Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recently urged the north Yemen-based Houthi movement also known as Ansar Allah, to refrain from an expected attack on the historic Yemeni city of Ma’rib, which is currently under the control of the Aden-Yemeni government. Ma’rib remains the last strategic city in the north, which is not part of the Houthi dominated areas. This request was made just two days after a telephone conversation between the Pakistani foreign minister with his Saudi counterpart. The real intent of this contact is not clear, except that the Houthis are advancing, despite heavy bombardment from the coalition forces, comprising of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There are multiple dimensions of this complex and ravage war between several groups in Yemen, generating the biggest humanitarian disaster in current history.

Since 2015, the coalition of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, citing that the Houthi faction is supported by Iran, formally staged a full-fledged war against the Houthis, utilising the recently purchased sophisticated US weaponry, as well as intelligence assistance from the western counties. As a result of such attacks, gross human rights violations are being reported, vehemently condemned by various International fundamental rights organisations, as well as the western media. Important to note is that Yemen is the most backward country in the Arab region, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE are its richest neighbours. Here it becomes necessary to take a brief look at the political history of this extremely poor country of 30 million inhabitants.

Southern Yemen was a British colony till 1967, which after independence established its unique political system, which was Marxist. Whereas, north Yemen had a different political and social structure. Thus, both Yemen existed as two opposing states. Ultimately, in 1990, they established a United Yemen, with both parts maintaining a different political and social systems, and practices, making them diverse from each other. In 2011, the “Arab Spring” brought a popular upheaval, in the Arab Middle East; Yemen being no exception. Yemen witnessed a mass movement against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s long-lasting regime, since 1990, levying charges of corruption and unemployment. Saleh’s government heavy-handedly dealt with the public protest, resulting in several casualties. As a result, the public protest gained momentum, and finally, in 2012, Saleh, handed the office to his deputy, Mansour Hadi. In 2015 Saleh initially joined hands with the Houthis, in the civil war that had started in 2014, but in 2017 when he left the alliance, he was murdered by his former coalition partners.

As the situation exists after five years of civil war, the Houthi have gained full control over the northern part of the country, while the Saudi and Emirate-backed groups have taken over the South. Hadi fled from ‘Sana’ to ‘Aden’ and declared it his temporary capital. The political situation in Yemen indicates that besides the Hadi government (which is backed by Saudi leadership); there is another group, separatist in its ideology, (desirous of making South Yemen as a separate country, as before 1990), known as Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is backed by the UAE. Though at a limited scale, apart from these two main groups, al-Qaeda and Daesh also showed their presence in the south. To make matters worse, on the one hand, Saudi and the Emirate coalition is engaged with the Houthis while in the south, these two countries are supporting two separate belligerent factions.

Although in June of the current year, a ceasefire was arranged between the proxies of these two regional powers, the STC, still supported by the Emirates, gained control of the Arabian Sea island of Socotra. In other words, a war within a war goes unabated. The Socotra control should be a cause of concern for Pakistan, as an agreement between the UAE and Israel is reported, where for espionage, the two would establish listening devices on the island. Socotra is located within a “reachable” distance from Pakistan’s 200 nautical miles (nmi) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), towards the south of Arabian Sea.

The main theatre of conflict in Yemen however, remains between the Saudi coalition forces and Houthis in the North. Saudis share more than one thousand and three hundred kilometres of contentious border with the north of the country, and consider the Houthi as a permanent threat to their territorial borderlands, accusing Iran of providing weapons to their adversary.

Ever since the civil war started, according to the United Nations estimation, 80 percent of Yemen’s population is suffering from hunger and disease; 8.17 million is deprived of clean water, while more than 2 million children are suffering from food shortages. 70 percent of Yemenis need immediate assistance. A country which is already a recipient of different diseases is further facing grave challenges, after the outbreak of Covid-19. The humanitarian crises severely aggravate the velocity of ongoing deadly attacks from the warring parties. For example, only in 2019, the Human Rights Watch identified 90 illegal airstrikes by Saudi coalition forces. According to the Yemen Data Project, of the same organisation, more than 20,100 airstrikes have been carried out by the coalition forces, which is estimated as 12 attacks per day. These attacks have targeted hospitals, school buses, markets, mosques, and even funerals. In which one hundred thousand Yemenis have been killed so far, while 3 million are forced to migrate. At present, this becomes the worst human tragedy.

The unfortunate part of this human suffering is that as the world watches the poorest Muslim Arab country is under a constant onslaught, with vengeance by its rich /Arab Muslim neighbours. Secondly, as Yemen has a glorious past, its centuries-old civilisation is under threat, as well. Sana’a, known for its inhabitant history of 2,500 years, was a centre of Islamic teaching in the 7th and 8th centuries. Its hundreds of mosques, hammams, and houses are of the pre-11th-century era. The old city of Sana’a is a UNESCO listed heritage area. A part of this heritage was destroyed by aerial attacks and was condemned by UNESCO Director-General when stated: “The damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape “is deplorable. The statement by the Director-General, Irina Bokova went on to say that she was “shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storeyed tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble. The historic value and memories enshrined in these sites have been irreparably damaged or destroyed.”

The United Nations as well as the warring parties must find a solution where the hostilities come to an end. The Yemeni people have suffered enough due to this continuous conflict. A formula acceptable to all concerned parties is to be found by international powers and regional countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Diplomacy and talks should be the main goal of all regional and international powers, to end the ongoing onslaught and destruction of Yemen.

Dr Farooq Hasnat and Dr Zamurrad Awan

Hasnat is a Professor of Politics & International Relations; Awan is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Forman Christian College University Lahore.