Old city of Sanaa the capital of Yemen. View on the city from roof at sunrise

Yemen has been engulfed in a bloody civil war and a resulting even more calamitous humanitarian crisis for years. In 2015, the Houthi rebel group overthrew the official government, which led to an ongoing war that resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 civilians and displaced over 3.65 million. Additionally, 13 million Yemenis are facing starvation and 24 million are in dire need of assistance. This is far from a coincidence. The humanitarian crisis (which includes a man-made famine and cholera outbreak), is directly related to the armed conflict, and militants have been using famine as a weapon. 

In order to really grasp what’s been happening in Yemen, we need to understand the nature of the conflict. Spoiler alert: it’s complex, convoluted, and like many conflicts in the Middle East, the American thirst for oil makes a guest appearance. 

Yemen’s armed conflict has been classified as a “civil war”, but this designation is a bit misleading. Taking a step back, we see that Yemen has been caught in the crossfires of an ongoing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this article, we will use the situation in Yemen to understand what proxy wars are, and how devastating they can be to innocent civilian life, while diving into the historical, geopolitical, and religious dimensions of the conflict.

What’s a proxy war?

Basically, proxy wars are conflicts that are fought by smaller countries or non-state armed groups on behalf of the interests of external, larger powers. In other words, they’re essentially confrontations between two larger powers, although they don’t directly engage with each other. Rather, they support smaller countries or armed groups to fight against each other on their behalf. Often, both larger powers will end up fighting each other’s allies. 

There are many reasons why countries may choose to engage in proxy wars as opposed to direct confrontations. For instance, if the majority of a country’s citizens oppose going to full-on war, or to try and avoid condemnations from allies, trading partners, or the United Nations. Proxy warfare was fairly common during the Cold War, and many of the global conflicts that happened during that period were really just the United States and Soviet Union hashing out their ideological differences through proxies at the expense of thousands of innocent civilian lives who were caught in the crossfies across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

The Saudi-Iranian conflict

The current “civil war” in Yemen is the product of an ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are each trying to vie for hegemony in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia divide also plays a big role here too, as Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni and Iran is mostly Shia. Today, Iran is supporting the Shia-majority Houthi rebel group that overthrew the government in 2015, while Saudi Arabia is supporting the official overthrown government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi – a Sunni. 

The Saudi-Iranian animosity is essentially a political and economic conflict that has been heightened by religious differences. For years, Saudi Arabia positioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world. But when Iran underwent a revolution in 1979 that replaced their secular government with an Islamic regime, the Saudis felt that their hegemony was threatened. Tension escalated throughout the years as the countries backed opposing sides in various regional wars (e.g. The Lebanese Civil War, The Soviet-Afghan War, and others).

Yemen caught in the crossfires

Yemen, which had previously been under the Saudi sphere of influence, got ensnared in the Saudi-Iranian conflict around the time of the Arab Spring. In 2011, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown by the Hadi government. Then, in 2014, the Houthi insurgency began and ended taking control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2015, with the help of Saleh. It’s complicated, we know. 

The overthrown Hadi government is now based in the southern port town of Aden, with the economic and moral support of Saudi Arabia, which is wary of instability and an active Shia insurgent group so close to its borders. The Saudi-led coalition (consisting of other allied Arab states including the United Arab Emirates) has launched a series of airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, although much of the bombing has targeted and destroyed civilian infrastructure. The Houthis, on the other hand, are supported by Iran, and have been accused of firing missiles into Saudi Arabia. 

The situation gets even more complex when we see that the US has been rather active in the conflict as well. The US has backed the Saudi bombing campaigns and have conducted their own airstrikes as well. Back in 2018, for instance, the US took a lot of heat when they supplied the bombs for the Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a bus, killing 29 Yemeni children. In March 2019, the Senate passed a bill to end their support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, but President Donald Trump vetoed the bill a month later. The US has a history of tacitly and explicitly supporting Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, and it really boils down to the fact that the US needs and loves their oil. 

Basically, while the conflict in Yemen is referred to as a civil war, it is by no means a merely internal conflict. Outside forces have exacerbated and manipulated the situation to maintain and assert power in the region. To do so, Saudi Arabia and Iran have poured their support into different groups in Yemen, rather than directly fighting each other. Unfortunately, this has placed the effects of the war onto the Yemeni civilians, who have taken the brunt of it – as is the case in most proxy wars. 

Civilians pay the price

Before the war, Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East. The proxy war they’ve gotten caught up in has made the situation extremely dire, catalyzing what the United Nations has referred to as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Not only have thousands of civilians been killed, but millions more have been pushed to starvation. 

Since the outbreak of war, the Saudi-led coalition has weaponized famine, and preventing the dispersal of food has become one of their key war strategies. A sea, land, and air blockade surrounds the country. Saudi warships have been in Yemeni waters since 2015, which the US joined in 2016. Yemen relies on imports for most of their food supply, but the airstrikes have deliberately targeted the infrastructure that would normally allow food to be distributed across the population. Ports, roads, and bridges have been destroyed, leaving millions without access to food. The Houthis have also been accused of stealing food and humanitarian aid. 

Hospitals, sanitation sites, and humanitarian aid convoys and facilities have also been targeted, which is prohibited in international humanitarian law. Around half of the country’s population does not have access to clean water or sanitation, and a widespread cholera outbreak broke out in 2016 that has infected around 500,000 people. 

Ultimately, we can see that proxy warfare allows larger powers to avoid direct confrontation with each other while civilians are compromised. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has cost countless lives, is not natural, and reflects the consequence for proxy warfare, of which many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, and US are complicit. This should serve as a reminder that when power, influence, and resources are our main priorities, innocent human lives often pay the price


This VICE documentary on YouTube discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Watch here.


Donate to Save the Children to provide vital care for Yemeni children affected by the war and humanitarian crisis. Donate here

Dorothy Settles

Dorothy is the co-founder and former executive director of Spheres of Influence. Her work focuses on social movements, climate change, and conflict across Turtle Island and Southeast Asia. Originally from...

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