On November 26th, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy hosted a talk with CEO and President of Oxfam America Abby Maxman, entitled “Yemen at the Edge: Humanitarian Protection, Needs, and Rights.” Maxman, who most recently visited Yemen at the end of the summer, spoke about the causes driving the conflict, the humanitarian situation on the ground, and the prospects for resolving the crisis. After three years of fighting, the conflict in Yemen has left millions on the brink of famine and triggered the largest cholera outbreak in history.
Economic challenges multiply harm of war’s violence
Maxman began by laying out the systemic forces that feed Yemen’s instability. Inequality, weak institutions, a reliance on imports, and poor infrastructure plagued the country long before the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign against the Houthi rebels in March 2015. Only some 2.4% of Yemen’s land is arable, forcing the country to depend on imports to sustain the population even in peacetime. Under the conditions of warfare, however, these factors act as harm multipliers, transforming a conflict between two distinct parties and their allies into a crisis threatening the vast majority of the population. The ongoing hostilities, particularly near the port of Hodeidah, the entry point for approximately 70% of the country’s imports, now leaves over 15 million Yemenis facing starvation. Simply put, the fighting between the Saudi-coalition and the Houthi rebels exploits Yemen’s long-standing vulnerabilities to create a humanitarian emergency unprecedented in scale.
Meetings with civil society members, local officials, and internally displaced persons in Yemen, all of which highlighted the breakdown of state services, informed Maxman’s perspective on the conflict in Yemen.The country’s business sector has essentially collapsed, and measures of economic activity have dropped precipitously. At the same time, signs of an informal economy are obvious. In Sana’a, Maxam recalled, it is possible to walk into a supermarket and see shelves fully stocked with goods, including treats such as popcorn and cotton candy, then walk out of the store to the sight of starving bodies on the street. In contrast, for Houthi militia leaders, many of whom started off penniless, the war has been a path to expanding power and wealth. The group leverages the territory under their control to work with smugglers and businessmen to transport ‘pretty much anything’ overland into Sana’a and the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, allies of the Saudi coalition profit from monopolies on fuel supply into Aden. Of course, money made through such exploitation is not enough to prevent Yemen’s poor from suffering from starvation. Instead it provides the resources needed to keep the different militia and political leaders in power and fighting one another.
While abuses are committed by all parties to the conflict, Maxman argued that the recklessness and severity of the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign is forcing once neutral Yemenis to pick sides. During her visit to the country, she toured the remains of a cement factory in Amran that had been repeatedly bombed in 2016, killing numerous civilians. The air strikes galvanized support for the Houthis in the area, as local authorities who had never thought to support the Houthis became sympathetic to their cause. According to Maxman, some even proceeded to recount the horrors of the strikes in Houthi propaganda videos. Such a reaction, of course, is not unique to Amran. The continuation of seemingly indiscriminate air strikes is having a polarizing and radicalizing effect on Yemeni civilians throughout the country.
Maxman concluded the event with a discussion of the international community’s response to the crisis. The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the alleged directive of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman triggered an international reckoning over support for the Kingdom’s actions in Yemen. In the United States, there is now an unprecedented bipartisan congressional consensus for reevaluating US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. This comes in spite of the Trump administration’s unwavering support for the Kingdom and its justification that such a partnership is necessary for countering Iranian aggression. Maxman pointed to the Senate’s efforts to pass S.J.Res. 54, which invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to force a vote to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen,” as a promising step towards articulating a coherent Yemen policy and bringing an end to the conflict there. On December 12th, the Senate voted 63-37 to advance the resolution, representing the most significant progress to date in the efforts to end US involvement in the war.
Charting a course forward
Maxman expressed hope that December 11th talks between Houthi delegates and representatives from Saudi coalition, led by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, would help break the current stalemate. Griffiths, a British Diplomat, took over as Envoy last February. In September, he managed to schedule the first meeting between the main parties in two years however, the the talks collapsed when the Houthi delegation failed to show in Geneva, blaming the Saudi-coalition for restricting their travel. The talks achieved a ceasefire, which has held tenuously despite alleged violations by both Houthi and Saudi-led coalition forces. The deal did not, however, reopen Hodeidah’s port to aid deliveries due to continued Houthi control over the facility, hampering efforts to deliver food and medical supplies.
While prospects for ending the war appear slim, Maxman noted that introducing confidence-building measures such as prisoner swaps or reopening the central bank, with the intention of reducing the hostilities around the port of Hodeida could significantly mitigate ongoing suffering while providing a jumping off point for future negotiations. A final resolution to the conflict must be “locally led and locally driven,” according to Maxman. For her, advocacy and humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam must help create an environment on the ground in Yemen and within the international community in which such local solutions can take root.
Overall, Maxman communicated the gravity of the crisis in Yemen and the humanitarian and diplomatic response. However, speaking from a humanitarian angle, Maxman devoted less attention to conflict’s complicated political dynamics. In the south, separatists backed by the UAE have called for secession of Aden and other southern provinces currently controlled by officials of the Saudi-supported Hadi government. The separatists seek to revive the Republic of South Yemen, which merged with the north in 1990 and fought a civil war against the north in 1994. In January, the secessionist movement accused the Hadi government of corruption, leading to clashes that killed ten people and threatened to cripple the Saudi-Emirati alliance. Considering how the war in Yemen is exacerbating long-standing societal and regional divisions while showcasing the different and uncompromising interests of the parties the involved, Maxman’s hope for locally led and driven solutions faces tremendous obstacles.