Has the Saudi Arabian economy collapsed?

Yemen is tired of war - How the war changes the country and society

"The Yemen War has lasted longer than the First World War," says former Yemeni diplomat Jamila Ali Rajaa. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the powerful neighbors who started the bombing war against the Houthi rebels five years ago, are basically tired of war, she is convinced.

At the end of March 2015, still as Saudi Defense Minister, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman drummed up a regional military coalition against the Houthis. In general manner, he wanted to demonstrate his drive on the way to the top of the state.

Billionaire debacle

In a few weeks, the Houthis would be driven out of the capital Sanaa and the government of President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, recognized internationally as "legitimate", would be back in power, the strong man of the powerful oil monarchy promised at the time.

But bin Salman's supposed “hussar piece” turned into a billion-dollar debacle: Five years later, the Hadi government, backed by the Saudis, is even weaker than at the beginning of the war. The images of destruction and suffering from Yemen have seriously damaged the reputation of the royal house in Riyadh and its western arms suppliers.

What is missing is a “face-saving” way out for the Saudis to admit the debacle, says Peter Salisbury, who analyzes the situation in Yemen for the think tank International Crisis Group. That would also require serious international pressure.

The Houthis

Open the box Close the box

The Hadi government accuses the Houthis of being Iranian-controlled “terrorists”. The Houthis call themselves “followers of God” and see themselves as the legitimate representatives of the “Yemeni people”.

The movement comes from an influential clan from the Saada province in northwestern Yemen. She belongs to the Zaidite movement of Shiite Islam, which was the rulers in Yemen for centuries.

The Houthi raised arms against the new central government in Sanaa when these followers of radical Sunni currents began to settle in the Houthi tribal area.

After 2011, the Houthis took advantage of the broad protest movement of the “Arab Spring” and spearheaded a “revolution” of the Yemeni people.

In 2014, the Houthis drove the government of President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi from Sanaa and started the storm south. When they reached the port city of Aden, the Hadi government, now in exile in Riyadh, called on the Saudis for help at the end of March 2015.

Hadi's people are considered corrupt, but the Iranian-backed Houthis are also highly controversial. The Yemeni political scientist Farea al Muslimi, for example, calls it a “denominational, ideological, regional and tribal mafia”.

They are tightly organized, hardly tolerate contradiction and, like the government, are accused of profiting from the war economy: Controlling the flow of goods and smuggling routes can make a huge amount of money - and also make politics: Whoever controls the distribution of aid supplies, can control which group, which tribe receives how much of it.

Recently, humanitarian organizations have even publicly complained that their work in the Houthis' territory is being particularly shamelessly hindered. The Houthis deny that.

Not long ago it had appeared that relaxation was in sight. The spectacular attack on its main oil production facilities last fall showed Saudi Arabia how vulnerable it is, despite its indescribable wealth and American precision weapons.

Responsibilities for Yemen were then reorganized at the royal court: heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman handed responsibility for the costly war to his younger brother Khalid.

In Yemen itself, the Saudis tried to bring order into the ranks of their quarreling allies. In particular, a “Riyadh Agreement” was intended to end the conflict between the Hadi government and the South Yemeni separatists, who are supported by the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia even began to put out feelers directly towards the enemy, and initial tentative talks with the Houthis took place.

New offensive in the north

Three months later, the signs point to confrontation again. A major Houthis offensive has been developing in the north since January. The rebels themselves were surprised by their success, says Peter Salisbury of the Crisis Group.

The offensive is now threatening to include the province of Marib with the capital of the same name, says Salisbury. There the Houthis could bring lucrative gas and oil reserves under their control and also inflict another severe blow psychologically on the Hadi government.

Marib is the last bastion of government forces supported by the Saudis in northern Yemen. But it is also an important haven for displaced people.

New battles would bring even more suffering to the population. According to some representations, more than 100,000 people have already been killed in the Yemen War.

Saudis and Houthis still talked to each other, but much less, says Peter Salisbury. With the flare-up of the fighting in the north, "distrust has grown again."

Government without backing

Even after five years, the rebels from the north control the capital Sanaa and an area where two thirds of the population live - the Houthis now also have missiles and drones.

The Saudi bombing war has driven the former tribal fighters ever more strongly into the arms of their regional rival Iran.

They are tightly organized, while the government side is divided into various militias with different interests. President Hadi's legitimation is still based mainly on the fact that his government is internationally recognized. He lacks comparable support in the country itself.

Coronavirus ceasefire?

Open the box Close the box

Yemen is still officially "corona-free". But nobody has any illusions. The borders with the direct neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula are closed, but porous. The virus can enter the country via smugglers' routes or through the close contacts that the Houthis maintain with Iran, the epicenter of the infection in the region.

In Yemen, the virus hits a very young population, half of whom are less than twenty years old. Life expectancy is 65 years. However, many Yemenis are very weak after five years of war and are therefore vulnerable.

The hospitals are in a desperate state and are unable to provide for the war victims on their own. In some places, there is already a shortage of clean water to wash your hands properly. According to the UN, 80 percent of the population is already dependent on humanitarian aid - although it is completely uncertain to what extent the aid can be continued under the conditions of the global lockdown. Some donor countries, which themselves are experiencing financial bottlenecks due to the corona crisis, are also likely to reduce their payments for the humanitarian operation.

The UN has urgently called for the corona crisis to be used for a ceasefire. The Yemeni warring parties all reacted in the affirmative, but the fighting has continued until now.

Even the “Riyadh Agreement” with the separatist forces in the south seems to be obsolete again. The United Arab Emirates, which led the military coalition together with the Saudis in 2015, are pursuing their own agenda with their local allies in Yemen.

The problem is not to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. The problem is that they only do so on condition that their actual weight is recognized in Yemen, Salisbury believes.

But despite their weakness, the Hadi government is still denying the Houthis any legitimacy.

War changes society

The Yemen War has brought enormous suffering to the country in five years. It is also changing Yemeni society, right down to the relationship between the sexes.

This is what the Yemeni economist Shams Shamsan, who examined the subject in a study, said.

Shams Shamsan came back to a completely changed Sanaa two years ago after studying in the Lebanese capital Beirut. "It was a shock for me," she says, how much the city, the country, were marked by the war, with a new generation that has no memory of a Yemen without bombing, road blockades and economic hardship.

Fig. 1/2
Fig. 2/2

The conflict has created profiteers, but the vast majority of the population is suffering. The economy has collapsed, the collapse of the exchange rate makes a lot of things unaffordable, state employees only receive their wages irregularly or not at all.

"The women had to act"

Millions of men lost their jobs and with them their position and their self-image as breadwinners, many went to the front - also in the hope of a new livelihood.

Under these conditions, "women had no choice but to act," says Shams Shamsan, co-author of a study examining the consequences of social disruption on the "order of the sexes".

The need forced the women into tasks that were previously reserved for men in the tribal society of Yemen. Shamsan and her team traveled around the country as far as possible. They met women in various parts of the country who were active in public spaces, opening small shops, selling homemade baked goods in the streets, working as hairdressers, in restaurants. They met men who can suddenly imagine marrying a woman who works - if only because that way more money could come into the household.

Opinions differ on how sustainable this development is. Shams Shamsan himself dares to hope that the women in Yemen have fought for more space in the long term.

Hardliners feel encouraged

Any new perspectives stand in the way of material hardship and the brutalization of morals after five years of war, the victims of which are women. In addition, the conflict has strengthened Islamist currents, which again restricts women's leeway.

The Houthi rebels, for example, are turning the curriculum inside out in their territory because they do not seem pious enough to them. Religious hardliners elsewhere also feel encouraged by this.

The economist says that she is now regularly stopped at checkpoints and asked why she is traveling without a “guardian” from the family.

Echo der Zeit, March 27, 2020, 6 p.m.; bern / schj

  1. News
  2. International
  3. Current article