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The fighting in Yemen has been going on since the failure in 2011 of a Saudi-backed transition from long-time President Saleh to his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi. The rebel Houthi movement, based in the North and deeply hostile to the Saudis, took control of much of the country from the Hadi Government, entering the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.

Saudi Arabia arranged a coalition, whose strongest members were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to prop up the Hadi Government. The ensuing conflict produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with millions of people at risk from starvation and rampant disease.

There was much concern about UK and US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE – weapons which were used in the Yemen conflict. In June 2019 an unfavourable court judgment led the UK Government to stop granting export licences for arms that might be used in Yemen.

In December 2018 a fragile peace process started with an agreement in Stockholm. Its aim was to protect the vital port of al-Hodeidah on the Red Sea coast, where most international aid arrived. The agreement achieved partial de-escalation around the port. There was increasing violence in the south, however, where separatist forces were gaining strength, partly backed by the UAE. Terrorist operations including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS/Daesh continued to conduct attacks, although the US killed al-Qaeda’s Yemen leader in February 2020.

In September 2019, the Houthis launched devastating missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure at Abqaiq, causing world oil prices to surge.  There was an agreement between the Houthis and the Saudis to cease Houthi missile attacks and Saudi air strikes.

Since early 2020 de-escalation agreements have ceased to be effective. The Houthis have resumed rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia, with assistance from Iran. Saudi Arabia has restarted air strikes on Sanaa. Iranian influence over the Houthis is growing, increasing the conflict’s centrality to Iran’s battle with Saudi Arabia over influence in the Middle East.

In January 2020 the US tried to assassinate an Iranian commander in Yemen on the same day that his colleague General Soleimani was killed in Iraq. The episode showed that, aside from counter-terrorist operations, the US remains deeply involved, despite attempts in congress to end US participation in the conflict.

The International Crisis Group warns that there could be a showdown in northern Yemen between the Houthis, and forces allied with the internationally recognised Hadi government of Yemen.

That could cause a humanitarian disaster even bigger than the present situation because there are at least 800,000 internally displaced Yemenis in the region already.

It would also make an agreement on general de-escalation impossible. Such an agreement is needed if there is to be any chance of real peace negotiations.

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