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The fighting in Yemen has been ongoing 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.

The present high-level conflict started in 2015 after a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, was established to prop up the Hadi Government. According to the Saudi-led coalition, the conflict would only last a few months. But it has raged constantly since then, producing the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with millions of people at risk from starvation and disease.

Attempts to broker peace have largely ended in failure. 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.

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 resumed rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia, with assistance from Iran. Saudi Arabia 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 March 2020 the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, called for a global ceasefire to deal with the emerging coronavirus pandemic.  Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire. Reports suggest, however, that the ceasefire has not been respected and in April 2020 the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, based in the southern city of Aden, announced “self-government” for part of the south.

With hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in camps, Yemen provides the ideal conditions for Covid-19 to spread. The UN warned in April 2020 that Covid-19: “could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.” As long as there is no political resolution to the conflict, experts consider that an effective response to the pandemic is almost impossible.

The conference for aid donors to Yemen at the beginning of June 2020 saw donors pledge $1.35 billion, when the UN’s minimum requirement was $2.4 billion. The 2020 total was a sharp fall from the $2.6 billion pledged last year. The UK pledged $196 million this year, the third highest after Saudi Arabia and the US. The UK has consistently been one of the biggest donors for Yemen; in 2017 the UK was the biggest donor, pledging $173m.

UN officials warned that UN-supported medical services would have to be cut, just as the coronavirus pandemic appeared to be surging in Yemen. UNICEF warned that the number of malnourished children in Yemen could rise by 20% to 2.4 million by the end of 2020, because of the shortfall in humanitarian funding.

In September 2020 Sweden, Germany, Kuwait and the UK convened a special meeting on Yemen, ahead of this month’s UN General Assembly. Ministers warned of Yemen’s rapid deterioration and the increasing risk of famine, and called on donors to follow through on their pledges for humanitarian assistance. Addressing the “catastrophic” shortfalls in humanitarian funding, the UK pledged a further £5.8 million, in addition to what was agreed in June at the conference for aid donors. The additional funding announced takes the UK’s total contribution to the crisis to over £1 billion.

UK arms exports to Saudi

Saudi Arabia has been accused of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during its military operations in Yemen. As such the conflict has drawn attention to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In June 2019 an unfavourable court judgment led the UK Government to review all licences and to stop granting any new export licences for arms that might be used in Yemen, while it considered the implications of the judgement. Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court was granted on 9 July 2019.

In September 2019, the Government apologised after finding the Government had granted new export licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, therefore breaching the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal. In July 2020 the Government announced that it would resume granting licences for export to Saudi Arabia. The Secretary of State for International Trade said that, having applied a revised methodology to its decision-making process, the Government assessed “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”. The Government also withdrew its Supreme Court appeal.

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