The Yemen conflict may be relatively subdued for now, but this could soon change. On 1 July, the United Arab Emirates announced a pause in its military operations against Hudayda. Since then, this front, which lies across a strategically important territory in the conflict, has been quiet and Hudayda port has continued to operate. But the arrival of fresh troops and equipment suggests that the UAE intends to resume the fight. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is negotiating an interim truce, striving to prevent a potentially catastrophic resumption of hostilities. At this precarious moment, it is imperative that European leaders, in cooperation with the UN secretary-general, actively intervene to facilitate his efforts.
The port of Hudayda must be shielded from further fighting. More than 70 percent of Yemen’s imports of basic commodities such as food, fuel, and medicine arrive through the Red Sea ports of Hudayda and Salif. Their continuous operation is vital to the survival of 20 million Yemenis. Wider geopolitical interests are also at stake: there is an increasing risk that the conflict will spill further outside Yemen’s borders. Should the Red Sea become a war zone, international trade would be threatened – as recent rocket attacks on Saudi oil tankers demonstrate.
Coalition capture of Hudayda could precipitate a catastrophe
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leaders of the international coalition in Yemen, argue that capturing Hudayda would increase pressure on the Houthis to sue for peace. This claim is based on questionable logic. One aspect of the argument is that capturing Hudayda would stop Iran smuggling arms to the Houthis. But it is highly unlikely that such arms pass through Hudayda. The Houthis obtained many of their weapons from the massive arsenal in the country at the beginning of the war, and have since acquired more through overland internal and cross-border trade. Few experts on the conflict argue that Iran is as significant a supplier as the coalition claims – it is likely that ballistic missiles used against Saudi and Emirati targets are now manufactured locally with copies of Iranian components. A competent international body, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen, or UNVIM, already polices Hudayda port – as do Saudi inspectors the coalition deployed there (in contravention of the principles of UNVIM).
The second dubious claim is that the capture of Hudayda would force the Houthis to make peace because it would deprive them of port revenues. But they could still exact import duties inland – on supply routes and in markets. The result would be double taxation that substantially drove up prices. This would exacerbate the suffering that has followed coalition blockades of Hudayda and Salif ports, which have created shortages of vital supplies and caused prices to sky-rocket. Physical control of the port would only make it easier for the coalition to impose blockades that had an immediate effect on supply.
The threat of an attack on Hudayda city and its port has, therefore, raised a chorus of alarm from the United Nations and humanitarian agencies trying to avert the nightmare scenario of mass starvation in Yemen.
Prolonged fighting for Hudayda would be disastrous
Proponents of an attack on Hudayda suggest that supplies to Yemen’s populous highland interior could travel through the port of Salif via the Hajja and Mahweit roads. But Salif has no facilities for importing the fuel essential for transport, water supply (through pumps), and domestic cooking. And its grain silos have only half the capacity, and its mills one-third of the capacity, of Hudayda’s. The journey through the mountains to Sanaa and other highland centres is also much longer and more difficult if it involves alternative routes from Salif rather than from Hudayda.
The coalition’s early talk of a “quick, clean victory” has now evaporated
It is possible that the main supply routes from Hudayda through Manakha to Sanaa would remain open even if intense fighting broke out in Hudayda city, as this could be advantageous for both sides in the conflict. But it is just as likely that the routes through both the northern suburbs and across the coastal plain would be hotly contested for military reasons.
If the hostilities were prolonged, there would be a sharp rise in severe malnutrition and starvation in Yemen. Due to the limitations of the country’s storage facilities, stockpiles of food would run out and prices would surge unless international aid agencies secured continuous humanitarian access to populations in need. For the past year, Yemen has been on the brink of famine, saved only by a massive humanitarian intervention that costs the international community $2 billion annually. A squeeze on food supplies leads to a dramatic rise in prices of the flour and sugar the poorest Yemenis survive on – as seen most dramatically last November, when Saudi Arabia totally shut down Hudayda and Salif ports. Similarly, coalition military operations against Hudayda in June 2018 prompted panic buying and a 50 percent spike in wheat prices.
Fuel shortages would also have devastating effects. Fuel prices have already doubled since March this year. Heightened conflict would increase transportation costs, further raising prices. Electricity generators could not function, threatening industries, health centres, and water supplies within Hudayda city and beyond. There are already outbreaks of cholera in the city – widely attributed to the Houthis’ construction of a defensive trench, which contaminated water supplies. In the event of large-scale fighting, these outbreaks will be impossible to contain. The recent bombing of Hudayda’s main hospital has already massively complicated the efforts under way.
At the same time, many Yemenis’ incomes have declined or disappeared due to the non-payment of salaries, the displacement of communities, and coalition airstrikes on factories, farms, and fisheries. For example, many villagers from the Tihamah coast, the poorest region in Yemen, fled to Hudayda city for safety. More recently, around 350,000 people have escaped to the highlands, adding to the more than two million Yemenis still displaced by more than three years of war. Most seek to stay with relatives, adding to the financial strain on families already struggling to cope.
Yemen’s economy has already shrunk by around 45 percent since the war began. Taiz, the country’s main industrial centre, is working at a fraction of its pre-crisis output. Hudayda will go the same way; its factories are highly vulnerable, and some have already been hit by airstrikes. It is inconceivable that any major battle for control of Hudayda city would spare the port or allow it to remain fully operational.
The coalition’s early talk of a “quick, clean victory” has now evaporated. Instead, the UAE speaks of a “staged approach”. But the longer the battle, the greater the loss of livelihoods, damage to the economy, and cost of emergency interventions to stave off outright collapse. The US Famine Early Warning System projects that prolonged hostilities and import disruption would cause food supplies to run out in around two months, resulting in famine.
Europe can play a decisive role
Griffiths needs more proactive international support to break the deadlock and persuade both sides to make concessions. Under an interim solution on the table, the Houthis would withdraw from Hudayda port – after receiving guarantees against a further attack on the city – and allow a mutually agreed on international body to administer it.
European powers could play a constructive role by unifying their efforts to support a high-level initiative by the UN secretary-general
The international dynamic is ominous. The United States’ attention is largely elsewhere, and Europe is divided on Yemen. The United Kingdom and France have openly backed the coalition and supported the military offensive with arms and intelligence. This gives them considerable leverage over the coalition, but little sway over the Houthis. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Norway, along with the European Union, have been more openly critical of the coalition, and have stopped or constrained their arms sales to the Saudis and the Emiratis. As a consequence, they have better lines of communication with the Houthis, and more influence on both them and Iran.
European powers could play a constructive role in averting a further humanitarian crisis in Yemen by putting aside their differences and unifying their efforts to support a high-level initiative by the UN secretary-general himself. France and the UK should be more assertive in engaging with leaders in Yemen, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Washington, emphasising that further attacks on Hudayda would be a momentous mistake that could cost the coalition valuable resources, further damage its international reputation, and implicate it in an increasingly egregious humanitarian crisis. In parallel, European governments and the EU should use their open dialogue with Iran and their communication channels with the Houthis to underline the devastating setbacks that a battle in Hudayda would have for them, and the fact that they could better protect their interests through a negotiated compromise under which an international body took charge of Hudayda port.
Moreover, European leaders can, with the endorsement of the UN Security Council, drive a common initiative in which the special envoy moves beyond the constraints of Resolution 2216, the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, and pedantic adherence to National Dialogue outcomes. These components of the current diplomatic framework threaten Griffiths’ efforts and risk leading him to the same dead end as his predecessor. Just as the coalition needs reassurances that its interests will be protected, the Houthis need credible guarantees of a significant place in any future political arrangement.
The stakes in Yemen have become very high, exacerbating tension between allies and the threat of regional confrontation. Bolder action is needed. Many Yemenis look to European powers to stop the war – and they are right to do so.
James Firebrace set up the Yemen Safe Passage Group to highlight the impact of blockades and attacks against infrastructure, and to support steps towards a sustainable and inclusive peace, in Yemen.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.