A People in Suffering: A Look at the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

Yemen has for long been the poorest country of the Middle East. For decades, the people have suffered from a lagging economy and an inefficient government. At times of relative peace, the labor force participation rate remained low while the unemployment rate surged upwards, especially among the youth. This economic turmoil acted as the impetus behind a revolution in 2011; for a moment, the Yemeni people held some hope for economic improvement in the future. What they did not expect was the large-scale war to come.


Since the beginning of the revolution, the conflict troubling the nation has served only to exacerbate its poverty. Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen’s people ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2014-15, the Houthi insurgency gained control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, throwing the nation into deeper political turmoil. After being forced to resign, President Hadi, Saleh’s successor, eventually fled to Saudi Arabia, whose government warmly received him and began leading a military intervention against the Shiite Houthis. The restoration of stability in Yemen with Hadi as head of government was the campaign’s stated aim.

As of today, the civil war persists between the Hadi government, supported by the United States and the Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis, allegedly earning support from Iran and Hezbollah. The power struggle comes at the expense of the Yemeni people, who suffer from one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. This comment will focus specifically on how the war contributed to the crisis as well as its effects on the Yemeni people.

Civilian Deaths

The most direct effect of the conflict in Yemen will be found in terms of the number of human lives lost. Approximately 5,000 civilians have been killed, with over 8,000 injured as a direct result of the war. These casualties are largely due to the Saudi-led coalition’s irresponsible and indiscriminate strikes on civilian sites.

On March 25, 2016, the coalition launched two strikes on a crowded village market in northwestern Yemen. Using bombs supplied by the United States, the Royal Saudi Air Force killed about 10 Houthi fighters, along with 97 civilians. Of the victims, 25 were children. General Ahmad al-Assiri, Saudi spokesman for the coalition, justified the strikes as an assault on “a militia gathering.”[[1]] He offered no apology or recognition of the disproportionate civilian casualties.

A few months later, the military campaign carried out an air raid on a civilian funeral in Sana’a, killing at least 140 people and wounding about 600. After initially denying responsibility for the raid, the coalition was pressured by the international community to issue a statement attributing the mistake to “wrongly passed information.”[[2]] The frequency with which these attacks are attributed to human error casts serious doubt on the validity of such a defense. Though the coalition claims to be seeking minimal civilian casualties, a survey by the Yemen Data Project, showed that more than one third of air raids targeted civilian areas, including schools, hospitals, and mosques.[[3]] If Saudi Arabia and its allies are shown to have deliberately targeted these sites, the coalition would be subject to serious war crime charges.

For now, however, the campaign continues to receive support from the United States through multibillion-dollar weapon sales and logistical military assistance. The United States’ interests lie in maintaining the status quo in the Gulf and preventing Iran from expanding its sphere of influence in the region. A Houthi government in Yemen poses an exact threat to those interests. Therefore, as long as the Houthis hold power in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition will presumably continue to receive backing from the United States. For this reason, the manner by which the intervention is conducted will not change. Unless the United States threatens to withdraw its support from the coalition, more indiscriminate attacks on civilians should be expected. The death toll of innocents will continue to rise.

Damage to Infrastructure

In addition to the civilian casualties, the war’s effects can also be measured in terms of the number of demolished buildings and damaged facilities. Evidence indicates that the coalition intentionally launches attacks on important Yemeni infrastructure, perhaps hoping that the Houthis would submit after seeing the economic backbone of their nation destroyed. Especially subject to air raids are hospitals and the agricultural industry.

In August of 2016, the coalition bombed a potato factory in Sana’a, killing 14 civilian workers, mostly women.[[4]] Professor Martha Mundy of the London School of Economics claims that food production is intentionally targeted in order to force a post-war Yemen to rely on the other Gulf nations for food imports.[[5]] This claim, if true, would show that Saudi Arabia’s interests in the conflict extend beyond ideological differences and the restoration of order. Instead, the coalition’s motivations would also include a view towards economic superiority over Yemen in the future. Such an objective would raise serious questions about the coalition’s righteous purpose of ‘restoring order.’ Aside from long term economic interests, bombing agricultural centers serves a strategic function for the campaign. Combined with the complete air, land, and sea blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, destruction of Yemen’s food-producing capacities would place pressure on the Houthi government by bringing an already severely diminished economy to its knees. Nonetheless, such a strategy results in the deaths of civilians and the suffering of millions. Saudi Arabia’s persistence in this respect effectively demonstrates the value it places on the lives of the Yemeni people.

Like Yemen’s limited food industry, Yemeni medical facilities have also been the target of coalition attacks. According to a report by Save the Children, a humanitarian non-governmental organization, over 160 attacks were carried out against civilian hospitals and clinics in the past two years of the war in Yemen.[[6]] The direct victims of these attacks are the sick, weak, and injured patients who cannot find sanctuary even in a hospital. The destruction of medical facilities strips access to medical care away from entire communities. In a country as poor and war-ravaged as Yemen, healthcare is of crucial necessity.

Medicine, a steady source of food, and access to a clean water supply are now rare luxuries in Yemen.[[7]] By weakening the farms, factories, and hospitals, the coalition exacerbates the humanitarian crisis and further destabilizes the lives of the Yemeni people. Though the attacks overwhelmingly target hospitals and factories, all sectors of Yemen’s infrastructure have been affected by air strikes, including sewage and water facilities. As a result of the widespread destruction, the wellbeing of large swathes of the population has diminished. For those who survive the incessant warfare, life is a grueling ordeal.

Displacement and Disease

Because of the lack of a clean water supply, more than 1 million Yemeni children are now at risk of developing cholera.[[8]] Since the beginning of the outbreak in October of 2016, over 2,000 have died because of the disease, and over 900,000 have been infected. Over 18 million do not have access to clean water, seven million of them are on the brink of famine, and two million children are severely malnourished.[[9]] One child will die of starvation every ten minutes. This disease and extreme malnutrition is a direct result of the Saudi-led blockade and the coalition’s reckless bombing, described in detail above.

Those suffering from cholera and malnourishment will likely not see relief any time soon, as the Saudi blockade prevents even humanitarian supplies from reaching civilian areas. More than 20 million Yemenis are in need of “urgent humanitarian assistance,” according to the UN.[[10]] Approximately 3 million of those in need have been internally displaced as a result of the war, a people searching for stability in a war-torn nation of chaos.

Because stable jobs were scarce even before the war, civilians are now beyond desperate for any means of employment they may find. Many join the pro-government forces as soldiers, expecting a somewhat stable and paying job. Most of the young men who joined, however, “found themselves penniless for months on end.”[[11]] Even in this, the coalition demonstrates an obvious disregard for the welfare of the Yemeni people. Though the men may join the military as a temporary job, employment opportunities for many displaced Yemeni women and children are scarce, and so they become susceptible to the promises of human traffickers. Approximately 1.7 million children work in forced labor, and girls as young as 15 are sex trafficked, with the numbers increasing over the years of the war.[[12] Because neither the Houthi nor Hadi governments hold full power, anti-trafficking laws go unenforced and so women and children are then forced into slavery. The Yemeni people seem to be neglected even by their own governments.

Over 13,000 civilian casualties, over 900,000 sick with cholera, millions displaced from their homes and millions more without medicine, food, or clean water. Cities turning to ghost towns and buildings crumbling to rubble and dust. This is the price of a war waged for power. This is the Yemeni people’s suffering.


[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/07/yemen-us-bombs-used-deadliest-market-strike

[2] https://www.justsecurity.org/33615/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/16/third-of-saudi-airstrikes-on-yemen-have-hit-civilian-sites-data-sh


[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/09/saudi-led-airstrikes-yemen-food-factory-kill-people

[5] https://www.salon.com/2016/10/27/famine-looms-in-yemen-as-u-s-backed-saudi-bombing-intentionally-targets-fo


[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39651265

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2017-10-16/yemens-humanitarian-nightmare

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/02/yemen-more-than-one-million-children-at-risk-of-cholera-charity

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://www.unocha.org/story/yemen-blockade-continues-severely-hamper-humanitarian-efforts-reach-millions-des


[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/world/middleeast/yemen-military-houthi-rebels.html

[12] https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/countries/2017/271314.htm