Yemen has been undergoing severe challenges ever since the Yemeni revolution (intifada) that erupted in 2011 at the backdrop of Arab Spring revolutions. The intifada consequentially became a power struggle between the Saudi-backed coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The war in Yemen has been categorized as the worst humanitarian crisis with at least 14 million people on the brink of famine and over 100,000 deaths ever since the beginning of the conflict.
The war between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen have crossed several phases with increased retaliation from the Saudi side. Winning the war in Yemen is of vital importance for the Houthis to retain their power and for Riyadh to avoid any threats along its southern borders. The UAE too has significant stakes in the war as the country has constantly attempted to widen its influence in Southern Yemen and the coastline by backing the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The war remains a geopolitical imbroglio with several states having significant stakes to control strategically vital locations and to further accentuate their influence in the region.
Attempts to de-escalate
There have been significant efforts to de-escalate the tensions in the last two years. The parties to the conflict in Yemen came together in December 2018, agreeing to a series of clauses in the Stockholm agreement to de-escalate and refrain from any action that would potentially escalate the tensions. However, the agreement saw little success in bringing stability. In November 2019, the Riyadh Agreement was signed to unite the disparate forces controlling south Yemen. Political unification in the South between the forces loyal to President Hadi and the Southern Transition Council is vital for any tangible outcome from the peace process between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebel forces. Riyadh Agreement was an attempt to reconcile Saudi-backed President Hadi’s forces and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council. The UAE has been significantly supporting STC to preserve its interests in southern Yemen including the ports along Yemen’s coast that remain strategically vital. Despite some optimism in the Riyadh Agreement, the conflicts that broke out in Aden, Maarib and Jawf governorates further point out the resurging tensions between the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition. The unrest in Soqotra and the attacks from the Houthis on Saudi infrastructure also points to the prevalent tensions despite efforts to reconcile.
Yemen’s fragile healthcare system and first COVID-19 case
With the outbreak of COVID-19, many Gulf countries have their borders closed and strict lockdown measures being practiced within the countries. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been severely affected by the pandemic and these countries have been taking strong measures to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE can battle the situation with advanced and modern healthcare facilities. In Yemen, however, the situation is extremely vulnerable and dangerous. Until last week there were no identified cases of the virus. However, the first confirmed case in Yemen worries the international community as the country has limited resources to contain the outbreak and no able healthcare facility.
Yemen’s healthcare system has faced more destruction and loss in recent months. Constant bombardments and airstrikes have caused severe damage to the already weak healthcare system. It also has increased the pressure on health facilities that are functioning currently and has overwhelmed the hospitals beyond their capacity. Efforts of several international agencies like the World Health Organisation and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have also been affected by the war and their attempts to address the health emergency have been hindered. As per some reports that scrutinize aspects like illness, mortality factors and access to basic health facilities, Yemen ranks 166 globally. The fact that the country is largely dependent on foreign aid for medical and healthcare facilities also adds to the challenge. Yemen’s inability to handle any pandemic is apparent with its previous health emergency situations and the limitations Yemen’s healthcare system then faced.
The outbreak of cholera in Yemen amid the war pointed out the serious challenges Yemen’s healthcare system faced. The cholera outbreak infected over one million people causing a healthcare catastrophe in the poorest country of the Arab world. Despite the fact that the disease being a treatable one with proper medication and healthcare, the spread of cholera took the lives of thousands of people ever since the outbreak. As nearly 80 percent of Yemenis are reliant on food aid and thousands of people are affected by diseases like diphtheria, dengue, and cholera, the country is on the brink of a major catastrophe.
Considering these consequences an infectious pandemic with no antiviral medication like COVID-19 would have devastating consequences. The fact that poverty, lack of medical supplies and lack of proper sanitation worsens the current situation points at the destabilizing and devastating effects any pandemic could cause to a poverty-stricken and war-torn country like Yemen. Yemen’s first identified case hence becomes extremely worrisome for the international community. Important measures like social distancing and cautious sanitation also become hard in implementing in Yemen. Social practices like having Qat, sharing shisha and gathering in public places enable the infection to spread and in Yemen, with no proper medical facilities, minimal resources, and a weak government, any pandemic could worsen the already devasted situation.
Migrants from Eastern Africa
Migration to Yemen from the Eastern African countries has been another important aspect as thousands of people from the region migrate to Yemen each year even though the country has been devastated by the ongoing war. With the borders closed and strict policies of immigration in Saudi Arabia, many people who have migrated from Eastern Africa to Yemen keen on crossing the borders to Saudi Arabia are now clueless. As per some reports, in 2018 nearly 100,000 people arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa. Similar was the situation in 2019 as many migrants reached the war-torn country in the hope of crossing the borders of Yemen to enter Saudi Arabia. This further burdens the challenges Yemen is already facing and puts the country at a greater risk.
A potential stage for reconciliation
The recent steps taken by Riyadh shows its willingness to end the war. The situation within Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus needs to be controlled and much attention is given to the prevention of further spread within the Kingdom. It is indeed important for Saudi Arabia to ensure that Yemen prevents any outbreak since it could also potentially be a concern for Saudi Arabia as it shares porous borders with Yemen.
Many view the current situation as a potential stage for reconciliation and peace efforts between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels as both parties are concerned about the need to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 to avoid further spread of the pandemic. Diplomatic coordination and enhancing trust between the warring parties only can remove further impediments and enable international humanitarian assistance. The healthcare workers need to be vigilant as in the coming weeks only their effective intervention can facilitate any progress in containing the virus. The fact that Yemen is battling the present pandemic with its fragile healthcare system makes it extremely vulnerable to further devastation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.