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In Yemen, All Sides Are Using Hunger as a Weapon

The Houthis, Saudis, and Emiratis are letting people starve while corruption and mismanagement of aid lines elites’ pockets.

By , a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.
People displaced by conflict receive food aid and provisions to meet their basic needs at a camp in the Khokha district of Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, on Jan. 14.
People displaced by conflict receive food aid and provisions to meet their basic needs at a camp in the Khokha district of Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, on Jan. 14.
People displaced by conflict receive food aid and provisions to meet their basic needs at a camp in the Khokha district of Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, on Jan. 14. KHALED ZIAD/AFP via Getty Images

Yemen’s war—the worst humanitarian disaster in the world—is getting even worse. The reason is the world’s disappointing response toward all combatants’ use of the war’s dirtiest instrument, hunger.

Shortly after the eruption of the Yemeni war in 2015, the United Nations declared Yemen one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and launched one of its most extensive campaigns to respond. However, Yemen is a prime example of how humanitarian aid can harm more than help and how it can become a part of the war economy.

Yemen was a poor country that suffered from malnutrition and food insecurity before this war. However, the current crisis is not only a result of the war; it is mainly about the behaviors of the conflicting parties. A small network of people from each side is getting rich, which shows that the lack of resources is not the real problem—it is corruption and mismanagement.

Yemen’s war—the worst humanitarian disaster in the world—is getting even worse. The reason is the world’s disappointing response toward all combatants’ use of the war’s dirtiest instrument, hunger.

Shortly after the eruption of the Yemeni war in 2015, the United Nations declared Yemen one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and launched one of its most extensive campaigns to respond. However, Yemen is a prime example of how humanitarian aid can harm more than help and how it can become a part of the war economy.

Yemen was a poor country that suffered from malnutrition and food insecurity before this war. However, the current crisis is not only a result of the war; it is mainly about the behaviors of the conflicting parties. A small network of people from each side is getting rich, which shows that the lack of resources is not the real problem—it is corruption and mismanagement.


The Houthi militia controls the most heavily populated areas in the north, while the internationally-recognized government runs the rest. Therefore, the Houthis have become the primary beneficiary of aid shipments; the areas not under their control have not received as much aid.

Humanitarian aid has thus become a key financial source for one of the conflict’s parties. For example, the U.N. paid at least $9.8 million in 2019 to the Houthis as a partner party in its school-feeding program, which breached the neutrality and independence of the humanitarian aid work.

The Houthis are not the only guilty party. The economic war on Yemeni civilians is being waged by all sides. The coalition that consists of two of the wealthiest Arab states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has done nothing to decrease the human suffering in Yemen since the war began in 2015.

Billions have been spent on weapons to destroy the country but virtually nothing on rebuilding  in areas controlled by Yemeni government troops and their allies.

Billions of dollars have been spent on weapons to destroy the country but virtually nothing has been spent on rebuilding what has been been destroyed in the areas under the control of Yemeni government troops and their allies. Seven years since the coalition expelled Houthi forces from the country’s south, the major city and the temporary capital Aden struggles with electricity. A few million dollars could solve this problem by providing a power station.

To add to Yemen’s economic woes, Saudi Arabia issued an evacuation order to all Yemeni academics and laborers in the kingdom’s southern region a few months ago under the pretext of nationalizing the labor force or unspecified security threats. The Saudis have partly retreated from this decision due to outraged media campaigns and NGO complaints to the U.N. that embarrassed them.

The nationalistic move targeted industries like the jewelry sector that primarily rely on Yemeni labor. Since the outbreak of the war, thousands of Yemeni laborers have returned from Saudi Arabia. And recently, Saudi Arabia passed a law that mandated that the number of Yemeni workers in any institutions, except small institutions, should not be more than 25 percent, compared to 40 percent for Bangladeshis or Indians.

Unlike the Syrian war, during which neighboring Jordan and Lebanon received refugees, Yemen’s two wealthier neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Oman do not have asylum laws, so they do not welcome refugees or even receive Yemeni workers as they do with Asian workers.

Based on Riyadh’s presumed political and moral commitments considering the war Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen, it was expected that Yemenis would be exempted from this Saudi jobs for Saudi workers policy. But Yemenis are not welcomed in large numbers in most Gulf countries, despite these countries’ direct or indirect involvement in Yemen’s war. Shutting them out has decimated the Yemeni economy even further because the remittances of Yemeni migrants have become the sole source of foreign currency in the country during the war especially due to the country’s halt of oil and gas exports.

The ongoing war cut the salaries of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civil servants, which affected millions of Yemenis, most of them living in Sanaa. After moving the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden in 2016, the internationally-recognized government failed to fulfill its promises to continue paying their salaries.

All attempts to resume paying the salaries failed since the Houthis now dominate part of the state’s revenue-collecting institutions. The government claimed that they could not pay all the salaries while not receiving all the revenues. Yet this government has appointed hundreds of people in consulting positions—most of them living outside of Yemen and receiving lavish wages for doing nothing. Meanwhile, the Houthis imposed multiple taxes and levies on the people under their control and spent the revenues collected on the war and their corrupt network that runs the state.

The West is dumping aid money onto Yemen without even monitoring or ensuring that it reaches the people who need it most.

While most Yemenis are in need and very poor, and many of them live on one meal per day if they find it, corruption is increasing on both sides. Most of the officials of the internationally-recognized government live outside of Yemen and buy real estate abroad—especially Egypt and Turkey. Something similar happens in the Houthi-controlled areas, where real estate prices have soared six-fold since the war started.

Real estate is the only way to safely invest money because it is challenging to transfer money outside Yemen and the currency is extremely unstable. Since 2017, the Yemeni currency has depreciated rapidly. In the last year, the value of the Yemeni riyal in U.S. dollars dropped from 1,000 to 1,700 by the end of the year.

The propaganda machine of the government and coalition sometimes states that if the people got poorer, this would motivate them to revolt against the Houthis. However, a senior Houthi leader who wishes to remain anonymous told me that this poverty helped their cause. When the people got hungry, they had only two options: fighting with us or taking photos of their starving families and blaming the coalition.


The economic war on the Yemeni people is the biggest silent killer in the country. According to the World Food Programme, almost 16 million people face food insecurity, and more than two million children need a cure from acute malnutrition.

The international community can do more to stop this aspect of this war instead of calming its conscience by dumping aid money onto Yemen without even monitoring or ensuring that it reaches the people who need it most.

In addition to assessing and monitoring the humanitarian aid operation in Yemen, western leaders must put pressure on the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to receive more Yemeni migrants and apply preferential policies toward Yemeni workers. Furthermore, these belligerent parties must make major contributions to reconstruction in the semi-stable areas of the country.

The political deadlock in Yemen and the escalation of military operations can’t be separated from the economic situation, which has led to the deaths of 233,000 people, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as malnutrition. It has also led to the recruitment of fighters who did not have other choices, and left millions of Yemenis facing unbearable suffering.

The last economic negotiation between the warring parties was held by the U.N. in Jordan in May 2019. It must resume as soon as possible to unify the country’s central bank, pay the salaries of civil servants, and stop the currency’s collapse.

Maysaa Shuja al-Deen is a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. Twitter: @maysaashujaa

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