The Year in Review

In Yemen, No End in Sight to the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

Five articles from the past year that explain how the quagmire in Yemen sparked fierce political battles in Washington as millions teeter on the brink of starvation.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A fighter in Yemen walks past a burning oil tanker.
A fighter of the UAE-trained Security Belt Force walks with a separatist flag past an oil tanker set ablaze during clashes in the Abyan province in southern Yemen on Aug. 30, 2019. Nabil Hasan/AFP via Getty Images

After six years of conflict, Yemen remains mired in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi militias in a grueling proxy war of Middle East rivals that has left millions of people on the brink of famine. United Nations-brokered negotiations between the warring factions have started, sputtered, and stalled numerous times, leaving the country in a grim limbo with no clear offramp for a lasting peace agreement. Meanwhile, top U.N. officials are warning that international donors have given barely half of what aid groups say is needed to supply the embattled civilian population with food, medicine, and other life-saving humanitarian assistance.

In Washington, the conflict in Yemen has sparked some of the most intriguing political fights in the Trump administration, as a coalition of conservative Republican and progressive Democratic lawmakers banded together to try to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition and reassert Congress’s war power authorities. 

Yet President Donald Trump has repeatedly vetoed or fended off legislation aimed at completely halting U.S. military support or at restricting presidential authorities to greenlight military actions abroad without prior congressional approval. Congress also launched investigations into the Trump administration’s expedited arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf power engaged in the conflict against the Houthis, leading to public sparring between top Trump diplomats and lawmakers. 

President-elect Joe Biden could alter U.S. policy on Yemen, bringing an end to the battles in Washington—but the conflict there still has no end in sight. 

Here are five of the best Foreign Policy pieces this year on Yemen and its fallout.

1. Pompeo to Pressure U.N. Over Aid to Yemen

by Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, March 2

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to New York to pressure U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to scale back aid to devastated civilians in Yemen, lest the foreign assistance fall into the hands of the Iran-backed rebels. The episode underscored how precarious the U.N.’s position was in Yemen, as it faced pressure from the Trump administration to crack down on Houthis as part of its broader campaign against Iran, and from other U.N. powers and humanitarian groups that desperately sought to keep vital aid routes open. 

2. Pompeo’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Were Legal—But Heightened Risks of Civilian Casualties in Yemen

by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, Aug. 11

Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sparked outrage in Congress and led to an internal State Department investigation. The State Department’s watchdog eventually found that while Pompeo did not use improper channels to expedite the arms sales, he didn’t adequately take into account how it would heighten the risk of civilian casualties. To many Yemen watchers, the bureaucratic battle perfectly encapsulated all the fights in Washington over Trump’s Middle East policies, with humanitarian issues taking a back seat to arms sales and confronting Iran.

A Yemeni man receives humanitarian aid.

A Yemeni man receives humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme in the country’s city of Taez on Oct. 10. AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP via Getty Images

3. A U.N. Agency Lauded for Its Work Faces a Funding Shortage

by Augusta Saraiva and Darcy Palder, Oct. 20

Prizes are great, but they don’t pay the bills for a cash-strapped U.N. agency. In October, the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger worldwide. But celebrations at WFP were short-lived, as Foreign Policy reported in October, when agency officials offered dire warnings about funding shortfalls and a surge in humanitarian crises, spurred in part by the global coronavirus pandemic—nowhere more than in Yemen. The story of how the WFP earned international plaudits without money to match underscores the challenge humanitarian agencies and organizations have in dealing with the long-term recovery of Yemen as donor fatigue accelerates.

4. Saudi Arabia’s Worst Nightmare

by Aaron David Miller, Nov. 6

Saudi Arabia has had a cozy four years with the Trump administration, even as every other corner of Washington soured on Riyadh after the bone-saw execution of a Washington Post journalist, continued human rights abuses at home, and the devastating war in Yemen. But that’s all likely to change under Biden, Aaron David Miller argues in Foreign Policy. Biden has called for an end to the “disastrous war” in Yemen and, reflecting the mood of many members of Congress, indicated he would reassess the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including the blank check for arms sales and the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology. 

5. Trump Administration Plans to Designate Yemen’s Houthis as Terrorists

by Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch, Nov. 16

In November, Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration planned to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists before leaving office in January as a final parting shot at the Iran-linked group. The designation has stalled after the administration faced fierce pushback from some lawmakers and humanitarian groups, which warn that it would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Whether Trump ultimately pulls the trigger remains to be seen, but the debate reflects how the administration has elevated its hard-line approach to Iran and its regional proxies above all else—and reminds other world powers that Trump might still have some surprise policy moves up his sleeve before he leaves the White House in January.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer