A Saudi-Led Coalition Has Laid Waste to Southern Yemen With US Support

The US is threatening military action in the waters off Yemen to protect international shipping routes. The people of Yemen have already borne the brunt of a US-sponsored war that has caused devastation similar to the horrific scenes in Gaza.

A Yemeni man searches for survivors under the rubble in houses destroyed by an overnight Saudi-led air strike on a residential area in an Aden suburb, May 2, 2015. (Saleh al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images)

Between April and December 2022, I worked as an aid worker in Aden, Yemen’s internationally recognized capital. The northern region of Yemen is presently under the governance of the Shiite Houthi faction, known for its affiliations with Iran, whereas the southern territories, including Aden, are significantly influenced by the countries comprising the Saudi-led Gulf coalition.

In March 2015, the Houthis invaded Aden, a city predominantly inhabited by Sunni residents. They were compelled to retreat from Aden in July of the same year due to armed resistance that was supported by Saudi airstrikes and special forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

My trip to Yemen was for a health project that did not involve sensitive political matters. Nevertheless, the Yemeni staff of the organization employing me had to navigate an extensive bureaucratic process to obtain the necessary documents from several government ministries and the office of the Arab Alliance, representing the de facto leaders of southern Yemen who govern from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

I suspect that this complex application process for international visitors is tied to a broader campaign to control the flow of information from the regions of Yemen under the control of the Gulf coalition. What might the reasons be for such secrecy? The following is an attempt to list some potential explanations.

Evidence of War Crimes

One possibility is that Aden’s once picturesque cityscape, nestled between a rugged mountain range and the Red Sea, now serves as a grim testament to potential war crimes committed by the Gulf coalition during its 2015 campaign to expel the Houthis from Aden. Even for those who have witnessed the destruction caused by contemporary urban warfare in other locations, the scale of the destruction in Yemen appears utterly incomprehensible, with entire buildings reduced to rubble.

After witnessing the destruction, conducting my own research, and engaging in conversations with locals, it became clear to me that coalition countries intentionally targeted several vital civilian sites. Research conducted by international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations has substantiated the claims of deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure.

The aerial bombardment of Yemen has caused a level of devastation reminiscent of Israel’s current campaign in the Gaza Strip, with whose inhabitants Yemenis, whether of Shia or Sunni background, strongly identify. Like Israel, the Gulf coalition has justified its bombings by claiming that seemingly civilian sites were being used for military purposes — claims that are very difficult to evaluate independently.

When speaking with residents of Aden about their experiences during the conflict in 2015, a sense of ambiguity frequently emerged. On the one hand, they often felt relieved that the Gulf coalition intervened to counter the Houthi invasion, which had included indiscriminate shelling, repurposing of civilian buildings for military aims, and the prospect of a military occupation that struck fear into the hearts of the residents of Aden. On the other hand, most found themselves appalled by the extensive destruction deliberately inflicted upon civilian infrastructure by the Gulf coalition.

Researchers from Brown University’s Cost of War project estimate that more than four Yemenis die for every direct military fatality. Most Southern Yemenis were highly critical of the conduct of the Gulf coalition during the conflict. There is widespread distrust toward official explanations of why the coalition targeted specific sites.

The coalition has targeted, and in many cases severely damaged, sites of great historical significance. In some cases, these sites had reportedly been repurposed for military aims by the Houthis. In other cases, however, they had no apparent military use. These sites include the adobe, gingerbread-like skyscrapers of the old city of Sana’a in the country’s north, from where the Houthis rule their territory.

The fabled monuments of Sirwah offer a glimpse into the ancient pre-Arabic kingdom of Saba’s way of life, and parts of the Ma’rib Dam — an ancient feat of engineering that provides evidence of the highly intricate irrigation system of the Saba civilization. Given the patterns of attacks and airstrikes on various sites, several leading archaeologists and historians have suggested that the aim of the military operations was to undermine Yemen’s sense of historical continuity.

A Global Game

Despite the destruction, Aden remains a city that exudes a profound sense of Yemen’s rich cultural tapestry. Yemen has been at the origin and crossroads of diverse civilizations for millennia, attracting emissaries from various parts of West Asia, Southern Asia, the Occident, as well as the Horn of Africa, who ventured into this historical heartland of Arabia.

Aden’s fading beauty and sense of history notwithstanding, there is a prevailing sense that the global and regional powers engaged in the Yemeni conflict have hidden agendas that profoundly impact the lives of Yemenis. Locals stated that the war is “a big strategy going on,” or that “war sells.” They see the conflict as a “global game,” over which they can exert little influence.

A visitor from the country’s north pleaded with the international community to stop Saudi Arabia: “Saudi, if they cannot take it, they will bomb it. They want to make it like Japan in the Second World War,” he declared. “From Sana’a to Aden, all the road is bombed, bombed, bombed. It is broken.”

The immensely wealthy Gulf countries are overseeing what the UN has termed “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” yet neither those states nor other donors have supplied adequate funding to alleviate it. The implications of these funding shortfalls have become a central topic of discussion at UN meetings.

The repercussions of insufficient investment have been profoundly devastating. A Yemeni doctor I spoke with recounted some of her harrowing experiences in a hospital:

Yemen had very little before the war. The war destroyed it all . . . My heart cries when a small baby is on mechanical ventilation because of malaria or dengue and then, after a few days, dies.

The full scope of the war’s impact on human health in Yemen still remains unknown. Through my work, I had numerous interactions with a young, compassionate physician — an unsung hero who went beyond her professional obligations of providing lifesaving care. In addition to her regular duties, she volunteered at an underfunded children’s hospital for about fifteen days each month, including multiple night shifts. On one occasion, she voiced concern about the rising prevalence of cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and pulmonary diseases such as lung fibrosis.

A woman approached us as we were having one of our conversations in a fast-food court in a central district of Aden. She asked if we knew of any organization that could cover the medical expenses for her sister’s babies, afflicted by cerebral palsy and cancer. The sum was 15,000 Riyal — nearly $14 at the time. We gave her the money directly, but I was left wondering how other Yemenis were managing similar situations without assistance.

Restricted Access

Restricted access for journalists is another factor that obstructs the flow of information from Yemen. Contrary to my experiences in South Sudan and Liberia, where I had frequent interactions with journalists, I only encountered a single journalist during my time there. This journalist was affiliated with a TV station based in Saudi Arabia.

Most Yemenis are unable to leave their country, meaning firsthand accounts of their experiences are rarely shared with the wider world. As one Yemeni staff member of a large humanitarian organization explained:

It’s like a prison. As Yemeni people, we are not capable of traveling to many places. I think for foreigners it is okay for them, you have a European passport. Some people cannot go outside the country, it is very expensive.

Yemen has seen minimal investigations carried out by medical institutions, governments, NGOs, lawyers, and journalists. Kristine Beckerle, a Yale Law School fellow who advocates for Yemen reparations, emphasizes the high cost of waiting for accountability: “The price of waiting is high. Time destroys evidence. Conflict destroys it faster.”

Global indifference to the crimes in Yemen benefits the Gulf coalition as well as its Houthi enemies and the outside supporters of belligerent actors, including Western countries. The majority of weapons used by the Saudi coalition originate from the United States, the UK, and EU countries. The UK has deployed its own troops, who were embedded with Saudi forces accused of torture.

In the course of the war, the United States established a joint command center with Saudi Arabia. It shared target intelligence, conducted training for air squadrons, provided spare parts for military equipment, and carried out midair refueling for the coalition. All of these military contributions arguably placed the United States in the role of an active participant in the hostilities. A CNN investigation from 2019 found that US weapons were being used by groups supported by the UAE and by Saudi Arabia, as well as by Houthi and al-Qaeda fighters.

Fragile Alliances

The authorities in southern Yemen may also want to conceal the fact that the anti-Houthi coalition has disintegrated. Its members, along with their proxies, are currently embroiled in ongoing low-intensity conflicts within the territory that is technically controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG).

This territory is, in large part, abundant in natural resources, containing the majority of Yemen’s existing trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of oil. In pursuit of influence, the UAE supports groups associated with the Southern Transitional Council, which represents a secessionist movement that challenges the Saudi-backed IRG in Aden.

While the primary hostilities in Aden ceased seven years before I visited, one of the main sources of income in the city still derives from the security sector that is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These countries are providing finance for a multitude of militias. The influx of funding has created byzantine, rapidly shifting networks of allegiances between different actors.

The small-scale conflicts and complex, pragmatic alliances that arise from these networks can be challenging for external observers to decipher. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has established close ties with the al-Islah party, a subsidiary of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the Brotherhood is its bitter adversary in other national contexts, such as Egypt.

Such alliances contribute to the prevailing belief in southern Yemen that external powers are controlling or influencing events on the ground. A Yemeni procurement officer employed by a European NGO observed that much of the decision-making within Yemen aligns with foreign interests: “Nobody is loyal.”

According to an investigation by the security analyst Aidan Hickey, private military contractors have carried out assignments for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A significant driving force behind this trend is the quest for cost-effective labor on the battlefield. One company reportedly hired over 1,800 ex-Colombian military personnel, tripling their salaries from previous jobs. Most of these mercenaries fought for the Gulf coalition against the Houthis before a de facto truce between the two parties emerged in 2022, since the Gulf coalition did not have a vast pool of men of fighting age.

Individuals in the Yemeni battlefield may have gained skills from Western agencies, but the physical presence of Westerners in Yemen is rare, with some exceptions. One curious case, which took place between 2015 and 2016, involved a collaboration between an Israeli security contractor and Mohammed Dahlan, the former chief of security for the Palestinian Authority.

This partnership engaged former Navy SEALs and members of the CIA’s “ground branch,” akin to the army’s special forces. Their operation provides instructive insights into the way war is waged in Yemen. The assassins were given a list of targets, which included “clerics, scholars, and imams,” along with a total monthly compensation of $1.5 million. For legal safeguards, these operatives were granted military ranks within the UAE military.

This arrangement was detailed in an investigation by Buzzfeed, which also uncovered a failed assassination attempt on a prominent member of the al-Islah party, known for its ties to Saudi Arabia. Buzzfeed notes that approximately twenty-five to thirty other al-Islah members were killed around the same time the mercenaries were operating on the ground. The periodic executions occurring in Aden feed a prevailing sense of insecurity.

Militarization and Insecurity

Military pay in southern Yemen exceeds civilian salaries, which are often delayed by up to three months. Locals I spoke with said that teachers receive between $50 and $100 each month, while doctors earn approximately $180. Repeated currency devaluations mean that their effective purchasing power is constantly diminishing.

The Saudi-led coalition offers competitive salaries to military personnel, typically ranging from $600 to $800 per month and reportedly reaching levels of $1,000 to $1,500 for certain soldiers. Job scarcity is so severe that university graduates are choosing military careers instead of finding work in their field of expertise. Their lack of military experience has led in turn to higher numbers of casualties.

The contrast between the daily deprivation in Aden and the military buildup is striking. Soldiers for the UAE are frequently seen traversing the streets in Oshkosh M-ATVs, a camouflaged mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle that is manufactured in Texas and Wisconsin. They are often accompanied by pickup trucks equipped with machine guns.

The price of an Oshkosh M-ATV is $470,000, making it a high-priced acquisition in a region where many lack basic necessities. The juxtaposition of Yemenis searching the streets for a meal that would still the pangs of deep hunger and the presence of these vehicles is reminiscent of scenes one might expect in a science-fiction film.

As in other areas affected by terrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns, the presence of a strong military does not necessarily lead to a sense of security among the population. In al-Basateen, a poverty-stricken yet vibrant community inhabited by Yemenis and Somalis, a group of women told to me that the theft of water tanks is jeopardizing their livelihoods. They lamented the government’s absence from their daily lives.

Continuously evolving, cutting-edge military technologies are unable to address such seemingly quotidian security concerns. Nor can they instill a sense of security in locations where the state has largely relinquished its responsibilities. On the contrary, it seems that the emphasis on security contributes to a sense of powerlessness among locals, who undergo roadside security checks that appear to exist primarily for symbolic purposes.

The Yemeni voices decrying what they perceive as a military occupation of southern Yemen are growing increasingly louder. In July of this year, Aden residents took to the streets to protest against economic deprivation, chanting “We demand bread, water, and power.”

They were referring to “power” in a literal sense, as Yemenis regularly experience power cuts that can last for up to seventeen hours. But their demands also included the dismantling of the Southern Transitional Council, a proxy of the UAE. We need to amplify the voices of Yemeni protesters and expose the ongoing devastation caused by the actions of the Gulf states among southern Yemenis, which will otherwise remain unheard in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Tehran, Washington, and Paris.