The World’s Forgotten War


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to the Wessex Scene as a whole.

Editor’s Note: Please be advised that this article contains images which may be of a distressing nature to some.

Almost four years ago, in the sixth largest country in the Middle East, a civil war between the internationally recognised Hadi government and the Houthi rebels was about to break out.

Often overlooked in the media by the conflict in Syria, it has undoubtedly become the gravest humanitarian disaster in the world, however, it is likely that you haven’t heard about it.

Map of Yemen | Credit: L’Américain [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, a recent poll commissioned and conducted by UK NGO Human Appeal, and YouGov found that a staggering 42% of British people did not know that there is a war being fought in Yemen. This is despite it raging for well over three years, and the UK government aiding the Saudi Arabian-led coalition with arms and other intelligence capabilities.

On 26th March 2015, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and 5 other Middle Eastern and Africa states began an airstrike campaign, at the request of Yemen’s Hadi government.

The Sunni Arab states in the region viewed the Shia Houthi rebels as a threat, and also believed they were being funded by Iran, their regional foe. Whilst Iran denies any involvement, the war is seen as a proxy and vie for control of the region.

A Humanitarian Disaster

It became clear extremely quickly that a cautious approach would not be taken by the Saudi-led coalition, as schools, hospitals, airports and seaports were targeted during the bombing; leading to strong condemnation by the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders who struggled to get aid to people.

One of the single worst atrocities occurred on the 8th October 2016, when Saudi jets bombed a funeral taking place in the capital Sana’a, killing 155 people and injuring 600 others.

It is estimated that approximately one civilian is killed every three hours in the fighting.

We have evidence that today in Yemen every 10 minutes a child under the age of 5 is dying from preventable diseases and severe acute malnutrition – Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director of UNICEF

The country is on the precipice of famine on an unprecedented scale.

Currently, 8 million people are relying on food rations to survive, and 14 million people – representing half the Yemeni population – are at risk of starvation.

This level of catastrophe could have been avoided if the US and UK had condemned the brutal war and attempted to exhaust all diplomatic channels to find to a peaceful settlement.

‘Malnutrition is rampant, affecting 1.8 million Yemeni children, more than 400,000 of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that leaves them skeletal with muscle wasting’, Cappelaere said.

He also warned of health crises due to the fact that 60 percent of the children throughout Yemen are not being vaccinated, and therefore diseases such as measles, cholera and diphtheria, which can be deadly for children and are exacerbated by malnutrition, are rife.

Cholera has killed at least 2,000 people alone, and a recent report by Save the Children estimates that up to 85,000 children under the age of 5 have starved to death already.

The total death toll from the conflict is estimated to be up 60,000 people, though estimates are poor as the coalition has prevented monitors and journalists entering the country.

History Will Pass Harsh Judgement

Where has the ‘international community’ been throughout all this? The UK and US have been largely supportive of the Saudi-led coalition which it sees as upholding the the rule of law and supporting the legitimate government of Yemen.

The UK has licensed £4.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the campaign began, this is dwarfed by the US which has provided over $21 billion worth. Moreover, the UK along with the US has provided the regime with logistical, intelligence and other support to maintain the blockade of Yemen.

Germany has ceased arms sales to the Kingdom since journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing in Turkey at the alleged hands of the Saudi state; and more recently, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland have followed.

However, the vast majority of weapons being used in Yemen are American and British made, including cluster munitions which are illegal under international law.

One might argue then that they are complicit in the war crimes being committed, and history will judge us harshly for having not taken a harder line with Saudi.

Cautiously Optimistic 

The change of rhetoric in recent weeks has provided many with an inkling of hope that the conflict may be brought to a close.

As horrific images continue to emerge of the immense squalor and suffering that the people are enduring; for the first time since the war began in 2015 the US and UK have called for a ceasefire, and for all parties to come around the table for dialogue to create a peaceful resolution.

This has occurred in light of the recent Istanbul killing of US based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has strained Western relations with the Sunni Kingdom, and may show how the US is now at its tether and can no longer defend the indefensible in Yemen.

Even from the outset, the war had dubious goals and questionable moral standards, however, until now the US and UK have largely supported the war, and have rarely criticised it. However, this renewed position amidst calls for a ceasefire provides some hope that pressure can be put on the Saudi-led coalition to kill fewer civilians.

Many would argue that action now to alleviate the situation is too little, too late, as the suffering for the people of the Middle East’s poorest country is far from over.

We will look back with a sense of shame that we didn’t act sooner.


Political Science student with key interests in the fields of conflict studies, security, political economy, and IR theory.

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