Understanding What Happened in Yemen and What You Can Do to Help

There are many factors that have shaped what is now widely considered to be the largest humanitarian crisis in modern history, with mortality rates and figures surpassing the Rwandan genocide (500,000-1,000,000), the Armenian genocide (1,500,000*), and the Holocaust (6,000,000) put together. Before we can consider what to do and how to conduct ourselves accordingly, it’s important to understand the history of Yemen, from the days of imperialism to now.

As was the practice for many centuries, Britain had gained control over much of a country that was still in somewhat of a developmental phase and with a strong tribal history. In the 19th century, Yemen fought equally for the right to national freedom as Britain did to have a presence in Western Asia. 

Of the many factions in Yemen at the time, Britain was by far the strongest, taking control of the southern city of Aden in 1839. The next strongest foreign power was the Ottoman Empire, which was driven to the northern part of the country by native Yemeni forces. After the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, Britain and the Ottoman Empire intensified their presence in Yemen, much to the internal dissatisfaction of the Yemeni people. The British set up protectorates around North and East territories of Yemen to keep their stronghold in Aden from the Ottoman Empire and Yemeni forces.

The British and the Ottoman empire clashed a lot over an undemarcated border- this led to a joint commission in 1904 to establish a treaty and a border, yielding north Yemen to the Ottomans and the south to the British. The treaty was considered a serious overstep of foreign intervention because of the complete lack of Yemeni influence (though I’m sure it could be argued that the fact there was even a foreign presence was a critical overstep of Yemeni rights). 

After 1918, the Ottomans rescinded their control over the north and a northern Yemeni imam, Yahya,  became the de facto ruler because of his long campaign against Ottoman forces. In the 1920s, Yahya wanted to consolidate his power over all Yemen by suppressing intertribal feuding and tribal opposition to his established imamate. In the 1930s, Yahya sent Yemeni youth to Iraq so they would learn military techniques to create a secret police to work against domestic opposition. 

Yahya wanted to revive policies of ‘historic Yemen’ and the northern part of the country (which was under the influence of expanding Saudi powers), completely ignoring the Anglo-Ottoman treaty. The British were keen to remain in control over the south of the country, starting the interwar period with the Imamate- Yahya wanted the South for Yemen. 

The British had managed to consolidate much of the southern territories and had famously negotiated peace among more than 1,400 tribes and clans who had been feuding in the south for many years. At the end of the second world war, nearly all of the native Yemeni society were dissatisfied with Yahya’s imamate, ending with his assassination in 1948 and a coup by a coalition of Yemeni dissidents. 

This was short-lived, however, because Yahya’s son, Ahmad, overthrew that new government with the help of northern tribes and installed himself as the new imam. Despite initially wanting many of the new policies the Yemeni people advocated for, such as a governmental cabinet with actual responsibilities and free public education, Imam Ahmad’s government resembled his father’s in nearly every way. An assassination attempt in 1955 on Ahmad only increased repression.

The British-installed Imams of the South believed that Ahmad would eliminate their role and power, so they proposed a federation of principalities and sheikhdoms that would eventually achieve independence. The British wanted the city of Aden to be incorporated into the southern federation but the Adeni people were anxious about the idea because they did not want to be under the rule of what they perceived to be illiterate and parochial tribes. 

The British continued with their plan and by 1965, 17 out of the 21 protectorates had joined the Federation of South Arabia (South Yemeni State). After the establishment of the FSA, the British promised to leave South Yemen by 1968, which unleashed violent conflict among the Adeni and the Protectorates for two years over the control of South Yemen. The death of Ahmad in 1962 allowed his son, Muhammad al-Badr, to become Imam. 

Shortly after (a week), a coalition of dissidents from the military and some political organizations staged a coup and declared the foundation of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). Al-Badr escaped even farther north and began campaigning among the tribes to follow his cause.

The Yemen Arab Republic asked Egypt for assistance, who provided troops and equipment to defend the new president, ‘Abd Allah al-Sallal, who led the 1962 revolution. Saudi Arabia, in turn, provided aid for al-Badr and his tribal royalist forces. The Egyptian-aided Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) wanted to eliminate British occupation once and for all. 

Both Yemens weren’t keen on the invasive role that Egypt had begun to play, prompting a new radical movement, the National Liberation Front (NLF), which drew its support from primarily southern indigenous elements. The FLOSY and the NLF began open warfare for the right to govern after the withdrawal of the British- by 1967, it was clear that the NLF was stronger, prompting British to transfer sovereignty to the NLF on November 30, 1967.

The new government, based in Aden, renamed South Yemen to the People’s Republic of South Yemen. The PRSY was finding difficulty in acquiring resources and aid from any Western state or even those in the Arab world. Soviet Forces saw this as an opportunity to establish a foothold in the Arab world, so they provided the resources that the PRSY needed, who gladly accepted. 

By the early 1970s, South Yemen was undeniably a Marxist state, which had completely restructured its government, economy, and society and renamed itself (again) the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Meanwhile, in North Yemen, a full-blown civil war had escalated between the royalist tribes and the republicans that lasted until 1970. The Saudis, Iranians, and Jordanians supported the royalists and the Egyptians, and Soviets and Eastern-bloc states supported the republicans. 

The British, the US, and the UN eventually became major players in the war at the diplomatic level. At last, the Yemenis on both sides decided that the only way the conflict would end is by a compromise, which would most importantly guide the departure of foreign influence. Al-Sallal (the president of North Yemen) and his Egyptian-supported regime was ousted in a bloodless coup in 1968 and replaced by a civilian government headed by President ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani. 

Two years later after this establishment, the leaders of North Yemen agreed upon the Compromise of 1970, which established a republican government in which some major positions were assigned to members of the royalist faction. Another part of the Compromise dictated that Imam al-Badr and his family were not meant to return to Yemen and they went into exile in Britain. 

The newly implemented government did not work very well at establishing new policies, so the military and some tribal factions ousted the civilian-led cabinet in 1974 and replaced it with a military-led cabinet headed by Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who appointed a cabinet of technocrats. That government slowly started implementing more progressive policies, at the great displeasure of the more traditional tribal leaders, who promptly assassinated al-Hamdi in 1977 and al-Ghashmmi (the succeeding president) in 1978. Created earlier, the People’s Constituent Assembly selected Ali Abdullah Saleh as the presidential successor.

Saleh was successful in improving Yemen’s relations with neighboring countries, appeasing most factions, and resuming various economic, political and institutional programs. Saleh also created his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) in the 80s and directed Yemen into oil-based success. 

Though both Yemens supported the idea of unification, they were incredibly different in nearly every way; North Yemen was a mixed market economy and South Yemen was being led into a social direction by the radical NLF. The South Yemenis sought to destabilize the North Yemeni political and economic system by funding an opposition movement, the National Democratic Front, in the mid-1970s, parts of which played a hand in the assassination of al-Ghashmi in 1978. Border skirmishes between the two Yemens sometimes led to brief wars throughout the 1970s. 

Socialist factions within the South Yemeni government led to internal fights between Isma’il and Rubayyi, leaders of the two leading parties. Isma’il did not care for Rubayyi’s Maoist ideologies and had him executed under the gise of his (Rubayyi) work in the assassination of al-Ghashmi. Isma’il was found to be too dogmatic for the socialist government and was deposed in 1980.

Ali Nasir Muhammad succeeded Isma’il and instituted less socially dogmatic policies. In 1986, a brief violent civil fight left Isma’il and many of his followers dead, Ali Nasir Muhammad in exile, and brought a group of moderate technocrats to power, led by al-Bayd and al-’Attas. These two leaders of the leading socialist party helped negotiate the unification of the two Yemens. 

The unification agreement was possible for two reasons: both Yemens found oil at the same time and roughly the same place and did not want to have a costly conflict over its ownership and Mikhail Gorbachev’s dismantling of the eastern-bloc states meant that South Yemen was on the brink of collapse and found it to be in its best interest to unify. Saleh’s regime of North Yemen led the unification effort with the new republic’s constitution being declared effective on May 22, 1990. 

The constitution stipulated that the merger of the two states would create a multiparty democracy with distinct political and economic capitals, with Saleh as the interim president of the new republic and al-Bayd (South Yemen) as the vice president. The collapse of the Yemeni economy can be found in the Persian Gulf war, following Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. 

Much of Yemen’s economy relied on workers’ remittances and external economic aid from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich nations. In late 1990, Yemen believed that a diplomatic solution was to be reached among Arab nations to curtail Iraq’s military aggression. After Yemen refused to join the US-Saudi military coalition against Iraq, Saudi Arabia expelled several thousand Yemeni migrant workers and cut all foreign aid to Yemen, with most Arab nations following suit.

Following this decision, Yemen’s GDP plummeted and its inflation and unemployment rate surged, because a significant amount of Yemen’s economy relied on foreign aid. After months of economic floundering, internal bombings and assassinations, Yemen managed to hold relatively free and fair elections only a few months after originally scheduled, which resulted in Saleh’s GPC holding a plurality of the seats, and a coalition government formed between the GPC, the YSP, and IRG (Islah, a group against unification). 

Conflict between the North and the South began again in late 1993 when al-Bayd left Sanaa (political capital) and brought his political dissidents with him. The War of Secession started in 1994 and ended with the defeat of southern forces and the exile of many YSP leaders and supporters. Saleh was once again largely in control but the coalition between the GPC and Islah was weakening because of the GPC’s growing control. 

The political unrest led to the revitalization of civilian-military police, which led to a lockdown on the freedoms of opposition parties, the media and NGOs, in addition to human rights. The strength of the GPC grew throughout the 1990s with Saleh being reelected and the YSP being nearly eliminated and Islah becoming the main opposition. By 1995, the Yemeni economy was in the worst shape it had ever since its inception.

Yemen wanted to restore its relationship with Saudi Arabia, with whom they had an undemarcated border, a source of much conflict and even war. 

Yemen became involved in a dispute with Eritrea over the Haneesh Islands, but, neither nation wanting war, decided to let the feud go to the arbitration board in 1998, who awarded Yemen with the majority of the Islands. After the Memorandum of Understanding in January of 1995, talks and negotiations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia came about to finally determine a border and the assignment of three disputed territories, culminating in a border agreement in June of 2000, which greatly improved Saudi-Yemeni relations because of the economic benefit for Yemen.Saleh prioritized the Yemeni economy and called on the help of the IMF and the World Bank for aid, which it received on the condition that it would restructure its economy over the following decade. Despite first implementing the necessary changes to the currency, budget and trade policies, Yemen’s economy was still unfavorable because of the Saleh regime’s apparent lack of political will. As a result, in 2005, too few jobs were being created to support Yemen’s growing population and malnourishment and poverty flourished. As the 1990s grew, it became apparent that the government in the north had developed into an oligarchy, supporting the few at the top at the expense of the greater public. 

The relations between Yemen and the US were already on the fragile after al-Qaeda suicide-bombed a US naval destroyer, the USS Cole, which was docked at a Yemeni harbor. After the 9/11 attacks, Saleh visited Washington to pledge Yemen’s full support in the war on terror, despite growing anti-American sentiment and Islamic fundamentalism in Yemen. 

Many recruits for the US-Saudi led ousting of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan came from Yemen, but when Soviet forces finally withdrew, Yemeni and non-Yemeni fighters made their way to Yemen, fighting for Saleh in the War of Secession in 1994, making Saleh indebted to them. The GPC won a massive majority in the parliamentary elections of 2003, while Islah and YSP, along with many other small factions, created a party coalition in opposition to the Saleh regime called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which drew some support away from the GPC. 

Mounting dissatisfaction grew throughout Yemen as many problems concerning the economy and society plagued Saleh’s regime and crippling his power. The al-Houthi rebellion in the north dismissed the regime as pro-American and pro-Israeli and condemned them by killing many, despite Saleh’s repression.

Many protests and violent demonstrations swept the south in 2007, started by workers and the unemployed that saw the regime’s actions as discriminatory in the south. The number of protests in both the north and the south called into question the legitimacy of the Saleh regime, and some called for the restoration of the imamate led by the Zaydi sayyids (those who had started the al-Houthi rebellion). In 2008, al-Qaeda had stirred up further dissent amongst its followers, whom they told to target western forces. 

The bombing at the entrance of the US embassy on September 17 (killing 16 people) was among many violent attacks by al-Qaeda and its supporters. The legitimacy of the Saleh regime was being questioned by all quarters of Yemen. Around 2011, a wave of pro democracy protests swept across an expanse of Arab nations, known as the Arab Spring.

Yemeni protests were inspired by actions in Tunisia and Egypt, who had managed to oust their leaders. The protests in Yemen were largely non-violent and focused on recalling Saleh from office, who made concessions by saying that he would reduce income taxes, increase government workers’ salaries, and not run for reelection when his turn was up. The protesters didn’t believe Saleh because he had previously promised not to run for reelection in 2006 but had done so.

Tensions grew as Saleh vowed not to step down, causing daily riots between his supporters and the pro-democracy, opposition backed protesters. Violent responses from the Saleh regime succeeded in weakening Saleh’s support, especially after security protesters, dressed as civilians, opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing at least 50 people in Sanaa. 

Following this March 18 attack, dozens of Yemeni diplomats, cabinet ministers and members of parliament resigned in protest. Another crushing blow to Saleh’s regime was when shortly after the Major General, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, announced his support for the opposition protesters, vowing to use his soldiers to protect the Yemeni people from Saleh’s security forces. On March 22, Saleh told his people that he would step down from office only after the parliamentary elections, still 9 months away. 

After the opposition rejected his offer, Saleh started negotiations with tribal leaders and military officers to discuss his resignation. After several months of failed negotiations, security forces moved from the rest of the country to the capital, allowing al-Qaeda to move to the southern region. Tensions grew and dozens were killed in civil conflict between troops loyal to Saleh and tribal militia. Civil war grew imminent as the infighting reached a fever pitch on June 3rd, when a bomb exploded in the presidential palace killing seven guards and injuring Saleh.

He was transferred to Saudi Arabia to seek medical attention, where he stayed for several months and in his absence, Saleh’s vice president, Mansuur Hadii, took power.

In November, Saleh signed an agreement that would permanently secure himself from persecution and promote Hadii to the position of the president. After Hadii was sworn in in February of 2012, a convention was called for all political factions in Yemen to discuss and create a new constitution.

Things did not improve with Hadii’s presidency: unemployment remained high, the economy was still dismal, and dissatisfied islamic militants and tribal rebellion continued the oppositionist movement. In early 2013, a formal document was drafted to guide the writing of the constitution. Discontentment grew, especially in the south, where there was a resurgence in secessionist beliefs. 

In mid 2014, Hadii’s regime started making cuts to fuel deficits in an attempt to attract foreign investment. This angered Houthi rebels, who accused Hadii of not caring about the nation’s poor. This prompted the rebels to open fire on Sanaa’s streets, killing several civilians. The Houthi tribal soldiers overran Sanaa taking control of a number of government buildings. After two days, members of Hadii’s government were replaced by Houthi representatives, in accordance with a UN agreement brokered by Hadii and the Houthis. 

The Houthis would only leave Sanaa under the condition that Hadii were to leave office and be replaced by an official whom the Houthis deemed acceptable. In early 2015, tensions grew between the Houthis and Hadii’s regime in Sanaa, escalating to the Houthis overrunning the presidential palace. This made president Hadii and the prime minister to resign, letting chaos ensue. 

Hadii was placed under house arrest, allowing the Houthis to dissolve the parliament and announce a new, transitional government. The UN security council condemned the Houthis overthrow and called for them to return to the transitory agreement made years before during the talks for a new constitution. Hadii escaped house arrest and fled to Aden, where he retracted his resignation and reasserted that he was the true president of Yemen. 

However, he had to rely on international military intervention, as the majority of his forces were still in Sanaa or driven away. Hadii later fled to Oman, then Saudi Arabia, for fear of Houthi rebels. A coalition led by Saudi Arabian forces launched airstrikes against Houthi occupants who were heading south to Aden. Houthi rebels were supported by former president Saleh, who had secretly supported the group for over a year. The Saudi air strikes had succeeded in allowing for pro Hadii forces to take Aden in mid 2015. Coalition troops joined forces with the newly controlled pro-Hadii Aden, with Hadii himself making a small appearance in September of that year before returning to Saudi Arabia shortly after.

The Saudi airstrikes did little to affect the Houthi stronghold in Sanaa but wreaked havoc on the lives of the local civilians and Yemeni infrasture. UN peace talks were successful in bringing about a ceasefire, which lasted for a few months, with intermittent violations. The talks, however, proved to be a fruitless venture, with no agreements made when they ended in August of 2016. 

The short-lived alliance between Houthi forces and former president Saleh ended when Saleh entertained the idea of ending the war with the Saudi coalition. Fighting between Saleh’s loyalists and the Houthis took place over control of key parts of Sanaa. In early December of 2017, Saleh was killed by the Houthis near his home in Sanaa. 

In early 2018, Hadii’s government in the southern capital Aden faced setback with the secessionists' demand to remove his government. When Hadii failed to comply in time, southern forces overtook Aden, and fighting ensued. As both forces were a part of Saudi Arabia’s coalition, the coalition brokered a bitter peace between Hadii’s forces and the secessionists by returning the government to Hadii’s control. 

In hopes of making Houthi forces surrender control of Sanaa and the north and to end the civil war, the Saudi coalition advanced on the Houthi controlled port city of Al-Hudaydah. Al-Hudaydah was a tremendous source of wealth for Houthi led forces and also a significant source of humanitarian aid. This interruption prompted the UN to step in and negotiate a deal. A deal was reached between the coalition and Houthi forces in December of 2018, creating a cease-fire. The agreement required the removal of forces from both sides, the implementation of local authorities, and the UN monitoring the city’s aid distribution. This was, however, a very fragile deal, because both the Saudi coalition and the Houthi accused one another of breaching parts of the deal. The UN also found significant evidence of both sides stealing aid from the UN, including food rations. 

The 2015 stalemate between the Saudi coalition and the Houthis were the direct cause for the Yemen humanitarian crisis. The UN in 2016 published the statistic that nearly 75% of Yemen’s population lacked safe access to drinking water and sanitation, with nearly 50% lacking food and medicine. This situation quickly intensified in 2018 after the port at Al-Hudaydah was assaulted, almost completely blocking the only source of food in the country. Yemen has faced the undisputed worst famine in over a century, with 22 of its 28 million citizens on the brink of starvation, coupled with the largest cholera outbreak in recent history, of which 1.7 million citizens have suffered from. As cases of cholera started to dwindle in late 2019, threats of COVID-19 have the ability to push the country to a place beyond repair.

The lack of media coverage and global outrage has given us a front row seat to watch the modern world’s first mass extinction of a nation’s people. It’s important to raise awareness through every facet possible, whether that means posting to social media, educating yourself and others, or starting GoFundMe projects wherever you can. Donations to organizations like UNICEF Yemen, Save the Children, Oxfam America, International Rescue Committee and the World Food Programme can mean the difference between life and death for the millions of children affected by this crisis. What’s ultimately important to remember about the situation is that it is completely man-made and has the potential to be reversed. If you don’t have the ability to don’t you can contact:

Your local Senator

Your local Representative

Amanda Catanzano, senior director of international programs policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee told NBC’s Today Show that, ‘"This is a crisis driven exclusively by conflict. The only thing that will end this crisis is to end the war." In the meantime, donations, awareness, and contacting your local legislator are the most important actions that we can take to reshape Yemen’s future.