous of interfering in the conflict in case they upset strategic relations with regional powers.
International diplomats feel fatigued and are overwhelmed with work on other time-sensitive issues, such as Brexit. Although UN Yemen peace talks were held in Stockholm in 2018, they must be recognised as “the start of the start”, emphasised our panel, as many of the approaches discussed have failed to materialise or to have any significant impact. All sides have violated the agreed ceasefires.
However, there have been some recent and notable shifts in the world order that are altering politicians’ perspective on Middle Eastern relations. Incidents like the killing of Jamal Khashoggi have illustrated an increasing willingness from certain countries to ignore established checks and balances, and the subsequent global pressure on Saudi Arabia, particularly from the US Congress, may have opened up an opportunity for de-escalation.
What can Conduit members do?
The panel were quick to emphasise that Yemen has long been dealt with as a security crisis and was never an easy place to govern. Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope for improvement, with a combination of small, meaningful actions and international pressure. As one of our panel expressed it: “A vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
Spread the word
The civilians trapped in the middle of the Yemen war feel forgotten by the international community, lacking the visibility of refugees from other war-torn Middle Eastern nations. In short, Yemenis have not been going aground on Greek islands. Journalists are facing unprecedented threats the world over, viewed as “political pawns to be silenced”. This has made it increasingly difficult to tell the story of what’s happening in Yemen, as journalists are subjected to restrictions, detentions and attacks from both sides, leading to an information vacuum.
For the last three years, much of the world has turned its back on the conflict in Yemen, but little will change without increased global awareness of the reality on the ground. It’s up to those in the know to take responsibility for spreading the word and for us to support those who are risking their lives to do the same. Seek out the many journalists and photographers who are crowdfunding to get words and photos out of Yemen, as well as the poetry and other creative writing emerging from the Yemeni people, an innovative tool for conflict resolution.*
Start with grassroots projects
Not only is it still possible to work in Yemen – although challenging – there are fantastic innate resources for conflict resolution and innovation within the country, available to be harnessed. However, in order for there to be any semblance of a country left when the fighting finally stops, it needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up. Small, local projects have the potential to transform, particularly when citizen-led. From youth centres and solar-powered water pumps, to agribusiness and fisheries, meaningful micro-investments in communities are possibly the best way to work towards a better future for Yemen.
Of course, no investments and local projects in Yemen will be able to flourish while the war rages on. Although peace talks must continue, governments also need to take bolder action to resolve the crisis, with more stories and data needed to raise the quality of the debate and to hold the international community to account. Ultimately, as one of our panellists stated, “we’ve opened our eyes to the horrors in Yemen and it cannot become invisible to us again.”