Yemen is in the grip of what the UN has called the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. This month Save the Children said it faced “the worst diphtheria outbreak in a generation” with at least 52 deaths already.
A Saudi-led coalition has enforced a blockade on the country, cutting off trade and sometimes aid deliveries. NGOs have estimated that 50,000 children died last year as a direct result, with hundreds of thousands more affected by famine. Last year cholera killed 2200 people.
Yemen’s civil war is into its third year, as its desperate people find themselves sandwiched between their ousted Saudi-backed government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, and Houthi rebels who took control of the capital in September 2014.
A Saudi-led coalition consisting of Gulf States and Western powers including Australia has pounded Yemen’s cities with close to 100,000 airstrikes, deliberately targeting infrastructure including schools and hospitals.
From the beginning the Saudi strategy has been to attempt to starve the Houthis and anyone living in their territory into submission.
Both sides have cracked down brutally on peaceful protests, arresting hundreds of activists, many of whom were active during the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.
At times the situation has edged dangerously close to open regional conflict.
The two main regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are jostling for influence across the Middle East. Iran has been a strong supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, while the Saudis have given arms and funding to elements of the Syrian opposition.
The Houthi rebels, who now claim control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a and much of the west of the country, are a Shia group originating in Yemen’s northwest, near the Saudi border.
While they were once solely a religious group, decades of repression by the Yemeni government drove them to armed struggle.
Driven by opposition to the US invasion of Iraq and to state repression, the Houthis won significant popular support in the north. The violent suppression of protests against Hadi after he doubled the fuel price in late 2014 was the last straw. Hadi was forced to flee to Aden as Houthis descended on the capital Sana’a.
The Houthis receive rhetorical support from Tehran, and both the US and Saudi Arabia insist that Iran also sends money and weapons. But whatever military assistance Iran provides is dwarfed by the scale of the Saudi intervention.
The United Arab Emirates has also jumped into the fray. Although it shares the Saudis’ opposition to the Houthis, it has also tried to build up separate armed groups and support the Southern Transitional Council, a group based in the southern port of Aden that has declared independence from northern Yemen.
An American drone war programme is being deployed against the Houthis and the US is the primary enforcer of the Saudi naval blockade.
The Obama Administration listed Yemen as a “country of concern”, paving the way for Yemen’s inclusion under President Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was a puppet of the US and Saudi Arabia. After holding power for 33 years, massive protests in 2011 during the Arab Spring forced him to step down. The US and Gulf States brokered an agreement to install his then vice-president Hadi as leader.
Despite this, Saleh opportunistically made an alliance with the Houthi rebels in a bid to return to power.
Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis came to an abrupt end last December, when he announced he would seek to negotiate a ceasefire with the Saudis. The Houthis turned on him, killing Saleh.
End the siege, end the famine
The continuing protests in Yemen demanding an end to the siege are a reminder that popular movements are the only true alternative to both imperialist schemes, and to discontent being pulled in a sectarian direction.
There is a hidden history of worker’s organisation and struggle in Yemen.
The southern port of Aden lies in a region with strong separatist sentiments, and its people successfully drove out the British in 1967. At the time, the British considered the Aden Trade Union Congress their greatest obstacle, with its strong leftist and Arab nationalist tendencies.
The US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Australia and other imperialist powers have jumped from country to country in the Middle East leaving nothing but a trail of destruction, in which Yemen is only the latest victim.
All parties to the Saudi coalition must lift the blockade and withdraw from the country immediately. The longer it continues the longer the Yemeni people will suffer as sectarian groups lay claim to the spoils.
By Jason Wong