Helen Lackner, Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope (Saqi Books, 2023). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Helen Lackner (HL): Yemen is largely unknown or ignored. This was true before the war, which has engulfed the country for almost nine years now, and remains the case despite the devastation caused by the fighting and the consequent humanitarian crisis. There are a few academic studies focused on specific aspects of the country’s present and past, but there is no overall detailed and serious study of the country’s development in the past half century. By comparison with other experts on Yemen, I have the advantage of having lived and worked in the three Yemeni states which have existed during this period, the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY 1967-1990), the capitalist Yemen Arab Republic (YAR 1962-1990), and the unified Republic of Yemen (RoY 1990-). Writing the book helped me review and analyze my daily experiences over the decades. The war is now in its ninth year, so an update of the original book is appropriate, as well as the additional emphasis on the disastrous humanitarian situation which is one of its most prominent features. My commitment to Yemen and Yemenis is deep, and writing is the only thing I can do to try and help.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HL: The book examines Yemen’s political, social, and economic developments since the 1960s, including comparison of the different regimes and how they led to the current war. It discusses fundamental constraints which impact the country’s economy: its limited natural resources, its low skilled labor force, and the fact that its rural people have suffered from neo-liberal development policies. Political transformations over the period firmly differentiate the RoY from its monarchical neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula, despite its “flawed” democracy—which enabled Ali Abdullah Saleh to remain president for more than thirty years and eventually caused paralysis of the political system by the end of the first decade of this century. Political parties have a real existence and base among the population, and will remain relevant after the war. The book provides background explanation of the main political movements which have become prominent during the war and must be addressed to solve the crisis.

A fundamental feature of the book is its explanation of the process of transformation of Yemen’s social structure based on status inherited at birth to one determined by wealth and access to resources. Its examination of the economy addresses the implications of the neo-liberal economic policies which were implemented and supported both by the bilateral and multilateral development financiers and the Saleh regime whose interests coincided. The combination of the political and economic deterioration alongside the stresses and tensions brought about by the changed social structure are the underlying causes of the war itself, the main events of which are also outlined in the book.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HL: This is the second edition of Yemen in Crisis, published six years after the first. This edition includes an update of political, social, and economic developments during the war, without going into details of military minutiae. The first edition was published two years after the war started so, although the historical, social, and political analyses remain valid and largely unchanged, Saqi and I considered it suitable to update the book with the most significant events which have taken place in recent years and are likely to affect Yemenis in the long term. As the humanitarian crisis has taken the majority of what little attention the country has received, and has widely escaped critical attention, I have added a chapter which goes beyond the appeals for support. It addresses the many issues affecting Yemenis, both in terms of their needs and the inadequacy of response from the humanitarian sector. Following the analysis of earlier chapters, it argues for an increased focus on international development financing, which is essential to a sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis.

As it attempts to be comprehensive and cover a wide range of topics, the book does not go into details. To complement it, I have also published long analyses of environmental issues, with particular attention to the water crisis, the potential role of Europe in solving the crisis, the socialist experience of the PDRY, Saudi-Yemeni relations, social transformation, and other topics. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HL: The book provides diplomats, humanitarians, and journalists involved with Yemen with the background and analysis of the fundamental socio-economic and political features necessary to understand the country and its wide variety of circumstances. They should read it as they start their assignments and might well find it useful as a reference in the course of their work.

I hope that all those with any interest or concern with the social and political transformations in the period following the formal end of colonialism in third world states will find the book useful and that it will increase their interest in Yemen and provide the basis for assessing lessons relevant for other countries in crisis. The Yemeni state emerged from the unification of two states which were on opposite sides in the Cold War and thus presents a unique example, challenging some of the assumptions about “developing” countries.

Yemen’s cultural, social, and political characteristics are unique in the Arabian Peninsula, and clearly differ from those of its wealthy neighbors. However, I hope that anyone with an interest in the Peninsula would read it, as developments in Yemen have a profound impact on what happens elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council states for many reasons, among them that Yemen has a national population larger than that of all the other Peninsula states put together. Its poverty and comparative lack of resources have led to a very different recent history, but the hydro-carbon rich economies of the Gulf Cooperation Council remain its neighbors and also host many Yemenis.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HL: My first book about Saudi Arabia was published in 1978 just as I went to live in the PDRY. I am now writing another book on Saudi Arabia commissioned by Verso and due for publication in 2025. It will be a critical analysis of the country’s developments before and since the advent of Mohammed bin Salman to power, focusing on internal political, social, and economic developments in the past half century.

I continue to write topical and analytical pieces on specific aspects of Yemeni social and political developments, based on my research and long experience of living in the country. When the opportunity arises, I carry out consultancies on rural issues, in particular those focused on water management and social aspects.

J: Why is the world now ignoring Yemen and why do you think it should not?

HL: The Yemeni crisis has failed to achieve a prominent position in world attention since its early days. There are a number of explanations for this, none of which is convincing. They include its remoteness, the complexity of its internal politics, and the absence of large numbers of international refugees, but these characteristics apply to other crises.

Yemen appears in the media when two main types of events occur: first, particularly murderous and outrageous attacks causing large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. This has been the case in the early years of the war when the Saudi-led coalition air forces apparently indiscriminately bombed civilian targets and situations where many people assembled, such as weddings and markets. Despite efforts by social and traditional media under Saudi and Emirati influence to limit coverage, such events penetrated the barriers imposed. As their numbers have diminished since 2020, the second reason for media concern with Yemen has focused on the humanitarian crisis which, until overtaken by Afghanistan in mid-2021, was officially described by the UN as “the worst in the world.” With the worsening of numerous political, military, and humanitarian crises throughout the world, Yemen is “competing” for attention with many other crises, some of which are better known thanks to large expatriate communities and previous international prominence or their geographical proximity to the West.

Yemen is a country with exceptional characteristics, most of them very beautiful. These include generous and friendly people, fantastic sceneries and landscapes from high mountains to marine coasts, and a unique and varied culture and heritage (both material and intangible) from pre-Islamic, Islamic, and modern monuments. Most foreigners who come to Yemen fall in love with it. The destruction and damage now inflicted on Yemenis by the leaders of the warring factions call for the committed support of all those who care about the country and its people, by whatever means available. Its strategic position controlling the Bab al Mandab, and the suffering of more than thirty million people, alongside its history and culture, are all reasons why people throughout the world should want to know more about the country and, ideally, do whatever they can to help solve the crisis.


Excerpt from the book (from chapters 8, 11, and the conclusion)

On Water

The basic elements needed to build an economy are adequate natural resources, sufficient skilled labour and capital. Yemen is faced with an even greater challenge than its current war, poverty and geopolitical position; its natural resources are very limited. In particular it is one of the most water-scarce country in the world… (p. 259)

Lack of clean drinking water is a notorious health hazard which has a debilitating impact on productivity and wellbeing, let alone life. Not only are many urban areas not covered by public water distribution systems, but where they do exist, they are often polluted, as are the tanker loads purchased from private suppliers. In rural areas, the cost of domestic water is prohibitive either in cash or in labour time for women and children who collect it from wells, irrigation pumps, springs and standpipes and then have to carry it, usually up steep hills, to their homes. Doing this is not only time consuming and physically exhausting but also is done at the expense of education or involvement in more productive activities. In addition, although often used for drinking, water collected from surface sources (wells, springs, irrigation pumps) is mostly heavily polluted. The extremely rapid spread of cholera in 2017 in urban and rural areas, has once again confirmed the important role of water in the transmission of disease. (p. 260)

The water situation presents an existential threat for Yemen as a populated area. Unless it is given urgent and serious attention, within a generation only parts of the country will be inhabitable. What will happen to the majority of the population in areas without water? To date, state action can be described as short-termist, completely ineffectual and responsible for the worsening of the problem by encouraging mining of non-renewable aquifers for the immediate profit of those in least need at the expense of the survival of the majority. Remedial policies are feasible but demand strong and effective central and local governance to ensure the best possible use of the limited resource. This means transferring use from agriculture to domestic and livestock needs in exploitation of limited aquifers, and restructuring agricultural use to maximise income rain-fed agriculture while limiting irrigation to be supplementary and exclusively on high-value crops. The years of war have made no fundamental change to this problem. (p. 265)

On the Humanitarian crisis

Difficult living conditions are nothing new for the majority of Yemenis. Poverty, including hunger, has been a frequent feature of life many times throughout the country’s history. In 2012, 54.5 percent of Yemenis were considered poor; in the second year of the war this had risen to 62 percent. By 2022, 80 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. The UN estimated that more than 23 million Yemenis were in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, 17.4 million of them suffering acute food insecurity, including 5.4 million at emergency level of severity. About 250, 000 of the estimated total 377, 000 deaths between 2015 and end 2021 were civilians killed by malnutrition-related disease combined with the lack of medical treatment. Far more people, mostly children, died from indirect war-related causes than from military action. … (p. 333)

Between 2015 and 2021, the international community spent more than US $15 billion on humanitarian aid to Yemen…. A number of points emerge from a close study of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the way it has been addressed, primarily by the UN. Both the UN system and Western media have exaggerated the severity of the food insecurity situation, describing it as ‘famine’ or ‘on the verge of famine’ when no such extreme of desperation has been reached. This terminology is misleading and misguided and has cast doubt on the credibility of the UN systems among funders and the wider public. Thus it has been counterproductive to its original purpose, which was to draw attention to this largely neglected crisis. This not to deny that Yemenis suffer from a major food security crisis, which has worsened over time and is likely to continue doing so with developments in Europe in 2022. Prices of basic staples, wheat and vegetable oil, will continue to rise, thus increasing the number of people who can’t afford to buy these essentials. Moreover, the UN’s targeting procedures have failed to ensure that those in greatest need are systematically reached. First there has been considerable politicisation of the selection process by all parties. Second, given the great number of people affected, the expensive and inefficient targeting mechanisms have largely been a waste of time and money.

The extremely high percentage of funds devoted to food security, in the context of limited funding that is often significantly below requirement, has also fundamentally biased the humanitarian intervention in favour of food distribution. But with respect to the short-term problems faced by Yemenis, let alone medium- and long-term ones, support to other sectors should have received greater attention….. A more long-term, sustainable developmental approach would be both more effective and less expensive, thus increasing the amount of benefit for the same expenditure. It could, with some effort, be implemented through more focus on community-level development investments to complement short-term humanitarian interventions. With the prospect of a possible end to the fighting, it is imperative to identify the most appropriate and cost-effective mechanisms to address the main needs of Yemenis – in a context where funds are likely to become scarcer and the quality of governance remains debatable. (pp. 353-55)

From the Conclusion

When peace returns, whatever new regime emerges must focus on the long-term issues faced by the people and, first and foremost, the water crisis. Unless appropriate measures are taken, within a generation or less, the most densely populated parts of the country will become uninhabitable. Like most other problems in Yemen, this one can be solved: a regime committed to the welfare of the population can manage use of water, giving priority to domestic and animal consumption: with 90 percent of water used in agriculture, reducing this substantially would be enough to enable an even larger population to live in the particularly beautiful highland water-scarce areas. Thile this means putting an end to uncontrolled irrigation, the development of high-value rain-fed crops, alongside eco-tourism and other economic activities based on high technology would combine to provide replacement rural economic activities and thus make life in rural Yemen pleasant. Many Yemenis dreamt of such a change a generation ago in the heyday of the 1980s.

While the water crisis is largely due to over-exploitation and rapid population growth other climate change factors must also be addressed for the long-term survival of Yemenis in Yemen. The most prominent of these relates to rising sea levels which will affect not only all fisher communities but also three of Yemen’s major cities: Hodeida, Aden and Mukalla. Effective mitigation measures are essential to enable their populations to live, particularly as their size is likely to increase considerably from an influx of highlanders driven out of their homes by the lack of water. The hinterlands of these cities are also among the country’s main agricultural areas and better management of their ground water is essential for the country to continue producing even a small share of tis food.

Long-term economic policies will depend on the emergence of a highly educated population able to exploit the possibilities of the twenty-first century. This obviously means massive investment in education which would enable rural as well as urban people throughout the country to set up and run enterprises, thereby providing them with a reasonable income. Policies promoting equal economic opportunities and an end to nepotism and cronyism would also be elements of anew well-governed Yemen. Such a regime would reduce inequality and operate according to the laws, thus re-establishing people’s confidence in politics.

With respect to the external states involved, particularly Yemen’s immediate neighbours, it is also likely that their current short-termist approach could, within decades, have a negative boomerang effect on their own countries. Exclusion of Yemen from the GCC increases frustration among the thousands of Yemenis who could otherwise be both earning a good living there and thus maintaining their families at home, while contributing constructively to GCC societies. In addition, in the long run, political mismanagement and exhaustion of water in Yemen may lead millions to force their way past any barriers and become desperate climate and political refugees in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. A wiser set of policies integrating Yemen into the GCC could result in prosperity for all in a mutually beneficial relationship. Beyond Yemen’s immediate neighbours, Europe and the West in general have neglected the crisis as, to date, it has neither brought thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean nor have any of the perpetrators of terrorist incidents in Europe been of Yemeni origin, nor indeed has maritime security in the Red Sea been impacted. Should Yemen and its people continue to be ignored and the war intensify and persist, none of these negative outcomes can be precluded. Finally, returning to an earlier theme, hope: that the distressing outcomes just mentioned do not materialise and instead that the positive ones come to pass and make Yemen a country where its new generations flourish. (pp. 366-67)