This photo shows Amal who is looking at her destroyed home in Sana’a after it was hit by an airstrike in April 2015. A girl looks at her destroyed home in Sana’a, Yemen. © UNICEF/UN018341/Jahaf

The Conflict in Yemen is Escalating Sharply

After nearly eight years, the conflict in Yemen is getting worse.

Scott Paul, the senior manager for humanitarian policy at Oxfam America, explains the significance of a recent attack in Abu Dhabi and the latest bombardment of Yemen’s capital before having a broader discussion about the trajectory and impact of this years long crisis.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

Why is the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen Escalating? 

Scott Paul [00:04:08] There is sort of a hierarchy in a way of how Yemen is seen, and at the top of that hierarchy is things that Yemen does to other countries, or things that Yemenis do to other countries I should say, which is why cross-border attacks from Yemen into neighboring countries are given a huge amount of publicity and attention. The next tier down below that is the experiences of people who live in Sana’a, and I’m getting messages from my colleague Abulwasa and my heart goes out to him and everyone else in Sana’a who are living in the residential neighborhoods under bombardment. And you don’t hear as much about that as you hear about what happens in neighboring states, but you do hear some—a fair amount. I think especially for the first couple of years of the crisis, you know, the frequency of airstrikes combined with the presence of diplomats and international media in Sana’a means you heard a fair amount about what was happening in Sana’a. And then the third-tier underneath that is the violence and hardship and violations experienced by everyone else in Yemen. I think the first time I went to Aden in 2018 was the first time I really appreciated that, and visited areas south of Taizz, where people were displaced and talking about their experience and how neglected and marginalized they felt. And then over the past year, more recently, our experience working in communities in Marib and internally displaced people (IDP) camps and settlements in Marib and coming to grips with how little the international community has heard them and recognized both the difficulties they were experiencing in the moment, and the fears that they had should the conflict come closer to the town, now the city, I should say. And so, for everyone who’s on this call, who either thinks about policy or who covers media as a journalist, I think it’s just worth bearing that that natural bias in mind.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:09] Well, you know, thank you, Scott. And frankly, I believe if I’m to be honest, I’m a reflection of that natural bias. I’m speaking to you now because of the news generated by that attack on the Abu Dhabi airport and the retaliatory air strikes in Sana’a so this is like a living example of that bias that you just described.

Scott Paul [00:06:31] And it’s my own learning journey and trajectory also so I think many of us who work in this space are guilty of it and trying to do better.

Why is the United Arab Emirates launching air strikes into Yemen? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:40] So regarding this attack, can you just describe what happened?

Scott Paul [00:06:44] Yeah. Well, so Monday, an attack was carried out, allegedly targeting the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in Abu Dhabi. It killed three people, two Indian nationals and one Pakistani. And the Houthis, or Ansar Allah, as they’re known in Yemen, have claimed responsibility for the attack. Oxfam doesn’t operate in Yemen, I don’t have colleagues who work with community, ah pardon me, in the United Arab Emirates, so I’m not in touch with people at the community level in the UAE. I can’t begin to imagine what this means for people who are living and working there but suffice it to say, it’s extremely condemnable. What I can speak to a little bit better is what’s happened since then, which is an increase in the frequency of airstrikes. Saudi and Emirati-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen, which have had a really negative impact on many people’s lives, including a number of deaths in Sana’a. And so, we can only hope that this, along with other fronts in the conflicts, de-escalate very, very quickly.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:00] So what does this drone strike in UAE, claimed by the Houthis, tell you about the trajectory of this conflict right now?

Scott Paul [00:08:11] Well, maybe one thing to appreciate is over the past few years, the UAE has signaled that it is trying to extract itself from the conflict in Yemen. So, UAE forces massively downgraded their presence in the country and yet at the same time, there are a number of UAE-supported forces inside the country: Yemeni forces that have not only continued fighting but have been real protagonists in the conflicts, particularly in in areas like Shabwa and around Marib over the past half year or so. I think many people who have followed the regional politics more closely than I have, have pointed out recently that this in a way signifies, on the part of the Houthis, a message to the Emiratis, that they can’t be half in, half out. That’s less my province. I think what Oxfam is most concerned with is what all this means for people who are living through the world’s still largest humanitarian crisis in Yemen and what we’d like to see very urgently is that all sides de-escalate this conflict and start to put in place the building blocks for a political settlement.

What does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen look like today? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:30] Yemen has long been among the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Could you just sort of briefly paint the humanitarian picture in Yemen right now? Where do things stand? Where are the needs greatest and how is the humanitarian suffering being felt by people in Yemen right now?

Scott Paul [00:09:50] What we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks is an escalation in the airstrikes, and over the past year in certain places, an escalation in the fighting. But for most people and most families who are living in Yemen, the dynamics of this crisis have been static now for a number of years because what they’re experiencing first and foremost is an economic crisis. They’re seeing government institutions that once provided support and offered a stable currency fall by the wayside. They’re watching as imports are being obstructed and manipulated so that prices are getting pushed farther and farther out of reach. And they’re watching public services fall apart. So, what you have is this really horrible, deadly cocktail of violence combined with high prices, combined with low incomes, and an economic system that’s not really equipped to support people. Lise Grande, who was the UN humanitarian coordinator, she was being a bit loose with the term famine because a famine hasn’t been declared, but she used a very apt term. She said, what’s happening in Yemen is an income famine. If we sort of detechnicalize that, what it means is that people aren’t earning enough money to pay for the services and goods that they need to survive. That’s the ultimate foundation of this crisis right now.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:22] So it’s not necessarily that food is unavailable, it’s that it’s out of reach of people.

Scott Paul [00:11:27] That’s exactly right. And I’ll just say, you know, Yemen, even before this phase of the conflict began in 2014 and 2015, was the most economically unequal country in the Middle East region. And that is the baseline condition, and the foundation, that the conflict has taken place on top of. So, if you’re a wealthy person in Yemen, you are in danger of being affected by conflict and there are many things that will be problematic for you but you can afford food. You can afford health care. You know, if you walk into a supermarket in Sana’a today, you can find it stocked with any delicacy you can imagine. The people who are really struggling are people who were poor before this phase of the conflict began and who have become even more deprived of income and purchasing power since.

What is economic warfare and how is it being used in Yemen?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:22] In addition to actual fighting, you know, shooting and bombing that’s happening on the ground, layered on top of this crisis in Yemen is what’s been called economic warfare. There are, for example, two competing currencies and two different central banks, and these sides are using inflation and deflation in order to inflict pain on the other. Could you just kind of briefly sketch what are the sort of tactics being used in this economic warfare by each side to inflict pain on the other?

Scott Paul [00:12:57] Yeah, Mark, your timing is impeccable. International Crisis Group released a report on this just today. I would highly, highly recommend that those of you who are interested, read the report in full because it actually traces the roots of this economic warfare back into the days of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the revolution that followed. But what’s happening today is exactly as you described: you have essentially two competing governing authorities, each trying to profit, each trying to support their legitimacy through patronage networks, and each trying to weaken the other side by hurting the people who live under their jurisdiction economically. So, this is a race to the bottom across the country, and what makes it even more painful is, as the Crisis Group report lays out very compellingly, is that the tactics each side is using, that they believe is hurting poor people on the other side of the of the line, is actually hurting people across the country. So, you know, the government of Yemen’s approach to fuel imports to stop them mostly from coming into the port of Hudaydah is actually hurting people in areas they control as much as in areas in the North, and is only benefiting the same people who are profiting off of the armed conflict on both sides that if they would just allow fuel to proceed. Likewise, with the manipulation of the fuel markets by the de facto authorities. So, they’re using fuel, they’re using currency. You mentioned, for example, the authorities in the North have prohibited recognition of new banknotes printed in the South. They’re manipulating government line ministries and trying to weaponize the other side’s nonpayment of salaries of government workers. And you know, as everything else has, the brunt of this is falling on the people who can least afford to cope with it.

Who is involved in the Yemen conflicts and what tactics are they using to gain power? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:01] Could you also kind of sketch the current state of the conflict in terms of who is controlling what territory, what tactics are being used? I take it from having spoken with you before and others that perhaps it’s more accurate to describe the Yemen conflict as the Yemen conflicts. Where is fighting currently happening on the ground? What are some tactics being used right now, both by the internationally recognized government, the Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis, among others?

Scott Paul [00:15:37] Well, I’m going to do a very inadequate job of answering this question.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:41] It’s a big question. This conflict has been going on for many years now but if you could just help situate and summarize for those who are kind of coming late.

Scott Paul [00:15:51] Yeah, I think the main point I want to make here is that in 2015, this conflict was largely viewed by the international community as a conflict between an internationally recognized government that served as a loose proxy for the Saudis and Emiratis, and sort of Houthi-led uprising that was a loose proxy for Iran. And I think to the extent that that was ever an apt summary, that has really broken down and is broken down in part because of how many different constituencies those two sides represent, in part because of the independence each side is able to wield from their alleged patrons, and also in part because of just how many more armed groups have come onto the scene. And so, for example, the fighting you see in Taizz and the fighting you see in Marib doesn’t neatly reflect that breakdown, or to the extent it does, it actually is more about a number of groups that share common interests that are banding together to push back on what they see as a common enemy. Again, because the conflict has been so fragmented and because the international community doesn’t appropriately recognize that fragmentation, the international approach here is actually enabling the blockers to peace that have led both of those two, quote unquote sides. And so, what I hope happens in the near future is a bit of a reset to that approach. I think and hope we’re seeing that now with the UN and the US but some of those other actors, and not just armed groups and especially not armed groups, but civil society actors and youth groups and women’s groups that at one point had a place at the negotiating table and were instrumental in determining Yemen’s post-revolution course need to come back into the fray.

Why have diplomatic approaches in Yemen by the US and the UK failed? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:00] Drilling down on this idea of the international community’s diplomatic approach to Yemen over the years, I think it’s fair to say it has been a failure. The fact that this conflict keeps dragging on seems to indicate that the various approaches by the international community, by the United States, by other key players, by the United Nations, have been inadequate so far. How would you describe, right now, the current state of diplomatic efforts towards Yemen in terms of trying to, you know, reduce the conflict? Like, what are we seeing happening right now?

Scott Paul [00:18:39] Well, at the moment, I think what you’re seeing is that diplomatic efforts are in a state of flux. There, I think, has been a really healthy recognition that what was attempted in the past isn’t working anymore. And so, I think as much as other people who care deeply about Yemen share my urgency to see talks resume and things moving, I think what’s happening now is a bit of stocktaking for why that approach has failed. You know, one way I just mentioned it has failed is that it’s reduced the talks to two sides and, in so doing, pushed out a lot of the potential peace builders and other people that might have more of an interest in seeing a settlement than the individuals and constituencies more inclined to try to win on the battlefield. Another which we’ve talked about, is the past diplomatic efforts have seen economic issues as marginal to peace, and potentially as disruptive to peace talks, and at most confidence building measures toward peace talks. I think what we’re starting to see now, which I hope the Crisis Group’s latest paper continues to move us towards, is a scenario where we see actually that the economy is the heart of the conflict, and we can’t move towards a more enduring political settlement without an understanding of how funds are going to be used for the good of people in Yemen. So, I think that’s the way in which there’s a state of flux. I think though, at the same time, what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks also reflects some problematic tendencies of international actors to view Yemen through the prism of its regional neighbors. Oxfam works in Sa’dah, and we help local water authorities ensure that people have water for handwashing, for hygiene, for drinking water. A week ago, Monday, pardon me, a week ago Tuesday, an airstrike destroyed and severely damaged a lot of that local water system. As a result, there’s a public health crisis that’s brewing in Sa’dah in many districts of the city that’s not really been recognized. 120,000 people are without any kind of safe water. The international community’s tendency is to home in on condemnable and tragic attacks that take place like the ones in Abu Dhabi, but not really appreciate how Yemeni people are paying the price, I think, it’s an unfortunate and sad distortion, that the international community provides through its lens.

What is the Biden Administration doing in Yemen to aid the peace process and stop the humanitarian crisis?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:22] I know that you in particular, follow US diplomacy towards Yemen. Is there anything significant happening on the US side of things that might nudge the conflict, and the crisis, in one direction or another? Like, what’s the latest you’re hearing in terms of how the Biden administration and how Congress is approaching this crisis?

Scott Paul [00:21:50] I think the Biden administration is appreciating that within the frameworks of its overall policy, which I think takes for granted that there will be a security relationship with the Saudis and with the Emiratis, that it has some limited leverage to affect a positive outcome. And a lot of that is also limited leverage with the Houthis. So, in a way, I think what it’s trying to do is resurface some of those neglected issues, help on smaller issues where they can, relating to humanitarian access and humanitarian funding, I think both of which are warmly welcomed, but they also know that aid isn’t the solution to the crisis. What I hope they’re doing also, in addition to all of those sorts of small diplomatic efforts, is also getting behind the UN Special Envoys new approach that that brings more actors in and focuses more on these economic issues. I just also wanted to add, I did hear from Abulwasa while I’ve been on this chat and it’s getting late there in Sana’a, and he just asked me to reflect back to everyone just how difficult it is to be a parent living in Sana’a right now. The children don’t want to leave the room because there’s no sense of security. With the kids waking up after midnight, they don’t want to leave the room. And now no one’s sure where the next airstrike is going to come. And we’ve seen this play out not just in Sana’a, and not just with airstrikes, but with violence and different fronts of the war all across the country.

What are the most important factors for bettering the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:27] Thank you. And again, I’m sorry, we cannot get Abulwasa connected to this conversation. So, Scott, we kicked off this conversation by describing and discussing recent seemingly escalatory actions, both by the Saudi-led coalition and by the Houthis in terms of recent military engagements, both that attack in Abu Dhabi and also an increased bombardment of neighborhoods in Sana’a. In the coming days or weeks are there any inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not this escalation will be sustained or whether or not we may be entering a new phase of the conflict. What will you be looking towards?

Scott Paul [00:24:14] Well, I don’t think this will be a shocker to many of people who follow the country, but you know, in a lot of ways, the most superficial indications of the conflict are reliable indicators of whether those trends will continue. So, if we see more frequent airstrikes by the coalition, particularly in residential neighborhoods, and if we see more cross-border attacks by the Houthis, I think that will give us some indication of what direction the political talks will take and the economic talks will take. Separately from that, or I should say, partly separate from that, I do hope, and this goes back to a point we were discussing earlier, that the attention that’s being paid to the missile attacks and the airstrikes doesn’t detract from the urgency that Yemenis feel and international policymakers feel in resolving some of the economic issues that are really both driving the crisis and are the most tangible symptoms of the crisis for many poor Yemenis. So those are a couple of things I’d look to.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:25] Well, Scott, thank you so much for your time.

Scott Paul [00:25:28] Thank you, Mark, thanks for pulling this together and thanks to all our listeners and speakers who contributed.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:36] All right. Thank you all for listening. Big thank you to Scott Paul. I’ve known him a long time from my earliest days, just kind of starting my career in D.C. and it’s great to have him back on the show. A quick note, the conversation that you just listened to was very slightly edited and just note that the spaces that I host live tend to include a good deal of audience participation after I kind of do my one-on-one interviews with the guests. To be alerted as to when I am hosting one of these, just follow me on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg. I don’t really follow a set schedule. I, of course, follow the schedule for publishing these spaces as podcast episodes, but I just sort of try to be really active and responsive to both my guests and events in the news in terms of scheduling these things. So just follow me on Twitter or not, you can just keep listening here. Thanks so much, everyone. Bye!

If you want an even deeper dive into conflict dynamics in Yemen, I recommend the episode of this podcast from February 2021. And if you want a deeper dive into what has often been called economic warfare in Yemen check out our episode from August.