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A Backstory to Yemen's 'Forgotten War'

The crisis in Yemen has been described as the ‘forgotten war’. Often overshadowed by the crises in Syria and Iraq, the civil war in Yemen has received minimal press coverage since it erupted in 2015 when the Houthi rebels took over its capital, Sanaa. We’ve shared some links about the civil war on Knowledge Bank, however it is also important to consider the underlying problems, which can be traced back to the 1990s and during the political transition in 2011, which forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The Southern Separatist Movement has always been a worry for the Yemeni government. Socialist separatist sentiment had existed since the civil war in 1994, as southerners accused the Yemeni government of corruption and the mishandling of shared political powers between the two parties. Many also felt that there was a clash in ideology and culture, and an unequal distribution of wealth, with some saying that although ‘80% of Yemen’s oil comes from the south’ most of that money goes to Sanaa, the capital of Yemen which is located in the north. Although the 1994 civil war only lasted for 2 months, the Southerners’ deep dissatisfaction remained since no changes were made, eventually giving rise to the Southern Separatist Movement in 2007, which organised multiple public demonstrations and the spread of the popular slogan ‘infisal’ (separation). Although the group consists of several branches, the majority want complete secession from the north and the re-establishment of an independent South Yemen. Many people in Aden, especially the younger generation, draw slogans and hang flags of South Yemen on walls and buildings, showing the popularity of the movement. Therefore, it is clear how this underlying issue acted as another barrier to political stability despite the government’s efforts of doing so through its transition in 2011.

Yemen had already been listed as the poorest country in the Middle East before the civil war. According to the IMF, an estimated 43% of Yemen’s population lived on $2 or less a day in 2010, meaning that many struggled to afford basic goods such as food, water and energy. The Yemeni economy also relied too heavily on oil production, as it accounted for up to 90% of its GDP and 75% of government revenue, despite the country being a small oil producer. Therefore, the country’s decline in oil output and increasing demand for commodities abroad caused a long-term trade deficit. The fact that 40% of the country lived in rural areas with poor road networks and high costs of gasoline meant that producers and distributors of basic commodities were unwilling, if not unable, to transport them to rural areas. This, combined with the reliance on foreign imports due to a scarcity of water, drove up the prices of necessity goods, causing further impoverishment. The political transition in 2011 only worsened the situation, with statistics showing a 60% unemployment rate and and an increase of food prices by 65%.

Terrorism also had a big presence in Yemen due to the presence of AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), a cell under al-Qaeda. The group had targeted foreigners (failed attack on a US airliner in 2009) and security forces (attack on a hospital in Yemen’s Ministry of Defence in 2013 which killed 56 people), and managed to gain control over regions outside of the capital Sanaa. AQAP has also used political instability to expand their territorial control, for example during the uprising against President Saleh in 2011, which allowed them to gain control of several southern towns and villages, and during the Houthi uprising in 2014.

As a result, the Houthis managed to take advantage of such weaknesses, and gained control of Sanaa late 2014, eventually forcing President Hadi out of the country by March 2015. Hadi and his government are now based in Aden and control the west of Yemen, whereas Houthi and pro-Saleh forces control the east. Despite government efforts to regain control through naval blockades, they have not managed to do so, and have in fact, worsened the situation for civilians. The Saudi-led naval blockades, backed by the US and UK, has blocked out food, water and medical supplies, leaving 20 million Yemenis in critical need of humanitarian aid.


Audrey Kwong is a high school student in the UK and is a co-founder and editor of Discuss for Change. She is interested in international relations, politics and journalism, and passionate about analysing and reporting current affairs, especially those which do not receive as much media coverage.

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