Yemen: The Humanitarian Crisis

Considering how the end of 2009 is shaping up, 2010 may be the year of Yemen.

The country has been in the news quite a bit the last few days as the alleged potential Northwest Airlines bomber is said to have ties to extremists in Yemen, which is located just south of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian peninsula. The United States is also said to be expanding its covert operations in Yemen to target al Qaeda members who have a foothold there.  

In UN circles, Yemen has been a place of growing concern for the last few months. For the past five years a low-level civil war between the Shi’a Houti rebels in Northern Yemen and the Yemeni government has forced about 175,000 Yemenis from their homes.  In recent weeks, though, the fighting has intensified, sparking a flood of Yemeni’s to UN-run IDP camps. The UN Refugee Agency warned that “displaced populations and host communities are living under constant fear.” On December 9, the UNHCR reported that the population of Yemen’s largest IDP camp had doubled to 20,000. It Meanwhile,  the UN Refugee Agency received over $5 million in a flash appeal, mostly from the United States and Saudi Arabia. But as the Yemeni and Saudi governments (with American backing) intensify their counter-insurgency efforts, the humanitarian toll may increase.   

So what is behind this crisis?  Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group recently penned a nice backgrounder for Foreign Affairs. Here is a teaser, but you should really read the whole thing

In June 2004, the Houthis, a group of rebels in the Sa’dah governorate of northwest Yemen, began taking up arms against the Yemeni national army. They claimed, and continue to claim, to be defending their own specific branch of Shia Islam — Zaydism — from a Yemeni regime they say is too dependent on its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and its partner in the war on terrorism, the United States. Yemen’s political and military leaders have labeled the Houthis a terrorist group supported by Iran. This smoldering civil war attracted little outside attention until last month, when, on November 5, Saudi Arabia sent its warplanes to bomb Houthi positions around the border, both on Saudi territory and inside Yemen. It was Saudi Arabia’s first cross-border military intervention since the Gulf War in 1991.

This sudden escalation alarmed analysts in the United States and the European Union, as well as those in the Middle East. The conflict, they fear, could evolve into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which perceive themselves as the contemporary standard-bearers of the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, respectively. Equally worrying is that the latest attack could further destabilize the already fragile Yemeni state, which is confronted by a series of crises and a structural inability to govern its territory and population. In recent years, Yemen has rightfully gained a reputation as a safe haven for violent groups linked to al Qaeda.

As it happens, I have been working to line up an expert on Yemen for bloggingheads for the past couple of weeks.  We should tape our segment soon.  What would you like to know about Yemen?  

Image: UNHCR / M. Marullaz