‘Mayhem’ in Yemen after ex-ruler is killed

Celebration: Houthi rebels shout slogans outside the former president’s home on Monday. © Getty

What is going on in Yemen, and should the West get involved? On Monday, the country’s ex-president was killed by his former allies. Meanwhile, war and famine puts millions of lives at risk.

Ali Abdullah Saleh once described ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes”. Now one of those snakes has finally bitten back. Saleh is dead.

The former president was killed by Houthi rebels, a group which he was allied with until just last week. But on Saturday he offered to “turn a new page” with their common enemy, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis saw this as a “coup” and a betrayal. On Monday they killed him.

The story, and that of Yemen’s civil war, is extremely complicated. But Saleh was a key player. During his 33-year presidency, he earned a reputation for playing Yemen’s many tribes and factions against each other — this was the famous “dancing” that helped him hold on to power.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, protesters demanded his removal. Yemen is the region’s poorest country, and Saleh was accused of plunging it into inflation and unemployment, while enriching himself through corruption.

Saleh’s regime responded to the protests with violence, killing at least 50 people. But by 2012, he agreed to step down and let his vice-president take over.

In 2014, the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. In 2015, they tried to take over the rest of the country, causing the new president to flee to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis feared that the Houthis were backed by their arch-enemy, Iran. They launched an intense bombing campaign in Yemen.

Although they were once enemies, Saleh and his supporters teamed up with the Houthis against the Saudis — until Saturday, when he finally “played one hand too many” (as The New York Times put it).

The war has had devastating consequences. According to the UN, at least 10,000 people have been killed. Seven million are on the brink of famine, 2.5 million have no clean drinking water, and over three million have been forced to flee their homes.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Some fear that Saleh’s assassination will make the situation far worse. Others think his death could be an opportunity to move on, without his constant games.

Is it time for the West to get involved?

The last dance

Yes, argue some. The USA and UK are both complicit, having supplied weapons to Saudi Arabia, used in the brutal bombing campaign. Now they must take responsibility for the consequences, and try to find a peaceful solution. The alternative — to do nothing while millions of innocent people starve and die — is shameful.

Getting more involved will only make things worse, counter others. Look at what happened when the Americans and British interfered in Iraq, Libya, or Syria. None are better off for it. And resentment towards meddling Western powers only fuels extremists. Yemen and its neighbouring countries must work it out by themselves.

You Decide

  1. Should the West do more to help people in Yemen?
  2. Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes that to do nothing is always worse than trying to do something and failing.”
  2. Using this article, and your own research, create a fact file on Yemen. Include information on its history and the recent civil war. Conclude with a paragraph which summarises what you think might happen next.

Some People Say...

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Mahatma Ghandi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Saleh’s death was confirmed on Monday, and was followed by more fighting and bombing in Yemen. Save the Children estimates that 130 children die of famine or disease there every day, but a Saudi blockade prevents most aid from reaching people. The situation has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” by British foreign minister Boris Johnson.
What do we not know?
The exact circumstances of Saleh’s death — conflicting reports have come from his supporters and the Houthis. We also do not know whether Britain or America will take action in Yemen — such as no longer selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, getting involved with peace talks, or sending in their own military support to one side or the other. And, of course, we do not know if any of those things would help.

Word Watch

Just south of Saudi Arabia, roughly the size of Spain.
A northern Yemen group, mostly of the Zaid sect of Shia Muslims. Saudi Arabia has labelled it a terrorist organisation.
Arab Spring
A wave of pro-democratic protests which spread across the Middle East in 2011. Only in Tunisia did the revolution succeed.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively professing the two main factions of Islam — Shia and Sunni, are the two wealthy power-houses of the Middle East. Deeply suspicious of each other, they support rebel and extremist groups in other countries, in “proxy” wars.
In 2003, the USA, UK and allies went to war in Iraq to remove the dictator Saddam Hussein. The Western troops have mostly left, but Iraq remains deeply divided.
In 2011, the UK helped to topple Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gadaffi, but, after his demise, was accused of not doing enough to stabilise the country. There has been a civil war since 2014.
Plagued by civil war since 2011. Although the West did not get involved directly, it initially backed the rebels.


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