Despite the geographic distance separating them, what happens in Yemen is of strong interest to Europe. And so it should be, if only for moral reasons. The human tragedy unfolding in this small nation of 28 million, bounded by the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia and Oman, should shake the conscience of humankind. While precise figures are elusive, tens of thousands of people have been killed in fighting, and tens of thousands, especially young children, have died from hunger and disease. Last October, the UN raised its estimate of the number of “severely food-insecure” people from eight to fourteen million, or half the country’s population. This despite a huge international humanitarian relief plan – evidence that a looming famine is not a challenge that can be tackled merely by throwing money at it: the warring sides must bring the conflict to an end.
In the face of such suffering, we have seen only stuttering attempts by the conflict parties at resolving the crisis, each effort becoming stranded in a tangle of geopolitical calculations that ignore the fate of Yemen’s people even as they profess to place it uppermost. Backed by the United States, a Saudi-led coalition has fought Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah, who removed the interim government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi in early 2015. This coalition detects an Iranian hand behind the Houthis’ prowess, but while Iran has provided the rebel movement with support, it is not the political puppet master the coalition suggests. The Houthis are a fiercely independent rebel movement that has aligned itself with Iran politically out of necessity. They receive military support and training from Tehran, but owe their success primarily to their access to the former Yemeni army’s vast arsenal of weaponry, their reliance on battle-hardened fighters convinced of their cause, and the fact that their enemies are hopelessly divided. While the Obama administration bears responsibility for getting the United States involved in the coalition’s campaign, the Trump administration has made things worse: its anti-Iran policy of the past two years has increasingly infected thinking on Yemen and emboldened the Saudis and Emiratis in believing they could effect a military solution to the conflict. This has remained elusive, however.
The EU and its member states, with the notable exception of the UK (which is penholder on Yemen in the UN Security Council) and France – both major weapons suppliers to the Saudi-led coalition – have largely been bystanders in the events of the past four years. Europe’s relative lack of hard power, deference to the US, internal divisions and reluctance to openly cross its Gulf allies have kept it on the side-lines of a conflict that could yet spin out of control and create greater problems in an already unstable region. Even without that, the war and the external powers meddling in it are adding to spreading chaos in the Middle East, which has already unsettled European societies and politics.
Internal differences among EU member states have played an important role in limiting the EU’s effectiveness in shaping the conflict. The UK and France, both major arms suppliers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have continued to transfer weapons that have been used in the conflict even as they have insistently called for peace. Both have shied away from publicly criticising their regional allies and have been reluctant to support a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. By contrast, the European Parliament (which has no real power) has been an outspoken critic of the war and its humanitarian consequences, as have a handful of member states whose financial interests are not as closely intertwined with Gulf states.
Yet the EU has an important advantage: as a relative outsider to Yemen’s internal strife, the EU, in particular, has been able to maintain communication channels with all the parties to the conflict, both inside Yemen and within the wider region, while being outspokenly critical of the war. Europe also has significant economic power. Now that the US appears to be tacking toward negotiations largely as a result of pressures from Congress – which is concerned about US complicity in a humanitarian tragedy in a war with no clear off-ramp for the belligerents – a European diplomatic initiative and stepped-up support of UN peace-making efforts, backed by the EU’s financial muscle, are suddenly starting to make a lot of sense.
Europe’s top priorities in Yemen should be to prevent outright famine from breaking out and, relatedly, to help de-escalate tensions all around. To this end, it should continue to support the current Hodeida ceasefire by encouraging regional powers – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran – to lower the temperature by pressing their respective local allies to implement the December 2018 Stockholm agreement and constructively participate in broader peace talks down the line. It should also work with willing political forces in the US to keep the Trump administration from backing a return to belligerency and, in particular, a renewed military push on Hodeida. Passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2451 (December 2018) supporting the Stockholm agreement is a step in the right direction, as is technical support from the EU and its member states for implementing key parts of the agreement, such as the ceasefire and de-militarisation of Hodeida ports and city.
Avoiding a return to fighting around Hodeida (and with it an escalation of the war writ large) is complicated by the Trump administration’s Iran obsession. Europe’s message should be that, in addition to the importance of ending US complicity in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, the US should be guided by the acknowledgment that, to the extent that Iran plays a role in Yemen, it does so in large part because the war provided an opportunity for Tehran to keep its regional rivals tied down. Ending the war would therefore not be a gift to Iran, as the administration appears to fear. Moreover, any attempt to curb Iran’s influence in Yemen is unlikely to make headway without an end to the war and the start of a political process in which the Houthis have the chance to participate as legitimate political players.
In the final analysis, Europe’s role in Yemen is bound to be limited. This is in part the result of having been allied with the US for decades in an arrangement in which the US provided the hard power and took the lead in managing conflicts in the region, and European powers supported the US by providing development and other economic assistance to US and European allies. Today, this operational framework has come under threat. Europe will therefore have to carve out a new role for itself – not just in Yemen, but also in other parts of the MENA region, and indeed the world. We have already seen indications of a more autonomous European path – for example, the establishment earlier this year of the so-called special-purpose vehicle designed to circumvent US secondary sanctions on Iran. Yet Europe’s relative lack of hard power and its internal divisions will keep it from playing a more significantly autonomous role for quite some time.
Yet even on that front we may see some progress. The UK and France have rightly been upbraided by human rights groups and others for supplying weaponry to their Gulf allies that has contributed to the latter’s war effort in Yemen – weaponry, in other words, not specifically intended for strictly defensive purposes. But last October, following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Germany cut its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, specifically citing the need to see the Yemen war brought to an end. In March of this year, the German government extended its temporary ban over the protests of its European allies France and the UK, whose own role in this has become complicated because of the intermeshing of the German, French and British arms manufacturing industries. Germany should now press its fine example, invoking both moral principle and European strategic interest, and persuade the UK and France to desist from the sale of weaponry to Gulf allies except for explicitly defensive purposes, at least until Saudi Arabia and the UAE have halted their war effort in Yemen.
As a matter of policy priority on Yemen, European states should first get themselves on the same page and then use their leverage to push the US in the direction of talks and discourage backsliding. Either this, or see the war re-escalate and a humanitarian catastrophe take another turn for the worse.