Biden's Role in the Future of Yemen

By LILY MECKEL

War in Yemen has ravaged the country since 2014. What was initially a fight between the Houthi movement, with support from loyal military units of the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Yemeni government, under the new ruler Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, has drawn in foreign intervention led by Saudi-Arabia, with support from other Arab states, as well as the US, UK, and France. The war has exacerbated issues in an already severely impoverished country, killing hundreds of thousands of people, increasing terrorist group strongholds, leading to the largest cholera outbreak in recent history, and creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


One of the first foreign policy decisions made by US President Joe Biden since his inauguration in January has been to freeze arms sales to the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen against the Houthis. The aim of the Saudi-led offensive has been to reinstate the Hadi administration and push out the Houthis, but in doing so has only exacerbated the crisis in Yemen.


What started as a civil war, quickly drew in foreign intervention for a multitude of reasons. The Houthi movement, which for the most part consists of the Zaydi Shia minority in Yemen, began its attacks on the new fragile government of Hadi and took over parts of the country after the long-ruling authoritarian president, Saleh, was forced to hand over power in 2012 as a result of the Arab Spring. After the Houthis forced Hadi to flee abroad, Saudi Arabia became increasingly worried about the movement becoming too powerful, as Iran, a Shia majority country as well as a regional rival of Saudi Arabia, allegedly backed the Houthis. Thus, the Saudis initiated an air-strike campaign against the Houthis, creating a proxy war situation. They also imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports after a Houthi attack on the Kingdom, which led to starvation to the point of famine due to shortages of essential items.


The US became involved in aiding the Saudi-offensive for a multitude of reasons. The US has been a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia, meaning the US had interests in fighting the increased terrorist threat as a result of the power vacuum in Yemen. To a greater extent though, the interest of the United States was piqued as Yemen is strategically important for global oil shipments. US support has largely consisted of weapons and bomb sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been used to target civilians and vital infrastructure, contributing to a lack of food and healthcare for the Yemeni people. Attacks both by the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led offensive are considered to be war crimes by human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch.


The Biden administration’s announcement to cut off military support, which runs counter to the Trump administration’s foreign policy of upholding arm sales, sounds like it would be a positive policy shift, since the US’s aid towards the Saudis has contributed to war crimes and to a large-scale humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, around 80% of the Yemeni population needs humanitarian assistance. Despite announcing a withdrawal, the US will still offer defensive support, which has not been clearly defined by the administration, and there will be continued operations against terrorist groups. Due to this, there is fear that the US, despite reducing its role, is still contributing to Saudi operations rather than helping resolve the conflict.


However, the Biden administration has already taken steps towards a more diplomatic approach. A special envoy to Yemen, led by Timothy Lenderking, has been appointed to hold peace talks with the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, in hopes of finally ending this devastating war. Furthermore, one of the first Trump policy reversals that occurred in Biden’s first few days as President was to reverse the decision to designate the Houthis a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. This designation was condemned by humanitarian groups for making it more difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people, with Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, Scott Paul, calling it ‘a counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk.’ These steps are already an important display of how US foreign policy is shifting in Yemen in favour of ending the war.


Overall, the US’s role in the Yemen war should not be downplayed. The US has aided in causing immense damage and suffering in Yemen by contributing to Saudi Arabia’s campaigns. By the Biden administration taking a stance against Saudi Arabia’s actions, aiding in providing diplomatic solutions, and focusing its main efforts on ending the devastating humanitarian crisis, maybe some of the harm the US has helped to cause can be lessened. It needs to be seen whether this course of action will encourage a different approach by the Saudi-led coalition, whether it will have any impact on ending the war, or whether it will leave the current crisis to further deepen. However, it is essential that the US focuses all its efforts to end the war, and most importantly, that the Yemeni people no longer have to suffer.


Image - Flickr (Alisdare Hickson)