While Yemen’s problems continue to worsen, the country seems to have disappeared from our collective consciousness. Why?
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 stated that more than 17,500 Yemenis have been killed and injured since 2015. A quarter of all civilian deaths were due to air raids were women and children, and more than 20 million people in the country do not have basic food security.
Historically, Yemen has been no stranger to crisis, in fact, Sarah Phillips, an Associate Professor in international security and development at The University of Sydney, has categorised the political situation in Yemen as dependent on crisis itself; it has been “a deliberate choice by Yemen’s power elite”.
The war in Yemen emerged from the conflict between The Houthis (a militant movement from the impoverished North, who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism) and Yemeni leadership, and escalated with Saudi Arabia’s involvement in fighting against the Houthis.
Why Saudi Arabia? Saudi’s relationship with Yemen has been compared by the ABC to that of the United States and Mexico. Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to the political conditions of Yemen, as they share a border and wish to avoid the encroachment of Iran on borders close to theirs.
The now exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in Saudi Arabia, notably denounced the Houthis as ‘Iran’s Puppet’ and built his leadership on inciting fear in his people, leading them to yearn for the security he, in turn, gave them through weaponising Yemen.
Phillips, in her book Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis (2017), observed that for those who have fought for control over Yemen, including the likes of the now-deceased President Saleh, “Yemeni politics is confusing, frightening and, better left to those used to handling it”; begging the question of whether there is actually a solution to the sustained violence and poverty in Yemen.
Under the leadership of President Saleh, Yemen functioned in a neo-patrimonial leadership system. In this system, the leader regards governing powers and the economy of their country as a private measure of their wealth and status.
Yemen, with its long history of tribal society, has traditionally had poor rule of law and varying social structures. Hillary Clinton, among other leaders, long voiced concerns of the power vacuum occurring in Yemen, and its relationship to religious extremism.
This fear, the nation’s instability and un-uniform power structure make for political volatility that caused most humanitarian organisations to evacuate their aid and non-essential staff from Yemen in early 2015. Withdrawal of humanitarian help, poverty, instability and the rise of political rebels have created fertile ground for religious extremism.
So, where does aid actually begin in a country riddled with such unrest? It doesn’t. Rania El Rajji, in a 2016 research paper on Yemen’s exiled minorities, recommended, among other things, that “the distribution and allocation of aid should be closely monitored”, reaffirmed by Phillip’s assertation that donors are put in an “awkward position” due to the “lack of economic growth” and structural capacity in the country. With the withdrawal of humanitarian help, heavy warnings associated with donations and a lack of media coverage, Yemen being hit with COVID-19 seems to be the last straw.
At the risk of financing the wrong side, we choose not to donate at all. We choose to forget the news of conflict in the middle east akin to waking up from a bad dream.
This brings me to the observation that we don’t want to donate to countries who can’t perform their gratitude in growth. We want to invest when we donate, see our dollars save the children and pay for education. We want to see power structures like our own emerge in countries we imagine to be nothing more than dust and violence. There is as much disconnection between problems and solutions in Yemen as there is with compassion and power in the West.
The reality is, these fighters walk shirtless into the rubble, which was once their homes, armed with weapons and a passion for vengeance; a passion to return their country to whatever ideal they hold. These fighters are men and children, who do not reach our criteria of performativity.
At the risk of financing the wrong side, we choose not to donate at all. We choose to forget the news of conflict in the middle east akin to waking up from a bad dream. Starvation, child fighters and mass famine are not realities we share in Australia, and we would rather comfortably ignore this than pay attention because it’s all too hard. The resolution is not going to be money. As Phillips suggests, “what Yemen needs – and has long needed – more than ‘stability’ is change”.