Stuck in a proxy war since 2015 that led to what has been named the largest ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world, Yemen saw its first case of COVID-19 on April 10th, 2020. The fight against the pandemic has further impacted the already fragile health care system which is seen as untrustworthy and ineffective by many Yemenis due to the spread of misinformation by local militias. Furthermore, assessing the impacts of the coronavirus is further complicated by the lack of testing and by the lack of transparency in the number of cases by healthcare officials.
The war and the man-made famine
In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government which entangled Yemen in the Saudi-Iranian competition for regional hegemony. Throughout the course of the war, over 20,000 civilians have died, and additionally, 3.65 million Yemenis have been displaced. Moreover, considering that 65% of Yemen’s population live in rural areas and that agriculture and animal husbandry are key to not only the sustenance of the citizens but also to the local economies, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition primarily targeting rural farmers plunged the civilian population in a situation where they were more likely to died from starvation than from warfare. The ensuing man-made famine compounded with outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, measles, and dengue fever, all directly linked to the conflict, ravaged the country. As a result, 13 million Yemenis are facing starvation, while 23 million are living with limited access to any form of assistance. For more information on the humanitarian crisis and the war in Yemen, please read my colleague’s article here.
Will COVID-19 bring peace to Yemen or stall the negotiations?
There are two ways in which observers believe COVID-19 will affect the situation in Yemen. First, the scale of the pandemic could fast-forward peace as Saudi Arabia showed an unprecedented willingness to end the war which could be a breakthrough in the negotiations. Second, the peace talks may stall, meaning that the civil war will continue as the pandemic refocuses the attention of local, regional, and global leaders to their domestic challenges with the disease.
In early April 2020, Saudi Arabia showed an unprecedented willingness to negotiate a cease-fire which ultimately lasted a month before clashes resumed. The Saudi negotiators expressed that fear of the novel coronavirus was the motive for the cease-fire, which had the potential to pave the way for lasting peace as it prompted the current government of Yemen to intensify its peace efforts . However, such willingness was short-lived as clashes resumed in the Southern region where a separatist rebel party called the Southern Transitional Council (STC) supported by the United Arab Emirates declared a self-state which in doing so violated the Riyad agreement that dates back to November 2019. In regard to the clashes in the North, COVID-19 did not stop the violence between the Houthi rebels and the government forces. Rather, the Houthi forces escalated their attacks by targeting directly Saudi Arabia who retaliated the same day on July 12th.
The political economy and COVID-19
Most observers support the more negative prediction that the pandemic will only serve to worsen the conflict. Multiple diverging arguments were brought forward among which the economics of the war was the central focus.
As the pandemic cripples the world economy and the risk of fund diversion by the Houthi rebels increases, the drastic reduction of foreign aid to Yemen impacts both civilians and the groups involved in the conflict. Donors, mainly Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are increasingly reluctant to release foreign aid. As of August 28th, aid agencies only received 24% of the estimated $3.4 billion required to provide humanitarian relief non-related to COVID-19. Furthermore, there is the risk that pooling of the limited humanitarian foreign aid and technical resources to fight the pandemic will be achieved at the expense of other aid such as food programs or health programs unrelated to the pandemic.
The unintended consequence of the reduction in foreign aid is the scarcity in money inflow for rebel groups who rely on fund diversion that sustain their activity. As a result, rebel parties increasingly began to move towards resource-rich regions, such as the oil and gas-rich governorate of Marib in Western Yemen. In other words, the shift in the source of their revenues from fund diversion to natural resources has the potential to further exacerbate violence as other actors in the conflict also have interests in those regions.The flip-side of the war in Yemen is that it is lucrative. The reluctance to ban arm deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran have greatly hurt the Yemeni population. Canada, France, Britain, and the United States have been accused of fueling the arms trade in a recent United Nation report. As of April 2020, the Canadian government authorized the sale of light armoured vehicles in a contract with the Saudi government worth a whopping $14 billion. Despite the tweet made by the now-finance minister Chrystia Freeland on the multiple violations of human rights by the Saudis, this arms deal shows that the war is lucrative enough to the point that human rights can be overlooked. This double narrative and willful blind-eye set the path for a prolongation of the civil war in Yemen.
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