On the 25th of June 2018, the European Union (EU) Foreign Affair Council took place in Luxembourg.  One of the main issues addressed by the Council concerned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has been going on since 2015. Following the outbreak of the civil war between the central power and the Houthis, and the advance of the Islamic State (IS), 3 million people have had to leave their homes, 8.4 million Yemenis are close to famine and 22 million depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Moreover, the delivery of many basic goods is even more difficult due to the embargo imposed by the Saudi coalition. The lack of food and the lack of water have led to the spread of diseases such as dengue, cholera, diphtheria, and malaria. After three years of conflict the end of the war seems far away, and experts have expressed their own concerns about the possibility to find a political solution, precisely because of the complexity of the conflict involving Shiite and Sunni actors. However, during these years both the United Nations (UN) and the EU have worked to cope with the humanitarian emergency and supply the basic goods to try to slow down the loss of life.

The civil war in Yemen

The Yemeni civil war is a conflict between Shiite Houthis (allied to the forces loyal to former President Ali Abdallah Saleh, and considered as rebels) and the central government of Sunni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. He was elected president of Yemen in 2012 with 99.8% of the vote. A few months later, he has decided to remove several senior security officials, deemed to be too loyal to the former head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh[1]. The Houthis are an armed Shiite Zaidi group, born and active in the governorate of Sa’dah and in the north-west of Yemen. Yemen is populated by a Sunni majority but also a large Shiite minority, mainly present in the mountains of the north-west of the country. The Houthis movement originally wanted to bring the cultural needs of the populations slowly marginalized by the influence of Saudi Arabia. Then, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the movement began to develop an ideology against American imperialism and Zionism[2]. The Houthis state that their actions are based on the fight against the expansion of Sunni Salafism in Yemen and the defense of their community from discrimination. However, Sunni President Abd Rabbih Mansur Hadi has accused the insurgents of establishing to establish their religious law, destabilizing the central power and provoking anti-American sentiments. The Yemeni government has also accused the Houthis of having ties with external supporters, in particular the Iranian Shiite government[3].

6C30A887-69F4-4701-8CFA-11F4096F183E_w1023_r1_s1. Image – Yemen Maps[4]

In 2014, the Houthis conquered the city of Amran, and in September of the same year they took full control of the capital Sanaa. In March 2015, the central government was forced to leave the capital and take refuge in the city of Aden, in the south of the country, proclaiming it the capital of Yemen.  On 26th March 2015, the Saudi Royal Air Force created a coalition with numerous Sunni majority countries including Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, the Arab Emirates and Kuwait. They  began a series of air strikes on numerous Houthis’ military bases in the west of the country, including the El Rahaba international airport and the Sanaa presidential palace. The Saudi ambassador to Washington said that “the operation aimed to defend the legitimate government of Yemen and to prevent the radical Houthis movement (supported by Iran) to take control of the country” [5]. On 3rd May, the coalition began to protect the capital Aden. Throughout 2015, military escalation caused thousands of victims. On 4th September 2015, sixty coalition soldiers were killed in the ballistic missile attack on a military base in the province of Marib, and after a few hours Saudi airplanes intensified their raids on the Houthis’ bases[6].

In January 2016, the capital Aden became the scene of new clashes, this time against the IS that controlled the neighborhoods. Indeed, precisely because of institutional fragility, internal unrest, and the growing economic crisis, IS and al-Qaeda managed to settle in Yemen. The Yemeni IS is a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group was able to attract recruits by exploiting the increase in sectarianism in the country after the outbreak of the civil war, and received numerous al-Qaeda deserters in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), attracted by the group’s money and its capacity to make regular attacks against the Houthis. On 6th October 2015, Yemeni IS militants carried out a series of suicide attacks in Aden that killed 15 soldiers affiliated to the Saudi-led government and coalition[7].

According to data provided by the UN, in 2016 the conflict in Yemen had already caused more than 6,100 deaths, half of which were civilians, and about 30,000 injured. Former UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had warned Riyadh that the deliberate intervention in Yemeni territory in support of the central government could be considered a war crime. In February 2016, the European Parliament also called for an embargo on arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, criticizing its air strikes in Yemen and the maritime blockade imposed on the country, which resulted in thousands of deaths[8]. On 10th April 2016, the cease-fire between the parties entered into force, and the UN mediator asked for the respite of the truce that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid[9]. On 28th July, the Houthis proclaimed a “Supreme Council” of ten members, in the form of a collegiate presidency, composed of a president and a vice-president, to lead the country, but the government delegation left the negotiations. On 30th July, the UN mediator proposed to prolong the week-long negotiations, which was accepted by both sides. On 31st July, the Yemeni government approved a draft agreement that invited the rebels to withdraw from the cities it controlled, but they rejected it[10].

yemen-current-divisions2. Image – Territorial control in Yemen [11]

According to the World Food Program, in 2018, over 20 million people in Yemen need humanitarian aid, compared to 17 million in 2016[12].

The position of the UN and the opinion of the experts

In March 2018, according to a publication by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 22.2 million people in Yemen need humanitarian or protective assistance, of which 17.8 million are at risk of food insecure, 16 million have no access to safe water and sanitation facilities and 16.4 million are without adequate health care[13]: the humanitarian situation in Yemen is the worst in the world. Indeed, the highest priority for humanitarian workers is to guarantee families the food they need to survive. Civilians are taking the brunt of violence, especially women and children: children are forcibly recruited by the warring parties and forced to fight to help their families survive. The lack of direct access has already led to the spread of cholera. According to forecasts provided by humanitarian workers, in order alleviate large-scale suffering, it would be needed 2.96 billion of dollars to help 13 million people. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already provided aid but remains a deficit of almost 2 billion[14].  OCHA has established the Humanitarian Fund for Yemen (YHF) that mobilizes and directs resources to humanitarian partners to meet the critical needs of millions of people affected by the devastating humanitarian crisis. The Fund operates within the parameters of the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), with the aim of expanding the provision of humanitarian assistance[15].

The UN Security Council has been enervated several times in support of the Yemeni people. On 15th February 2015, at the beginning of the crisis, the UN Security Council, with Resolution 2201, called for the Houthis’ withdrawal from government institutions, condemning their attempt to dissolve the parliament as a threat to the already delicate political situation[16]. Nine days later, with Resolution 2204 (2015) under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, the Council has extended until February 26th 2016 the freezing of assets and the travel ban to help curb the crisis in the Gulf country , and the mandate of a “Panel of Experts” (created in 2014 and that assists the Yemen Security Council Committee to provide reports, data and information related to the current crisis so as to be able to intervene to curb clashes) until 25th March 2016[17]. On 14th April, the Security Council called for an end to violence in Yemen, by adopting Resolution 2216 (2015), imposing sanctions on individuals that undermined the stability of the country, particularly the Houthis and at the same time established the UNVIM (UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen) in order to verify and inspect the commercial goods entering the country in an impartial way to favor the passage of humanitarian aid[18]. On 24th February 2016, by adopting Resolution 2266 (2016), the Security Council extended by one year its sanctions against actors that threatened stability and at the same time extended the mandate of the group of experts assisting the committee responsible for overseeing these measures[19]. On February 23rd 2017, the Council also reaffirmed the provisions of paragraphs 14-17 of Resolution 2216 (2015) – through which it decided to prohibit the supply, sale or transfer of arms to persons and entities designated by the committee as committed to providing support to actors threatening the peace, security or stability of Yemen[20]. On 26th February 2018, the Security Council unanimously decided to renew the travel ban, the freezing of assets and the arms embargo against those who threaten peace and security in Yemen[21].

According to Osamah Al-Rawhani, Program Director for the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS), Yemen underwent a series of unsuccessful reconstruction processes in response to the ongoing crisis. Although international aid has been disbursed, Yemen, due to internal political instability, is unable to start reconstruction. According to him, before investing in social reconstruction, the political structure should be stabilized. Therefore, reconstruction efforts will have to adopt a decentralized approach that looks at the major divisions in the country’s internal geopolitics. Decentralization is the form that Yemen should take to preserve the unity of the state and ensure its effectiveness. According to him, the future political process must give priority to the reconstruction of state institutions. The international community still lacks an understanding of internal Yemeni dynamics and has not managed to approach Yemen with a local approach. The current cost for the reconstruction of Yemen could exceed 80 billion dollars. Yemen is a poor country and will rely on the international community and regional authorities, such as Saudi Arabia, to finance the reconstruction process. The reconstruction plan will always be influenced by these rich and powerful states: external powers operate by pursuing their own interests, and these will not necessarily always be in the best interests of Yemen[22].

According to Annalisa Perteghella, a researcher at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), the Yemeni conflict is characterized by an internal struggle for power and not by the influence of Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite) that want to assert their supremacy on the territory. However, the conflict has undergone a dynamic of politicization of religious identities. According to her, the fact that the Iranians support the Houthis for common Shiite membership is a false belief. First of all, the Houthis are not a strictly religious group, and have political objectives. In addition, there is also a Sunni minority within them, and the form of Shia they practice is different from the Iranian one. Finally, the role played by Iran in the conflict in Yemen remains ambiguous: Iranian support for the Houthis is not justified by a common belonging to the Shiite faith. Therefore, it is wrong to characterize the Yemeni conflict as the result of a secular hatred between Sunnis and Shiites, or a simple battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In order to understand the war in Yemen and therefore find a solution, it should get out of the politicization of “differences”[23].

According to Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at ISPI and Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, the military intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen has been a turning point because has openly regionalized the conflict, favoring the advance of IS. Furthermore, the interference of external actors made the path for an internal political agreement more difficult. The EU provided humanitarian assistance to the population and refugees who arrived in Djibouti and Somalia. Yemen depends entirely on food imports and the air and naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition has hindered humanitarian intervention. While it is true that the military interference of the Saudi coalition and Iran has made the process of internal political negotiation impossible, it is also true that other regional actors, such as the EU, should improve their diplomatic efforts for a political solution, favoring renewed energies to the efforts of the UN (and the informal ones of Oman) to reach first a ceasefire and then a political agreement[24].

gulf-of-aden-tourist-map3. Image – Gulf of Aden[25]

The European Union’s position

Since the beginning of the Houthis advance, the EU gave over 234 million dollars to cope with the crisis in Yemen. On 3rd April 2018, the UN and the governments of Sweden and Switzerland organized a high-level event in Geneva for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen: the participants guaranteed more than 2 billion dollars to support the provision of humanitarian aid needed by millions of Yemenis[26]. On that occasion the EU promised 107.5 million in new funding for 2018 to help civilians: EU funds are channeled through partner organizations (international NGOs, specialized UN agencies and the Red Cross / Red Crescent movement) which ensure that aid reaches the neediest populations regardless of their political affiliation, religious beliefs or ethnicity. In 2015, the UN with Resolution 2216 established a verification and inspection mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM – UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen) in order to verify and inspect the incoming commercial goods in an impartial manner. The EU has co-funded it and continues to support its mandate and its implementation[27].Thanks to funds earmarked for Yemen, the EU supports resilience, the provision of sustainable basic services and livelihoods, therapeutic feeding centers, which treats malnourished children, as well as health and food security programs. Furthermore, the EU supports UN Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS), which provide reliable air transport to humanitarian workers and goods[28].

In the Conclusions adopted on 16th November 2015, the EU called on all the actors of the conflict to facilitate negotiations led by the UN. The EU urged the government to assume its responsibilities in the fight against extremist groups and terrorists, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS in Yemen, which was taking advantage of the instability. The EU looked forward to the rapid implementation of the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) for commercial transport – including fuel – for Yemen, to which it will contribute financially. The EU and its Member States have emphasized the need for a concerted, coordinated and strategic approach for the reconstruction of the country, and they were ready to play their role in efforts for the benefit of all Yemenis[29].

In the Conclusions adopted on 3rd April 2017, it was underlined that as for the EU there could not be a military solution to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The resolution of the crisis necessarily implied a negotiation process that should have involved all the interested actors. In this context, the EU reiterated its firm support for the efforts of the UN Secretary-General and his special envoy in Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed Ismail, to achieve a resumption of negotiations, and called on all actors to the conflict to respond to their efforts in a flexible and constructive manner, without any preconditions and to implement fully, without delay, all provisions of the UN Security Council resolutions. The EU reiterated the urgent need to facilitate timely and unhampered delivery to civilians in need, and called on state and non-state actors to ensure the safety of relief services and humanitarian workers and to facilitate their safe access[30].

On 25th June 2018, during the Foreign Affair Council in Luxembourg, the member countries adopted new Conclusions concerning the situation in Yemen. The EU reiterated its support for the activities carried out by the UN and by the Secretary General/Special Envoy (UNSE) for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and for his efforts to find a political solution to this conflict. The EU has also condemned the launch of ballistic missiles by the Houthis against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including civilian targets, and against ships passing through the Bab Al Mandab strait: these actions fuel regional tensions and threaten the security and stability of the neighboring countries of Yemen, included in the Horn of Africa, and the Red Sea region. At the same time, the EU urged the Yemeni government to assume its responsibilities in the fight against terrorist groups that are exploiting the current instability. The EU has sought to remain committed in order to continue providing aid to all people in need in Yemen, and to assistance for reconstruction[31].

The complexity of the Yemeni conflict, which involves neighboring and non-neighboring states, has progressively led to the destruction of a country, and this reality is not spread by the media. The EU has supported the policy adopted by the UN since the beginning of the conflict, conforming to the Resolutions. Actually, the EU, in this type of conflict, might have a strategic role because of its “neutrality”. According to Joost Hitlermann,  Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group, due to the fact that the EU has always provided support, it can succeed in mediating and influencing certain third countries that intervene in the conflict, especially the United States, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, European states, in particular UN Security Council members, such as the United Kingdom, should push for a new resolution that would support a more inclusive political process. The current framework for negotiations is based on the Security Council Resolution 2216, but this Resolution did not take into account the full range of Yemeni forces on the ground and placed unrealistic preconditions on the Houthis[32]. So, in addition to providing funds and aid, promoting the UN Resolutions, the EU should use its strategic role in the Security Council to be able to pass on its message of reconciliation between the parties.

Maria Elena Argano


For further information:

[1] Le Monde Website : https://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2012/09/11/enorme-manifestation-au-yemen-pour-reclamer-la-levee-de-l-immunite-de-saleh_1758704_3218.html

[2] Aljazeera Website: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2009/08/200981294214604934.html

[3] The National Website: https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/houthis-seek-to-impose-a-new-reality-on-yemen-1.239905,

[4] Voa News Website:  https://www.voanews.com/a/gunmen-detain-popular-american-english-teacher-in-yemen/3517949.html

[5] L’Orient Le Jour Website: https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/917582/le-yemen-au-bord-de-la-guerre-civile.html

[6] Liberation Website: http://www.liberation.fr/monde/2015/09/05/yemen-la-coalition-arabe-intensifie-ses-raids-apres-la-mort-de-50-de-ses-soldats_1376308

[7] The Wall Street Journal Website: https://www.wsj.com/articles/isis-fails-to-gain-much-traction-in-yemen-1459203675,

[8] L’Orient Le Jours Website: https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/972342/le-parlement-europeen-reclame-un-embargo-sur-les-livraisons-darmes-a-riyad.html,

[9] RFI Website: http://m.rfi.fr/moyen-orient/20160411-yemen-espoir-une-treve-durable-acheminer-aide-humanitaire

[10] Nouvel Obs Website: https://www.nouvelobs.com/monde/20160801.REU6897/le-gouvernement-quitte-les-negociations-de-paix-sur-le-yemen.html

[11] Geopolitical Futures Website: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/yemen-historical-roots-modern-civil-war/,

[12] La Repubblica Website: http://www.repubblica.it/solidarieta/emergenza/2018/01/29/news/yemen-187595305/

[13] United Nations Website: https://news.un.org/en/focus/yemen

[14] United Nations Office for the coordination of Humanitarian affairs Website: https://unocha.exposure.co/eleven-facts-about-the-yemen-crisis

[15] Ibidem: https://www.unocha.org/yemen

[16] Security Council Website: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/un-documents/search.php?IncludeBlogs=10&limit=15&tag=%22Security%20Council%20Resolutions%22+AND+%22Yemen%22&ctype=Yemen&rtype=Security%20Council%20Resolutions&cbtype=yemen

[17] Ibidem

[18] United Nations Website: https://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc11859.doc.htm

[19] Ibidem:https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12257.doc.htm

[20] Ibidem: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12731.doc.htm

[21] Iran Watch Website: https://www.iranwatch.org/library/multilateral-organizations/united-nations/un-security-council/unanimously-adopting-resolution-2402-2018-security-council-renews-sanctions

[22] ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/yemens-state-rebuilding-tale-too-many-obstacles-19924

[23]ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/yemen-sectarianization-political-conflict-19933

[24] ISPI Website: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/yemeni-conflict-genealogy-game-changers-and-regional-implications-14950

[25] On the World Map Website:  http://ontheworldmap.com/oceans-and-seas/gulf-of-aden/

[26] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: https://www.unocha.org/2018-yemen-high-level-pledging-event

[27] EEAS Website: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/1877/yemen-and-eu_en

[28] European Council Website:  http://ec.europa.eu/echo/where/middle-east/yemen_en

[29] Ibidem: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/11/16/council-conclusions-on-yemen/

[30] Ibidem: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/fr/press/press-releases/2017/04/03/fac-conclusions-yemen/

[31] Ibidem: http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-10369-2018-INIT/en/pdf

[32] IRIN Website: https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2018/06/09/it-s-time-european-union-push-yemen-towards-peace