The Countries That Helped Devastate Yemen Must Take Responsibility for Its Reconstruction

Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, including the US, spent vast sums on a war that has reduced Yemen to abject poverty. They must not be allowed to shirk responsibility for the reconstruction work that is essential for the future of all Yemenis.

Director of the Women's Research and Training Center at Aden University Huda Ali Alawi walks on rubble of a war-destoyed building in the southern Yemeni city on March 7, 2022. (Saleh al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images)

Aden, a fast-growing city located in the south of Yemen, is nestled amid a jagged mountain range, expansive desert lands, a dormant volcano, and the Red Sea. The Romans called the region “Arabia Felix,” meaning “happy Arabia.”

Yemen has been at the origin and crossroads of civilizations for millennia. Cultural diversity gained through immigration and emigration is ingrained in the nation’s collective psyche, and the country is often recognized for its remarkable — albeit sometimes exploited — hospitality to travelers from around the globe.

When I spent time between April and December 2022 in Aden as an aid worker, I rarely found myself in a public space without being approached by a Yemeni offering chicken, goat, rice, sweets, cold water, or tea, accompanied by a heartfelt expression of gratitude for visiting and showing interest in a country that all too often grabs global attention with sensationalized stories of state collapse and Jihadism.

The distinctive openness of Yemenis enabled me to engage in conversations about the state of Yemeni society. In the months that followed my departure, I continued to correspond with my interlocutors, reaching out to them to inquire about the extent of destruction there. Considering the precarious security situation in Aden, the information provided by all the informants has been anonymized.

Living on the Edge

Yemen’s generosity toward strangers and rich cultural history coexist with extreme material deprivation. The struggling economy has combined with global inflation and a plummeting currency to produce soaring prices for essential goods. In a country always on the brink of famine, the price of a bag of wheat has increased sixfold since the outbreak of the war.

My work took me to the Al-Basateen district, a labyrinthine tangle of houses and narrow alleys in which Yemenis live alongside generations of Somali refugees. It is one of Aden’s poorest districts. According to a group of women from the district who shared their experiences with me, the expenses for crucial medical antigen examinations, as well as urine tests for diseases such as typhoid and dengue fever, have risen nearly threefold since the onset of the war.

A worker in the remaining hospitality industry of Aden emphasized the dire situation: “We are suffering from high prices. Yemen has become unlivable, destroying our lives and our future.”

Despite some income streams from the internationally recognized government and various militias in Aden, Yemenis are caught in what the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly described as the “worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world.” Amidst the unexpected normality in certain sections of the city, where bustling activities animate the streets as the evening heat subsides, the palpable sense of crisis emerges when one encounters residents who lack shelter, or when visiting one of the forty-one camps established for internally displaced people in and around Aden.

Many of the residents of these camps are marginalized black Yemenis known as “akhdam” (servants) or “muhammashin” (marginalized), who do not have connections to well-known Arab lineages. They face intense competition for scarce resources from the neighboring residents and endure hunger, often resorting to begging visitors for food.

Many of those fortunate enough to have a permanent place to call home still traverse the scorching streets of Aden during the day, enduring temperatures that reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius). Some bring their children, as well as sick and elderly family members, to busy roads in the hope of evoking sympathy from compassionate strangers who might provide a donation to sustain them for another day.

During a conversation with a local businessman about these harsh realities and their connection to Yemen’s position in a shifting global order, he wistfully remarked that “nothing is as cheap as a Yemeni life.”

State of Resignation

Major fighting ceased in Aden in 2015. In March of that year, the Northern Houthi rebel group —  which has connections to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy at the time — invaded Aden as well as Taiz, a city located on the road between the north and Aden, and the al-Anad Air Base, a joint US-Yemeni “counterterrorism” facility north of Aden.

The Houthis follow Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam, while southerners predominantly adhere to the Shafi’i Sunni school of thought. The combined efforts of mobilized citizens, airdrops of weapons, and the airpower of the Saudi Royal Air Force forced the Houthis to retreat.

Many buildings in Aden remain in a state of disrepair. A European aid worker, recently arrived from long dispatches in Syria and Iraq, drew comparisons between her different stations of duty. Reflecting on her experience in Aden, “where it has already been seven years since the raids took place,” she was struck by the impression that “the bombs could have as well fallen yesterday.”

She had visited Raqqa, a city where Kurdish fighters, with support from the US Air Force, had driven out ISIS militants. She witnessed “shocking” levels of destruction in Raqqa on multiple occasions, but qualified the picture: “In Raqqa, you see a city rejuvenating itself. The people work on returning to normalcy.”

As she perceived it, the residents of Aden appeared to have been pushed into a state of “resignation.” Unlike Raqqa, Aden received minimal reconstruction funds, which further contributed to a sense of helplessness among its inhabitants.

Driving through the city can be chilling. Particularly along the central routes that I often traversed, I would pass by several hotels that had been subjected to bombings and were partially leveled. These ruins served as poignant reminders that Aden was once interconnected with global networks of trade and travel.

They also constantly highlighted the stark contrast between global awareness of the horrors caused by Russian aerial raids in Mariupol and the relatively limited recognition of the extensive destruction endured by Yemeni cities within the Western public consciousness.

“Crazy War”

When I asked locals about the primary cause of the destruction in Aden, the majority attributed it to the extensive air power of the Saudi Royal Air Force. On one occasion, I asked a middle-aged man who destroyed most of the buildings, and he succinctly replied: “Saudi Arabia. They destroyed my house.”

There were also indications pointing to the destructive and indiscriminate shelling carried out by the Houthi militias, as well as the chaotic urban warfare that took place in Aden. As one interlocutor explained to me, joining the military is the “easiest job to find in Yemen — you go to the frontlines, and they just give you a gun and you start fighting.” Since most fighters at the frontlines “are not very well trained . . . there are many casualties.”

A Yemeni aid worker summed up the picture: “We call it crazy war.” He recalled that his father had fought in two of the many conflicts that marred Yemen’s recent history, “but this war is different. No rules. Civilians were in the middle, and hunger was part of the war.”

While the residents of Aden were terrified by the invading Houthis and put their lives at risk to resist their insurgency, they also witnessed how Saudi Arabia and its coalition began bombing many of the major civilian buildings in Aden. Such targets included hospitals, hotels, schools, the historical Sira fortress, a water treatment plant, the Fayoush market north of the city, the Aden Mall, and a major stadium, most of which still lie in rubble.

Research by Human Rights Watch and the UN has substantiated claims that the coalition intentionally targeted civilian sites. This aligns with eyewitness accounts from my informants on the bombing of civilian buildings, often based on the premise that a few rebels had used them for shelter and operation bases.

As one young man recounted:

Maybe we are kind of happy that Saudi interfered and helped us. But then we noticed that they were bombing one entire building for one sniper. Just imagine: destroying an entire building for just one sniper. And then they say we will rebuild it.

A student in his late twenties, who works in Yemen’s service sector to make ends meet, expressed a similar sentiment, accusing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of having “destroyed all the buildings, and killed men and women and children”:

I was with Saudi Arabia, against the Houthis, but not in this way . . . in the end we learned Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to destroy Yemen under the pretext of killing the Houthis.

Yemeni views on the war are far from homogeneous, and this holds true even among southern Yemenis who have a shared historical experience and predominantly adhere to Sunni Islam. Yet while there were disagreements, most Yemenis with whom I spoke articulated deep distrust toward Saudi Arabia, with one individual arguing that “the political interest for Saudi Arabia in Yemen is still in war.”

Some residents of Aden, however, also expressed feelings of ambiguity rather than mere distrust regarding the Saudi-led military campaign that drove out the Shiite Houthi fighters from Aden. A small number of Yemenis I spoke with were supportive of the air war.

As I gathered in the evening hours in a lounge to smoke shisha and chew khat, a mildly dosed amphetamine, Yemeni aid workers, all of them male, shared their experiences of coping with the military maneuvers that had forever changed the trajectories of their lives. In a tone that was mostly matter of fact — yet interspersed with language that revealed lingering anger, even seven years after the major fighting in Aden had ended — one of the aid workers explained how he had provided coordinates to the Saudi-led military alliance.

These coordinates were used to identify schools, usually cleared of schoolchildren, where Houthi fighters had set up base. Recalling two incidents in his neighborhood where Houthi fighters deliberately shot civilians, the aid worker insisted that Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Yemeni president at the time, had approved every airstrike. He recalled how he couldn’t sleep until he heard the jets come “to shut up the Houthis.”

Targeting Hospitals

As well as a war on schools, the war in Yemen was a war on hospitals. In 2019, the Yemeni Archive, a group documenting the impact of hostilities, released a report stating that there were 130 attacks on hospitals.

I was informed that during the fighting in Aden, Houthi forces, in their eagerness to access electricity and air conditioning in Aden’s sweltering heat, occupied hospitals. Subsequently, the Saudi-led coalition unleashed its firepower on these hospitals. It has been confirmed to me by multiple sources that patients were still inside at the time the hospitals were attacked.

One medical staff member told me that the patients had been evacuated into the basement when the hospital in which she worked was bombed. A senior Yemeni humanitarian aid worker remarked that the casualties from the bombings of hospitals were relatively low, since the hospitals were at the time mostly used as centers for operations and there were few patients inside at the time of the attacks — though he remarked that it was a “very big wrong to strike hospitals and even to enter them as fighters.”

Currently, only approximately 50 percent of healthcare facilities in Yemen are functioning, as stated by a speaker at a UN roundtable on healthcare emergencies. In order for Yemenis to receive even basic healthcare, these destroyed healthcare centers must be rebuilt as soon as possible.

The destruction of infrastructure, even if it is not strictly medical, also contributes to a deterioration of healthcare outcomes for Yemenis. An aid worker stationed in a hospital outside of Aden told me that critical cases transported to the city have succumbed to internal bleeding on the road.

Disease Outbreaks

While in Aden, I worked on a project that addressed deadly diseases transmitted by insects, such as dengue fever, leishmania, and malaria. Risk factors for transmission are crowded settlements, garbage accumulation, poor housing, and open water sources.

Debris and rubble provided a habitat for sandflies and aedes mosquitos. Sandflies, which transmit leishmania (resulting in organ enlargement) thrive in debris, and aedes mosquitos (which transmit dengue fever) exploit places within debris where water is trapped.

Aden is a city covered with debris. Many of Aden’s structures were bombed out and have been partly demolished, with other buildings left half-completed, probably because funding ran out. All these ruins and other buildings in various stages of disrepair are surrounded by masses of debris. Unless rebuilding and clearing of the debris takes place on a large scale, a leishmania outbreak may occur in Aden, having been thus far limited to a neighboring governorate.

Malaria and dengue fever are already wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods in Aden. Halting these diseases, which cause unnecessary deaths and compound the traumas of war, requires insect protection tools such as bed nets, along with substantial funding for sanitation.

The breakdown of water supplies further increases the risk of disease transmission. Acquiring water has long been a challenge in Yemen, with limited access to piped water in Aden, often available only once or twice a week for a few hours.

The piped water system has collapsed due to the war, and there have been reports that one water treatment plant has been bombed. Those unable to install water tanks on their roofs must carry water in containers, consequently creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes near sleeping areas, since mosquitos breed in stagnant water. 

Responsibility for Rebuilding

The conversations I had in Yemen underlined the fact that wars continue to claim innocent lives long after the bombs have been dropped, missiles launched, and grenades thrown. Humanitarian aid in Yemen is dwindling due to ongoing allocations to Ukraine.

In February of this year, the UN’s Yemen Response Plan was only 10.4 percent funded. The destruction of infrastructure has impacted all spheres of Yemeni life in such a profound manner that it would require a genuinely ambitious reconstruction effort that exceeds the current underfunded humanitarian aid deliveries.

To alleviate the suffering in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its regional coalition partners — including Bahrain and the UAE, as well as non-Gulf countries such as Egypt and Jordan — must be held accountable. The Gulf monarchies, which are responsible for the largest portion of the physical destruction and possess the necessary resources to rebuild, should bear the majority of the cost.

This demand resonates among many Yemenis, whose perspectives should be at the forefront of all analyses and recommendations regarding Yemen. In one interview, a hotel worker implored the coalition countries to “fix our country [and] give us back our property” so that Yemenis can “live as we used to before.”

Other nations should contribute. The United States, in particular, bears a special responsibility. Following the Houthi takeover of Aden in 2015, the Obama administration announced the establishment of a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to closely coordinate “US military and intelligence support.” Around the same time, the United States decided to share intelligence on targets for airstrikes.

Seventy-three percent of the weapons received by Saudi Arabia originate from the United States, and the United States took part in joint exercises with 80 percent of the air squadrons involved in Yemeni airstrikes. In addition, US military contractors provided repairs, maintenance, and spare parts, while US jets conducted midair refueling operations for Saudi planes that carried out the airstrikes.

In 2018, during a period of regular bombings in Yemen by Saudi Arabia, Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institute, gave the following terse assessment: without US support, the Royal Saudi Air Force would have been “grounded tomorrow.”

European Union (EU) countries, as major arms suppliers to the Gulf coalition, should also contribute to reconstruction. EU exports, particularly from the UK, Germany, and France, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE increased significantly during the war.

Western and Gulf countries alike are wealthy nations capable of funding reconstruction. Examples of their extravagant spending include the hundreds of billions spent on World Cup preparations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s plans for costly architectural projects. Rebuilding hospitals, water treatment plants, buildings, and roads in Yemen would be more than financially feasible for these nations.

A focus on the role of external actors shouldn’t overshadow Yemeni responsibilities, a point emphasized repeatedly by Yemenis themselves. Internal divisions, elite rent seeking, and militia patronage networks have contributed to Yemen’s destruction historically. However, outsiders have repeatedly exacerbated tensions and made use of them for their interests, from the British colonial period to the war on terror.

A Long-Term Vision

Within the aid community in Yemen, perhaps particularly among Yemeni staff, more and more voices are pointing toward the need to start rebuilding efforts. Such rebuilding would aim to repair the long-term damage caused by war and go beyond immediate humanitarian aid, which is not mutually exclusive with rebuilding work and still very necessary.

When I spoke about the need for rebuilding, one Yemeni aid worker commented, “I am very happy you are an international who says this,” and elaborated on the limitations of providing short-term aid only: “We give people rations of food, they eat them, and then it’s finished.”

Now is the time for rebuilding. In April 2022, the UN brokered a two-month truce between the main warring parties. Although it was extended only for a second time, it currently holds de facto. During this period, there have been some positive developments — such as an exchange of prisoners — toward reconciliation between the two main factions and their proxies in Yemen, namely the internationally recognized government backed by Saudi Arabia in the south, and the Houthis in the north.

Moreover, Chinese diplomats facilitated a détente between the primary sponsors of violence, including a meeting between Omani and Saudi officials and the Houthi delegates on April 9 in Sana’a, the northern capital of the Houthis. However, during my visit to Aden, it became evident that Yemenis have grown disheartened by peace negotiations that fail to translate into tangible improvements in their daily lives.

Rebuilding efforts across the country could contribute to strengthening the recent positive momentum. It is crucial to address the root causes of despair so that fewer people feel compelled to join one of Yemen’s different militias.

Some have argued that insecurity hinders the delivery of services on a larger scale. However, a recent review by an expert panel appointed by the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee proposes that UN personnel should reconsider “excessive security measures,” as they hinder the offering of contextually appropriate services.

One must note that rather than there being just one conflict between the Yemeni central government and Houthi forces, there are multiple small-scale conflicts in Yemen, for example between members of the anti-Houthi alliance, as well as operations in the context of the US-led war on terror, though there are rarely active hostilities. One of these conflicts has been called “protracted calm” by Yemen expert Stacey Philbrick Yadav.

A Pivotal Moment

When advocating for reconstruction in Yemen, it is crucial that we study the pitfalls of prewar development policies. Helen Lackner, the most renowned international expert on Yemen, points to neoliberal International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs as a cause of the conflict. These programs reduced aid to the population, and the 2014 cessation of fuel subsidies, demanded by the IMF, contributed to economic pressure and instability that led to war.

Charles Schmitz, a scholar who has conducted extensive research on Yemen, argues that prewar reforms only empowered private actors, weakening the productive sectors of the economy. The neoliberal reforms implemented in the decades leading up to the war gradually eroded state capabilities and the legitimacy of public institutions, ultimately contributing to the complete collapse of the state.

The current state of Yemen is characterized by low-level competition of diverse armed groups, receiving support from various international backers. Most of these groups, including the internationally recognized government, lack the trust of the population. They exhibit signs of what a Yemeni interlocutor described as a “militia mindset,” prioritizing the economic spoils of war over the well-being of Yemenis.

Even given the current tensions that exist in Yemen, large-scale projects such as the building of hospitals, water treatment plants, and roads can be undertaken by mobilizing political support from influential nations. Recent Chinese investments may present certain challenges when it comes to the autonomy of recipient nations. Yet they have demonstrated the feasibility of constructing extensive physical infrastructure in countries affected by conflict. Western aid has also played a significant role in reducing — and in some cases nearly eradicating — diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, even in politically and geopolitically tense environments.

Postconflict reconstruction often presents the dilemma of incorporating measures to hold human rights violators accountable. Such provisions might disrupt Yemen’s fragile stability by stirring up militias who are afraid that accountability may endanger their economic empires, as has recently happened during the political transition in Sudan. On the other hand, disregarding demands for accountability could undermine the legitimacy of rebuilding efforts.

Striking the right balance presents a significant challenge for Yemenis. However, abstaining from rebuilding activities altogether would mean that the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen will continue in perpetuity. This is a pivotal moment in Yemeni history, fraught with peril, but also presenting windows of opportunity for rebuilding the country that should not be missed. Parties to wars — even if these parties are closely tied up with Western power — cannot just walk away from the ongoing devastation they have caused.