With Yemen, “one step away from famine” according to the UN, what prospects are there for the Saudi & Iran led coalitions in the conflict?

By Nahil Nassar, a 1st Year IR Student in King’s College London from Egypt.


Since before my lifetime, the Middle East – once home to some of the greatest minds and civilizations in history – has generally been no stranger to the poison of political corruption, veiled agendas, and a general disregard for human rights. The Arab Spring of 2011, however, began leading the region into an optimistic era that would put an end to political oppression. It would be a time remembered for inspiring dormant voices to awaken, finally free to sing their songs of liberty. That was, until shit hit the fan. The lethal civil conflicts in states such as Syria and more recently Yemen, being key examples of revolutionary hope gone horribly wrong.

Both conflicts not only share a past in tyranny, but an equally shaky future which seems to rest in the hands of everyone except the liberty singers. In the special and recent case of Yemen, Saudi Arabia (supporting the Sunni pre-revolutionary government) and Iran (continuously affiliated with the Shia Houthi “rebels”) seem to hold the most tangible interests in keeping their (alleged) allies in power, some even going so far as to claim that the people’s war is not for the people at all, but a proxy war for both historically adverse countries.

Nonetheless, with the growing humanitarian concern regarding the lives of those stuck in the crossfires, international actors grow increasingly uneasy at the impending possibility of this war being dragged on any longer, people like Johannes Van Der Klaauw, UN Humanitarian Coordinator, labelling the situation a “humanitarian catastrophe.”[1]

Will the exponentially growing number of children orphaned or dead be enough to end the internationally led bloodshed? Will Tehran and Riyadh finally be able to put aside its long-lasting competition to save the lives of millions of Yemeni families?

Probably not.

How Yemen turned into a political battlefield

In March 2015, a sea of citizens swarmed the streets of Yemen, having built the strength in 2011 to revolt against any government unable to meet their expectations. Following the capture of beleaguered President Abdrubbah Mansour Hadi by Shia rebel forces – known as Houthis – the majority of north Yemen fell under Houthi siege. However, shortly after, Hadi fled to his hometown of Aden, located in the south of Yemen, where he nationally broadcasted his legitimacy as president and public opposition to the Houthis, escalating an already unstable national situation into a chaotic clash between supporters and armies of both political parties[2].


Naturally, as a Sunni leader, Hadi was immediately backed by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), among which are most other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan. Seeing this, the international community has grown suspicious of Iran’s role in the civil war, due to their religious ties to the Shia Houthis and long standing “regional Cold War” with the Saudi Kingdom[3]. However, no known evidence has been released and denial of any military support to Houthi armies has been repeatedly insisted by Iranian officials, despite prevalent verbal condemnations of Hadi and his supporters publicized by the Iranian government.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a different story.

After little, if any, diplomatic attempts to return Yemen to Hadi’s government, Saudi Arabia began air strikes in areas controlled by the Houthis, taking little consideration for “collateral damage” along the way. Though the air strikes were officially terminated in April 2015, they continue to this day under different “operations”, in an attempt to discourage Houthi efforts of sieging southern Yemen and withdrawing their forces from Yemeni soil all together[4].

While a total of 9 countries around the GCC and Middle East have created a coalition with the kingdom, countries like Oman[5] have attempted to bridge the gap between the two adversaries through peace plans. With their efforts unsuccessful, one must ask…

Why is Yemen such an investment to either country?

As with most international interventions in areas of conflict, the intentions overtly displayed by outsiders often fail to show the full story. Though Iran and Saudi Arabia may claim to have dug their feet into their political positions in this conflict on the notion of doing what they believe “right” by the Yemeni public, it is clear to most political analysts that there may be more behind this than meets the eye.

In the case of Iran, their interest is simple; location, location, location. With a Shia government in power, Yemen would become a key asset in Iran’s power struggle within the region. With an ally so near to Saudi Arabian borders, Iran would have instant influence in the kingdom’s political decisions in conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, unlocking doors to friends in high places[6].

To Saudi political leaders, the very thing that could drive Iran to power could be the beginning of their end. Such close proximity to the monarchy’s territory could lead to a contagion of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) support within Saudi Arabia, thanks to their abundant presence within Yemen. Furthermore, as recent statistical evidence attests, weapon smuggling between members of Houthis and Iran seems to be a growing industry, an unquestionable security threat for Saudi Arabia, who shares a “porous 1,770km southern border with Yemen”, and who considers Yemen to be “easy prey for Tehran to penetrate and manipulate”[7].

With such high stakes and opportunities for each respective country, it would appear that the prospect of an end to Saudi and (theoretically) Iranian coalitions is virtually non-existent. However, could growing international concern for the humanitarian consequences change Yemen’s apparently terminal destiny?

“4/5 Yemeni’s Now Need Humanitarian Aid.”


One does not need more than a beating heart and a glimmer of conscience to realize that human suffering should never be warranted, that a mother watching her bundle of joy dying of starvation is never okay. But being so far removed from the Yemeni conflict, it can be easy to trick ourselves into thinking “16 million”, “7,655”, “8,875”, “14.4 million”, “2 million”, “70” and “90” are just numbers on a piece of paper. But think again.

Almost 16 million were in need of humanitarian aid before conflict had even begun[8]. According to the UN, 7,655 are the number of civilian causalities recorded between the 26th of March and 16th of October 2015, at least 505 below the age of 18[9]. 8,875 are the number of human rights violations reported as of November 18th[10]. 14.4 million are how many Yemeni citizens are now considered food insecure, 2 million acutely malnourished[11]. 70 are the number of humanitarian organizations attempting to gain any access into Yemeni borders and waterways to provide the aid that is so desperately needed[12].

90% is the percentage of food import Yemen once relied on to feed its people. After the air strikes began and fighting around the port of Aden became prominent, all but a few ships were allowed into Yemeni waters, halting imports of food and destroying any chances of mass nourishment, thus placing the Yemeni population near famine[13].

And the numbers continue to rise.

Will Enough Finally Be Enough?

With numbers rising as fast as they are, it becomes harder to block out the eerie similarity between conditions in Yemen and Syria today. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross seemed to find it difficult as well, for after returning from a visit in August, it was observed that “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years”[14].

And guess who have their fingers in that war too?

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s refusal to place their petty power games on hold, despite international pressure for a resolution to be found for all parties, leaves no point of reference to indicate that either country has any intention of backing down from their respective support in Yemen either – at least not for the sake of humanitarian concern.

While eager talks between Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers have been at play with the possibility of a more fruitful relationship blossoming, events like the Saudi ordered execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January of 2016[15] suggests the opposite.

Attempting to stay optimistic in the wake of the Kingdom’s recent economic downturn, all hope may not be lost. Though the air strikes may not end for the sake of humanity, the thinning number of royal paychecks might. In 2015, Saudi Arabia managed to gather the highest budget deficit in decades at nearly $100 billion, constituting 15% of its GDP, and this is only getting worse[16]. With the increasing instability of oil markets, and lacking investment into other industries, the former richest country in the region may need to resort to taxing its people, who would then get to have an actual say in national matters. Gasp! Needless to say, Saudi Arabian leaders may not be loving that idea. Thus, dropping the costs inflicted by the civil war may be the only solution for now.

As for Iran, with no real evidence of any coalition happening with Houthi forces, not much can be questioned as of yet.

We’ve Lost Sight of What Matters

Yemen has been cursed with turmoil for decades, with a weakly calculated attempt to unify a marginalized south and heavily populated north in the First Gulf War era, a weak economy, and a relationship with Saudi Arabia on thin ice.

Today, Iran and the Kingdom’s interests in Yemen are political, economic, and strategic. It doesn’t seem to be the one thing it should: Humane.

As governments that claim to be international leaders in the Islamic faith – known to most as a moral faith – it is disheartening to see such immoral priorities in action; money and power are placed above peace and compassion. It appears that we’ve lost sight of the people who need support in the first place: Yemeni families fighting for the future of their children.


 Saudi Arabian and Iranian differences need to be pushed aside if we want to actively put an end to disorder in the Middle East. As Anwar Sadat, a loved Egyptian leader of a better time, quoted:

“There can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family, not as many separate ones.”[17]


[1] “Yemen Crisis: How Bad Is the Humanitarian Crisis?” BBC News. BBC Newsnight, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

[2] “Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?” BBC News. BBC, 26 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

[3] Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” AlJazeera. N.p., 26 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

[4] Gatehouse, Gabriel. “Inside Yemen’s Forgotten War.” BBC News. BBC Newsnight, 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

[5] “Oman Offers Seven-point Peace Plan for Yemen.” Alarby. N.p., 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

[6] Reardon, Martin. “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen.” AlJazeera. N.p., 26 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Yemen Crisis: How Bad Is the Humanitarian Crisis?” BBC News. BBC Newsnight, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Yemen Crisis: How Bad Is the Humanitarian Crisis?” BBC News. BBC Newsnight, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

[15] Sinclair, Harriet. “Nimr Al-Nimr Execution: Former Iraq PM Al-Maliki Says Death Will ‘topple Saudi Regime'” Independent. N.p., 2 Jan. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

[16] Nasser, Amal. “How Long Can Saudi Arabia Afford Yemen War?” Al Monitor – Gulf Pulse. N.p., 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

[17] Cochran, Judith. “VII. The Educational Open Door Policy 1970-1983.” Educational Roots of Political Crisis in Egypt. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008. 76. Print.

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One thought on “With Yemen, “one step away from famine” according to the UN, what prospects are there for the Saudi & Iran led coalitions in the conflict?

  1. Claire says:

    Nahil you are amazing
    Love home girl Claire


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