Yemen registered its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus last week, threatening to add a COVID-19 epidemic to what the United Nations already calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. While Riyadh hopes the specter of a coronavirus epidemic will reenergize peace talks to end Yemen’s five-year civil war, their chances of lasting success are, unfortunately, slim.
Yemen reported its first – and so far only – confirmed case on April 10, a 60-year-old man in Ash Shihr, a port town in the government-controlled Hadhramout province. In response, the local governor announced that workers at the port would be quarantined and the area would be placed under a two-week curfew. The neighboring Shabwa and al-Mahra provinces closed their borders with Hadramout.
Five years of continuous war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition have left Yemen critically vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak. The war has caused mass civilian casualties and decimated Yemen’s infrastructure, including its sanitation system. Millions of Yemenis live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and four in five Yemenis are already immunosuppressed. Unsurprisingly, cholera, dengue, diphtheria, and other diseases already run rampant.
A polarized, under-resourced, and unfree media environment, along with general distrust of public institutions, hinders efforts to enforce mitigation measures. Less than half of Yemen’s hospitals remain fully functional, and those still standing lack doctors and critical supplies. The country has only 700 intensive-care unit beds and three testing centers, with just a few hundred tests kits between them, for a population of almost 29 million.
Given their limited testing capacity and patchwork governance, Yemeni authorities have little means of tracking the spread of the virus, whose symptoms are similar to other diseases already prevalent in Yemen. Moreover, the Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, could be purposefully underreporting cases. Indeed, UN and relief officials believe the virus likely has already spread further than officially reported.
|W. Bank & Gaza||402||2|
Source: JHU Coronavirus Resource Center
Data current as of 1:30 PM, April 17, 2020.
An estimated 80 percent of Yemen’s population relies on foreign assistance, with millions teetering on the brink of famine. To make matters worse, the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels – which control Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, through which most aid deliveries travel – are notorious for stealing aid. Recently, the Houthis began blocking outright half of UN deliveries, demanding greater control over the aid. This eventually led the Trump administration and other donors to drastically cut funding for UN aid programs that supply the Houthi-controlled north, where most of Yemen’s population resides.
While the World Health Organization is providing Yemen with ventilators, test kits, and other medical supplies, these funding cuts threaten to disrupt its efforts. Fully half of the UN aid programs in the country will need to scale back or close by the end of April unless the funding problem is resolved.
Although a humanitarian catastrophe remains the most likely outcome, there is hope coronavirus will provide the incentive that both Riyadh and the Houthis need to end the war. On April 8, Riyadh announced a two-week-long unilateral ceasefire, which Saudi officials said they hoped would kick-start UN-sponsored peace talks. Though the Houthis have yet to accept the ceasefire, Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Yemen envoy, said yesterday that he expects both sides would soon agree to terms on the ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures, and the resumption of political talks.
Riyadh’s efforts to make peace reflect its earnest desire for a face-saving exit from the conflict, which has become a financial and public relations albatross for the kingdom. An epidemic in the kingdom’s southern neighbor could also exacerbate the public health crisis in Saudi Arabia, which is grappling with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
But while Riyadh seeks an exit from Yemen’s war, the Houthis likely will not make easy negotiating partners. Instead, the rebels likely will seek to exploit any pause in the conflict by seizing territory, aiming to improve their bargaining position and extract key concessions. Meanwhile, expect Iran to continue fueling the conflict by providing the Houthis with missiles and other materiel.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst focusing on the Gulf at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Varsha and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.