A shift in American policy toward Yemen by the administration of US President Joe Biden is looking to end the civil war that has held the country hostage since 2014.
Biden announced the end of American support for Saudi Arabian-led air offensives in Yemen on February 4. A day later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the removal of the terrorist label that had been placed on Yemen’s rebel Houthi group in the closing days of the Trump administration.
The shift in American policy toward Yemen is a major change in the conflict, which began when Yemeni Houthi rebels seized control of the capital city of Sanaa. Since then, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and including the United Arab Emirates, and supported by multiple NATO powers, has led a bombing campaign against the Houthi in Yemen, while also enforcing a land and naval blockade of the country. The Saudi coalition is fighting in support of the internationally recognized government under exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Meanwhile, the Houthis, supported by Iran, and composed mainly of Zaidi Shiite Muslims, have taken control of roughly 80% of Yemen.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced that it would offer the Houthis a cease-fire, overseen by the United Nations, including reopening the airport in the capital, Sanaa. Hadi’s internationally recognized government of Yemen welcomed the cease-fire plan, but the Houthis said the plan was “nothing new,” and called for a complete end to the blockade of the airport and ports under their control.
The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 233,000 people as of December 2020, according to the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Of those deaths, approximately 131,000 were the result of “direct causes, such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned on Nov. 20, 2020, that “war-torn Yemen is in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen in decades,” and that “in the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.”
This policy will have a change on Saudi Arabian and Iranian politics. Biden has clearly and verbally demonstrated that he wants to end the war in Yemen due to humanitarian reasons, and I have every reason to believe that he will
Raiman Al-Hamdani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the former Yemeni representative at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, is optimistic about the change in US policy, because it makes it easier for much-needed aid to get to suffering civilians in the country.
“This policy will have a change on Saudi Arabian and Iranian politics. Biden has clearly and verbally demonstrated that he wants to end the war in Yemen due to humanitarian reasons, and I have every reason to believe that he will,” he said.
Professor Hamid Alawadhi, an adjunct professor at Point Park University, and former ambassador and permanent representative of Yemen to UNESCO from 2003 to 2008, also views the administration’s change positively. He welcomes the decision “as positively affecting the dire humanitarian situation of the Yemeni people, helping to normalize their lives as they live under a quasi-siege. … Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region cannot deal with issues in their own countries – look at their human rights records – and then want to deal with Yemen. This has led directly to why roughly 24 million people in Yemen do not know where to find food, or what to eat.”
Jalal Mawri, 23, a Yemeni-American student at the University of Michigan who emigrated to the U.S. from Sanaa in 2013, is cautiously optimistic at this change.
“I am positive to a certain extent, as we are yet to see what will happen,” Mawri told The Media Line. “We remember when President Obama famously declared his goals of spreading peace and democracy in the Arab world during his 2008 speech in Cairo, only to see the violence that shortly thereafter turned the Arab world upside down. We will wait and see how President Biden’s promise to ‘end all support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen’ coexists with his promise to ‘help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and people.’”
The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen said in a statement in September 2020 accompanying its report on the war in Yemen that “all parties continue to show no regard for international law or the lives, dignity and rights” of the Yemeni people. Both the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition have been accused of war crimes during the conflict, with attacks on civilian targets not isolated to either side.
Al-Hamdani agrees with the statement, saying that “while the Houthis are more brazen in recruiting children and committing war crimes publicly,” both sides are violating the rights of Yemeni civilians.
Others see a difference in the sides due to the gap in their military capabilities. Alawadhi believes it to be a “camouflage” to compare the Houthis directly to Saudi Arabia.
“While I do not support the Houthis or agree with their aggression whatsoever, as I celebrate all civilians and simply attempt to speak for those without a voice, it is a sort of camouflage to believe the Houthis target as many civilian sites as the Saudis do,” he said. “One side established the blockade harming the food supply, health care and the chance for Yemenis to flee their country,” he added.
Mawri, who also does not support the Houthis who he similarly blames for much of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, said that it is “the internationally recognized government and the blockade that has caused all of the devastating famine and supply shortage of essential goods, alongside the deaths of thousands of people from preventable diseases.”
With the Biden administration’s revocation of the terrorist label, showing that the Houthis may soon gain a position of power in Yemen’s political future, many experts warn against the beliefs of the group, which maintains the infamous slogan: “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory for Islam.”
Al-Hamdani, describing the Houthis as a “paranoid, Islamist, jihadist, violent non-state actor,” thinks “the new administration is going to give the Houthis a more normal space considering their power in Yemen,” adding that we are “looking here at the biggest chance for diplomacy to end the war since it began.”
While I do not support the Houthis or agree with their aggression whatsoever, as I celebrate all civilians and simply attempt to speak for those without a voice, it is a sort of camouflage to believe the Houthis target as many civilian sites as the Saudis do
Alawadhi believes the Houthis are “developing their own religious militancy and jihadism, in some ways similar to the path Daesh or al-Qaida have taken,” referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym. He adds that their slogan, derived from Iranian allies, “is beyond stupid in every sense, and is meant to galvanize popular support.”
Mawri, who is writing his University of Michigan honors thesis about the facilitation of Houthi power in Yemen, sees the slogan as emblematic of the group’s core political beliefs — an Iranian-derived political ideology that “not only blames the US for the state of the Middle East today, but is Nazi-like in its belief that Israel, and Jews in general, are the cause of suffering.”
As Houthi forces have renewed an offensive since February to capture the oil-rich city of Marib, the last remaining coalition stronghold in northern Yemen, differences over the political future of Yemen have arisen. Yemen’s future lies in a split between northern and southern Yemen, Al-Hamdani says, with Mawri adding that a unified Yemen with the Houthi-controlled north and coalition-supported Southern Transitional Council government would only lead to further civil war in the future.
Not all Yemeni people agree with this, however. Alawadhi said that such a split will instead further the prospect of war in the future. He does not believe secession is the cure for Yemen’s ills, and points to other countries have survived despite dangerous feelings of secession, such as Spain.