Abstract: COVID-19 has spread rapidly in Yemen, although this has gone largely under-reported. The health system in the country has collapsed due to five years of war. After the declaration of a pandemic in March 2020, there were hopes that the domestic and external actors in the war would come to an agreement to contain the novel virus. Initially there were signs of greater communication between rival factions, and a Saudi Arabia-brokered ceasefire took effect in late March. However, the steps taken soon faltered as each of the warring parties prioritized its own objectives over combating the virus. Saudi Arabia resumed its bombing of Houthi-held territory, while the Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), exploited the situation created by the pandemic to achieve its goal of declaring an independent state in southern Yemen. Meanwhile, the Iran-aligned Houthis ramped up their efforts to consolidate control over northern Yemen. International powers continue to fail to push for an end to the war, and their military support is enabling both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pursue their diverging aims. As a result, 2020 has only triggered further instability.

On April 22, Yemen diagnosed its first case of COVID-19. This immediately raised fears that the novel coronavirus was spreading in the country undetected. The World Health Organisation and other bodies had already warned that the virus could diffuse rapidly, given the collapse of the health system during five years of war. The war has witnessed the deliberate targeting of healthcare facilities, mostly by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition but also during Houthi attacks. In addition, the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of the country has combined with ongoing fighting to prevent aid and equipment from reaching hospitals. Soaring prices and the crumbling economy have made matters worse.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to fight the Houthi rebels, who had launched an insurgency against the post-Arab Spring government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which Saudi Arabia supports. The coalition was weakly backed by several other Arab and African states. Peace efforts, including the efforts of the United Nations, have failed. The Houthis have consolidated their control over much of northern Yemen, and have even started firing missiles into Saudi territory.  Forces backed by Saudi Arabia are still trying in vain to regain control of the Houthi-held territory.

Meanwhile, Riyadh’s close partner Abu Dhabi has supported the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which launched a coup in Aden in August 2019 and then tried to conquer all the south of Yemen. It claims to want to revive the independent southern state which existed until 1990, when Yemen was divided between North and South. Saudi Arabia and the UAE managed to reconcile their diverging policies under the Riyadh Agreement of November 2019, which foresaw that the two factions which they support should govern jointly in a power-sharing arrangement. However, tensions have erupted between the two, and the arrangement has broken down.

This briefing will show how the various domestic and external actors have prioritized their war aims in spite of the threat from COVID-19 and some initial positive signals of a possible reduction in violence and tensions to enable the country to combat the virus. It will also underline how a lax international peace effort has enabled the conflict to continue.