One-Year into the COVID-19 Pandemic in Yemen: An Opportunity to Refocus Foreign Powers’ Attention and End a War?

By: LtCol Michael von Normann, German Army, US Central Command: Strategy Plans and Policy Directorate; Combined Strategic Analysis Group
14 June 2021


More than six years into the Saudi-led intervention, the situation in Yemen is no longer a concern to Yemenis alone. This conflict is a clear example of the permanent struggle between regional powers with consequences radiating far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Although the Saudi-led coalition successfully counters Houthi missile and drone attacks on a near daily basis, the coalition has lost grip of the overall goal to end the war. Major shifts throughout the past years of war such as the Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) wavering in southern Yemen, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) withdrawal from the coalition, and above all the Houthis’ increasingly strong position bolstered by military gains, raise doubts about a timely solution to the conflict. These developments also influence alliances and interests among regional and global powers. The Arab coalition is fragmented, and Tehran’s proxy (the Houthis) is getting stronger, largely because of the new US administration’s shift regarding Riyadh, its closest ally in the region.

Many analysts call Yemen a forgotten or unseen war. This can be clearly observed through the result of the recent virtual UN-led donor conference. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had aimed for $3.85 B this year to address the poverty-stricken country’s desperate demand. Donor countries pledged less than half that amount. The situation in Yemen has not tangibly improved. There is a clear risk that the screams of the Yemeni people are silenced due to lack of major development.  The world tires of listening over and over to the same frustrating reports – ceasefires, violations, and pervasive references to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The ultimate question is, will the international community allow Yemen to fall off the cliff? Several regional and global actors have the power to exert influence, rather than leaving the responsibility with international organizations (IO) or non-governmental organizations (NGO). Such global actors are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a vehicle to follow both national agendas and also put an end to the Yemeni conflict seems feasible – at least in theory. So, what could incentivize players from inside and outside the Arabian Peninsula to follow such a path? 

Key Points:

  • Saudi Arabia is trapped, the Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen (IRGY) is impotent, and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is torn back and forth. Air attacks alone will not end this war. The dire COVID-19 situation in Yemen is an opportunity to refocus foreign powers’ attention.
  • The Houthis clearly feel that they have nothing to lose by rejecting the recent Saudi peace initiative nor by increasing their offensive actions in Yemen. The international community needs to change that perception.
  • Tangible action must replace rhetorical condemnation. The US and its European partners should step up to make the Houthis understand that Yemen’s future will not proceed according to the Houthi’s terms.
  • Russia sees a military path as counterproductive, and favors a political approach.
  • China could provide much of what Yemen needs in the short term, i.e. cheap loans and humanitarian support. However, Beijing is not genuinely interested in this part of the Arabian Peninsula, yet.

Read the complete paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.