Those living in the west have been fortunate enough not to find themselves as civilians in a war zone for over two generations now. This means that, for the most part, our perceptions of war and conflict are constructed by what makes good news; spectacular attacks with massive civilian casualties. The civil war in Yemen is a prime example.
To give an explainer of what is a century-long conflict in the country; Houthi rebels backed by Iran have taken territory in the north of Yemen and the capital Sanaa. They are battling government forces holding out in pockets of the country and the southern city of Aden. Government forces are backed by a Saudi-led coalition supplied and advised by British manufacturers and armed forces. This coalition controls Yemeni airspace and sea lanes into the country. Any plane or ship destined for Yemen has to be approved by Riyadh. The situation came to a breaking point in December 2017 when a Saudi-enforced blockade almost brought famine to the country and gained worldwide condemnation. In the new year, after a month of coverage, our attention has once again been shifted back to the theatre that is Syria. In Yemen, however, war quietly rages on.
In the port city of Aden people are not worrying about dodging bombs day and night, what war looks like to people here is not just landmines and exploding shells; rather it is ever higher prices, impossible choices and security concerns we may not often think about- domestic violence escalates dramatically during times of conflict. Most importantly, however, livelihoods are tied to the ability of food and fuel imports to pass through the ports of Yemen. 90% of all food and fuel in Yemen is imported, the dependency of the population on the ports of Aden and Al Hudaydah cannot be emphasized enough. Any changes to the finely tuned importing process have a dramatic ripple effect on the population already grappling with hyperinflation. Disruptions to imports caused by December’s blockade were death by strangulation to the Yemeni economy and livelihoods. So why has the removal of the blockade not seen a return to the status quo ante?
Little known and under-reported bureaucratic import processes have ensured that the blockade is virtually still in place at Aden and Houdaydah. To begin, anything which isn’t fuel, liquid or break-bulk, in other words, most consumer goods, can only be imported via the Gulf port of Aden. The quay at Aden is exhausted and cannot be expanded to increase import capacity. What this means is that the existing holding patterns are exacerbated by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) and can result in goods sitting offshore for weeks- incurring greater costs and spoilages. To further complicate the process, after the go-ahead from UNVIM, you must apply to the Government of Yemen Ministry of Transportation to get the goods cleared for unloading (a coalition-controlled ministry answering to Riyadh). This is where the bureaucracy really takes effect; if just one item, in just one container, is found to be on the ‘prohibited items list’ (an unofficial list that changes daily), the whole ship is rejected and sent to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. After an in-person inspection in Saudi Arabia, the ship must re-join the import holding pattern, and finally, it will be met by a team of 50 Yemenis and 10 Saudi supervisors in Aden, who will carry out yet another full cargo inspection. This unnecessarily drawn-out process serves to delay critical imports and inflate prices for anything that does make it into the country. It is estimated by Oxfam America’s Scott Paul, that this process makes transporting goods to Yemen roughly four-times more expensive than to neighboring Saudi Arabia. From a bottom-line rationale, you would choose to export to Saudi Arabia every time, and if you did decide to ship to Yemen, the inflated price would, naturally, be passed onto the Yemeni consumer.
With businesses run into the ground by fuel shortages and eighteen of the 29 million Yemenis now classified as ‘food insecure’ by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), it begs the question who will be left to pay those inflated prices? There may not be a full blockade or declared famine in the country, but do not doubt for a second that Yemenis are quietly being killed by this war. To have a famine, there are rules and thresholds to be met, those that miss these thresholds miss the attention and pressure exerted by the international media in times of famine. In spite of the best efforts by various parties to make this process as long and complicated as possible, the final result is clear, Yemeni civilians with little-to-no say in the war are paying the price with their lives.