Yemen fights the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen for a century


The nation has battled a civil war, a Cholera epidemic, famine and now a pandemic. Sky News analysts now fear it could be wiped from the map as a result.

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Image by Felton Davis

By Eleanor Longman-Rood

Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries. When Coronavirus entered the nation’s borders, it set into motion a series of catastrophic consequences. Since 2015, the nation has faced years of battling a civil war between the Houthis and Yemeni rebel groups, famine and Cholera epidemic simultaneously. It had neither the infrastructure nor the capability to add pandemic to their list of woes.

5 years ago Shia militant Houthi rebels took control of the capital and President Hadi was forced to flee. In response, Saudi Arabia created a coalition, including the US, UK and France, that aimed to reinstall him. The coalition went on to airstrike medical facilities, water wells, banks and drilling centres which were never rebuilt.

Yet, like many nations in the region however, their issues can be tracked back earlier than this. In 2011, a Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the unfair treatment he and many like him were receiving from the state. This act of self immolation kickstarted what we now call the Arab Spring. Protests soon broke out throughout the Middle East and while it is problematic to call every country a success story, the uprisings drastically altered the course the region was travelling down.

Yemen is no exception. In 2011, authoritarian leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out as a result of the Yemeni uprising. After Tunisia had overthrown the Ben Ali government, there appeared to be hope for positive change. This was short-lived. In his place, President Hadi assumed power but failed to make changes to the embedded corruption and food insecurity the nation faced. Fast forward to 2015, and by taking advantage of the volatile situation the Houthi rebels were able to take capital and have held it ever since.

As reported in a segment by NowThis, most US citizens struggle to locate Yemen on a map, let alone realise that the US has been “intimately” involved in the nation’s civil war for years. According to Kate Kizer, the US has “literally fuelled the war since day one” by aiding the 2015 coalition led by the Saudis, such as selling the coalition bombs and refuelling coalition jets used to bomb civilian areas. Analysts argue that this blind loyalty Kizer references arose from a choice between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as they sided with the former. Saudi has long claimed that Iranian support of the Houthi control of the country justified the Saudi-Iranian conflict being fought within Yemen’s borders. It is intervention that the UN and Amnesty International claim violates international humanitarian law and caused at least 100,000 deaths as the country became the arena for the Saudi-Iranian conflict. It has evolved into a war where food is being treated as a weapon of war with millions of starving civilans, with no end in sight.

It is only in recent weeks that western social media outlets have been flooded with images and videos of the devastation. Instagram is filled with stories sharing facts and figures of the crisis as the world wakes up. Previously, social media was able to transform journalistic capabilities and shed light to trauma in the region. Emotive images of Syrian toddlers Omran Daqneesh and Alan Kurdi went viral practically overnight as they displayed the reality of the Syrian war for the country’s children.

Looking back further, violence in Kabul as a result of the Afghan conflict was no stranger to western media outlets. For example, the 16 September 2014 attack from a Taliban suicide bomber who rammed into a foreign military convoy in the capital city received extensive analysis and air time. All the while, coverage of Yemen was practically non-existent.

There are two media phenomenons that would explain this. Firstly, the CNN effect, coined in the 1990s, which claims that the more western media displays emotive images on the humanitarian crises, the more likely it is for US policy makers to respond. Two decades later, an updated theory emerged in the Al Jazeera effect which challenged the western media monopoly and allowed new regional outlets to report on crises with a greater understanding. These new sources based in the region, such as Al Jazeera, had an obvious advantage of location and cultural knowledge meaning that when it appeared impossible for foreign journalists to report on issues as they couldn't enter borders, local outlets could use civilian journalists to gather reports via handheld devices. Therefore, one effect explains how there has been a lack of action due to the media blackout and the other argues how there was always going to be this privation when western journalists couldn't enter the country, nor could they capture the issues remotely.

Regardless, western onlookers are now seeking to help a country where 24 million, 80% of the population, are in need of urgent humanitarian aid including, but not limited to, access to food, clean water and medical care, according to the UN. After years of falling under the radar, it may be too late and the country’s fate may be sealed.

The story of Yemen is a highly complex and multifaceted one. Contemporary reports will unlikely resolve the years of neglect it has been subject to. The country lost its autonomy as it became a battleground for a proxy war between the implacable foes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. When considering this, a solution does not only seem out of reach, but unimaginable. Contemporary global rhetoric is focused on assessing how countries will emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic and what role they will play in this emerging ‘new normal’. The reality is that this line of thinking is a luxury. For Yemen, questions do not revolve around how they are to exit the pandemic, but rather if they will exit it at all.