Yemen In Crisis: Knife-edge ceasefire forces fragile hope

Yemen In Crisis: Knife-edge ceasefire forces fragile hope
Book Club: In Yemen In Crisis, Helen Lackner covers the recent history of Yemen and the current conflict in the country with special attention to the environmental crisis and shortcomings of humanitarian aid efforts. The New Arab talks to the author.
7 min read
13 September, 2023
Helen Lackner uncovers the roots of the social and political conflicts that threaten the very survival of the state and its people [Saqi Books]

Helen Lackner lived in Yemen for fifteen years working in a range of activities but mostly as a consultant in socio-economic aspects of rural development.

The New Arab had the opportunity to talk to Lackner and discuss her book Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope, recently published in a new updated edition.

The book includes a broad description of the international aspects of the conflict in Yemen, which the author sees as an “internationalised war.”

This notwithstanding, Lackner has little in common with those who approach Yemen through the lenses of a so-called proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia or the Saudi-Emirati rivalry in southern Yemen.

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Writing about the period before the uprising against long-time Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, Lackner notes that “for outside parties Yemen was not a priority per se but rather a pawn in a wider game.”

This has arguably been even more the case during the last decade, but there is no need for the analyst to adopt such a narrow perspective, and Lackner’s main focus of analysis in Yemen in Crisis is Yemen itself.

She tells The New Arab that her main concern is “Yemen and Yemenis, and trying to get the world to care about them.”

"Going beyond the usual presentation of key data documenting the lack of access to food and the spread of diseases in Yemen, Lackner introduces a critical appraisal of the humanitarian sector’s role in the country"

Thus, she devotes several chapters to describing the historical trajectory of Yemen, the role of tribalism and state elites in the country’s society, the rise of the Houthis, and Southern separatism.

Lackner has first-hand experience of the South’s modern history, as she lived for five years in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, also known as South Yemen, before Yemen’s unification in 1990.

When looking back, she explains to The New Arab that “in the 1980s and early 1990s, the enthusiasm for unification was possibly stronger in the South than it was in the North.”

Regarding the current situation in the South, Lackner believes it is important to keep in mind that the Southern Transitional Council, headed by Aidarus al-Zoubaidi and supported by the UAE, “only represents one small fraction” within Southern separatism. She also cautions against assuming that a Southern identity equals support for separatism.

In the preface to the second edition of the book, written before the collapse of the truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement in November 2022, Lackner already manifested her scepticism about the UN-mediated truce.

At the same time, she noted that it was probably the most hopeful development in the Yemen war since the Kuwait negotiations in 2016.  

In the new context marked by the collapse of the truce, the level of violence in Yemen has remained limited in comparison to the pre-truce situation. The ongoing Saudi-Houthi negotiations help explain why.

Speaking to The New Arab, Lackner analyses the current state of affairs. She argues that “it is very hard to be positive about a bilateral Houthi-Saudi deal” as it would legitimate the Houthis but “at the same time it is very difficult to be totally negative about it in the sense that it would reduce the fighting.”

The main issues of contention between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are reported to be the source of funds for the payment of Yemeni civil servants and members of the armed forces on the one hand, and the reopening of the airport in Sana’a and the easing of the Saudi blockade on Hodeida on the other.

Although these topics are certainly important, Lackner puts the focus on another element that has received far less attention. She explains that “the sticking point between the Houthis and the Saudis is under what title the Saudis would sign an agreement. The Saudis are insisting that they are mediators, and the Houthis are insisting that they are participants.”

This is not an abstract discussion, but one that can have important legal consequences. Lackner remarks that if Saudi leaders were to sign as participants, they would be more vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes. Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE, has indiscriminately bombed schools and hospitals in Yemen during the conflict.

"The sticking point between the Houthis and the Saudis is under what title the Saudis would sign an agreement. The Saudis are insisting that they are mediators, and the Houthis are insisting that they are participants"

Yemen in Crisis is particularly strong in its treatment of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Going beyond the usual presentation of key data documenting the lack of access to food and the spread of diseases in Yemen, Lackner introduces a critical appraisal of the humanitarian sector’s role in the country. She denounces what she calls the ‘bunkerization’ of UN humanitarian personnel.

Lackner details that many humanitarian staff operate from outside Yemen and those who are in the country only rarely leave their headquarters to visit other areas due to the somewhat excessive UN concerns for staff security.

This ‘bunkerization’ policy limits the ability of humanitarian workers to provide help and understand the reality on the ground. Moreover, UN restrictions on the movement of its personnel follow a one-size-fits-all approach that pays little attention to the specific security contexts in different regions of Yemen.

Lackner tells The New Arab that “the ‘bunkerization’ was a decision that was made and can be cancelled.” Other issues would be more difficult to solve.

In the book, Lackner remarks that there is an increasing awareness of the need for a “shift from emergency humanitarian assistance to a longer-term, more sustainable approach” in Yemen. However, “UN procedures do not facilitate the process.”

Building a lasting development investment, she explains to The New Arab, would be “a big improvement and in the long run more cost-effective.”

Support for medium or long-term development projects cannot be divorced from the need to tackle Yemen’s environmental crisis, which has increasingly become Lackner’s research focus over the years.

The crisis is multi-faceted, but water scarcity lies at the core of it. In the book, she explains that in the Southern Arabian country, “one-third of the water used annually is mined from non-renewable fossil aquifers.”

The water crisis is not irresoluble but demands a determinate response. When asked about the appropriate way forward, Lackner answers to The New Arab that there is a need to “transfer some of the water that is going into irrigating high-value cash crops and to re-direct that to human consumption.”

By doing this, water would still be left for agriculture and there would be enough water for people. The alternative to inaction is the already ongoing abandonment of villages due to a lack of water, Lackner warns.

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The future of Yemen is full of uncertainties. The outcome of the ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks is one of the most immediate ones. Lackner tells The New Arab that she does not believe that the current context of “no peace, no war” can be sustained much longer.

She thinks that it is likely that by the time of the first anniversary of the truce’s collapse, in two months, “something will need to happen. Either there are going to be some serious talks or fighting will intensify.”

Even if the Saudis and the Houthis come to a comprehensive agreement, such a deal would only imply a containment of the war, not a resolution of the conflict.

No book can answer what the future holds for Yemen, and Yemen in Crisis is obviously no exception. In Lackner’s work, however, the reader will find a solid intellectual basis to understand this future once it becomes present.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3