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The Hidden Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen Takes Front Stage

Yemeni national Safa Al-Saeedi, a graduate student at Northwestern University, speaks at a discussion on the humanitarian crisis in her country.
Yemeni national Safa Al-Saeedi, a graduate student at Northwestern University, speaks at a discussion on the humanitarian crisis in her country.

The United Nations has declared the conflict in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it remains chronically underreported. On Feb. 26, a panel of scholars and experts brought attention to the war, documented abuses against civilians, and the US role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition leading the fight.

Once celebrated as a success story of the Arab Spring, almost 80 percent of Yemen now needs some form of humanitarian aid. The war involves almost 10 countries and has recently come into the limelight after Jamal Khashoggi's murder brought attention to the human rights record of the Saudi regime.

The panel included L.E. Picard (Yemen Peace Project), Scott Paul (Oxfam America) and Safa Al-Saeedi (Northwestern Ph.D. candidate, Trinity ‘15) and was moderated by Amulya Vadapalli (Trinity ‘19).

The panel began by discussing the role of America in Yemen through its support for the Saudi-led coalition and arms sales.

“The overriding imperative [of U.S. foreign policy] is to maintain a close relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Paul said. Other panelists added how the United States’ relationships with other countries have dominated its foreign policy towards Yemen, and noted that the United States’ main support for the Saudi-led coalition is through political pressure at the United Nations and other organizations.

The Khashoggi murder has renewed attention on Saudi abuses both domestically and in the Yemen war. “An issue like this gobbles up all the oxygen,” said Picard, “but at the same time, it has provided political momentum” for organizations working on the issue.


Drivers of the Humanitarian Crisis

In discussing issues of food insecurity, human rights and domestic political developments in Yemen were analyzed. Paul said that the end of the crisis does not necessarily mean the end of a political crisis. While “all the drivers of the crisis are political,” and therefore require political solutions, ending the suffering in Yemen requires international effort as well. The humanitarian issues are all intrinsically tied to the blockades imposed on Yemeni ports by multiple parties to the conflict and the proliferation of national and international arms sales.


Misconceptions about the Conflict

With the deepening famine in Yemen, photographs of starving children have become prominent in news coverage. Paul said many Yemeni families are having to decide whether or not to marry their young daughters off in order to feed the rest of their children.

Safa Al-Saeedi, a Yemeni herself, discussed how the conflict is often framed only as sectarian, but this simplistic understanding conflates whether sectarianism is a cause or a result of the conflict. She outlined how new identities, along sectarian lines, are formed in the pressure of a war zone and ultimately lead to the “breakdown of social fabric.”

Amulya Vadapalli, who has been researching the conflict for two years, concluded by reminding the audience of America’s role in Yemen and the power of Americans to influence the conflict. The panelists answered questions from the audience on the classification of the conflict and the industries profiting of it.

The panel was sponsored by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies.