Famine in Yemen: An expedited international response after murder of journalist Khashoggi


Airstrikes and weapon deals have been on the forefront of media coverage of the Yemeni conflict. However, Yemenis are suffering more than due to violence in the war, and are facing starvation and serious health risks due to the effects of the war on the economy, with 8 million Yemenis surviving on emergency food aid, with potential to increase up to 14 million Yemenis.[1] The UN has been warning of an impending famine with limited international response. The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi resulted in an international willingness to criticize Saudi Arabia and expedited an international willingness to act to resolve the conflict, if not at least the famine. Peace talks began at the close of 2018 with promises to re-commence in January 2019.

In the December 2018 peace talks for the war in Yemen, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres called the conflict the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. The UN has been warning of impending disaster in Yemen, initially with warnings of starvation in 2016 and then warnings of man-made famine in 2018. According to Lisa Grande, top humanitarian official for the UN in Yemen, “half of all districts are one step away from catastrophe.” [2] It is unclear to experts whether or not the technical threshold for famine has been crossed. Data collection that proves the presence of famine has been difficult to collect due to the nature of the conflict ongoing in the country. While it is clear that there are casualties attributable to violence, with the UN estimating as more than 6,800 civilians killed since March 2015, [3] it is less clear how many deaths are attributable to the risk of famine (note: at time of publishing to this website, the BBC reported 1.8 million Yemeni children acutely malnourished [4]). However, regardless of whether or not the definition for famine holds, Yemeni children are dying from health complications associated with malnutrition. A wave of cholera has hit the country, with 2,500 Yemenis reportedly dying from the disease since April 2018 [5], which in normal circumstances is simple to treat. The disease is spreading due to lack of access to potable water, with people fleeing their homes and living in poor conditions.

Since early 2015 the country has been afflicted by violence, from fighting between the Houthis, and the Yemeni government, with the Houthis supported by the Iranian government, who deny these claims [i], and the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia, and a host of other Arab and Western states. Fighting between the Houthis and the Yemeni government can be traced back to the Arab Spring in 2011, where a struggle emerged in the transition power from Ali Abdallah Saleh, Yemen’s leader since 1978, to Ali Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his deputy. Saleh was a general from the Zaydi ethnic group, and fought the Houthis, also Zaydis, during his time in power. Zaydis are Shi’ite, a minority in Islam and a minority also within the larger Shi’ite group, with a different Shi’ite philosophy from what can be found in Iran.[6] In 2003, Saleh failed in an attempt to counter them, despite being backed by Saudi Arabia.[7] After Mr. Hadi assumed power post-Arab Spring, he struggled to address problems of terrorism in the country, in addition to food insecurity, corruption, and unemployment.[8] The Houthis were unhappy with him, presumably not only due to his inability to address the above problems but also with his relationship with Saudi Arabia, as he was seen as a “Saudi stooge” and began to coordinate with Saleh, their former enemy, against Hadi.[9] In 2015, the Houthis took control of Sana’a, the capital. Concurrently, Mohammed bin Salman, 29-year-old son of the new Saudi Arabian King Salman, became the new Saudi Arabian defence minister. It was then that Saudi Arabia made the decision to go to war in Yemen, and what was meant to be a quick victory, has since turned into a three-year conflict. The war has been supported by the United Arab Emirates, the US, the UK, and France, who have all provided support to conduct airstrikes, and logistical and intelligence support.[10] It should be noted that in a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), both the Houthis backed by Iran and the Yemeni government backed by the Saudi coalition have been accused of war crimes [11].

Despite the media focus of airstrikes on Yemen, which indeed have caused the most civilian casualties, the war has brought about starvation, and the potential for famine. Saudi Arabian strategies of weakening the Houthis include intermittent blockades of port city Hudaydah, which until June 2018, was held by the Houthis. Any military strategies that jeopardize trade or a route into the country could spell disaster for civilians. The port city is incredibly important as it provides access to goods and humanitarian assistance for the Yemeni population. Saudi Arabia has been blamed for pushing nearly “12 million people to the brink of starvation, killing some 85,000 children, according to aid groups.”[12] The Houthis reportedly knew that they would be unable to hold onto the port indefinitely, and preferred to hold on to it for as long as possible to use it as a negotiation point for a ceasefire. [13]  Furthermore, food prices in Yemen have increased, with the cost of basic foodstuffs having doubled since 2014.[14] This directly impacts nutrition for the most vulnerable, and contributes to the potential for starvation. The problem of high food prices has been exacerbated by lack of employment in the public and private sector, a collapse in the currency, and a collapse in institutions. The World Bank has estimated 52% of the population to be living on less than $1.92 USD a day [15]. While the price of food makes essentials out of reach for Yemenis, particularly lower-income or those who have lost their means of livelihood, health care facilities are also scarce and are ill-equipped to handle the health concerns of starving Yemeni children and adults. The World Health Organization notes that almost half of health facilities and hospitals “have been destroyed as a result of the war.”[16] As such, the impacts of war on the economy are absorbed by Yemenis.

Despite the threat of famine looming, it was not until the murder of Saudi Arabian Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents in 2018 that the humanitarian disaster in Yemen received more international attention, and thereby, a willingness to act. The murder prompted an international examination of Saudi Arabia’s actions, and by extension, their war in Yemen fighting the Houthis and the Iranian influence. According to Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, the murder may have coincided with a growing concern, and readiness to address the war due to the risk of famine, in addition to the anticipation of the UN’s announcement on the situation in Yemen. [17] After calls by a number of European countries to cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia, French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed the connection between the murder and the war in Yemen, noting that while French arms sales to Saudi Arabia are clearly connected to the war in Yemen, he did not understand how French arms sales to Saudi Arabia were connected to the murder of Khashoggi.[18] American politicians also publicly issued statements and began to take steps. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham commented on legislation that had bipartisan support, saying it could “hold Saudi Arabia accountable for various acts in Yemen as well as the death of Jamal Khashoggi.”[19] The international condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder and the lack of attention on the war, or the famine until then, has not gone unnoticed in Yemen. Medical professional Dr. Mahdi noted her surprise of how the murder of the journalist received incredible attention while “millions of Yemeni children are suffering,” without international action.[20]

Peace talks started in December 2018 in Sweden, with plans to recommence in late January 2019. A ceasefire was agreed on for the port city of Hudaydah, and a powerful image circulated of a senior Yemeni minister and a Houthi official shaking hands. Initially, the ceasefire was broken; however, due to negotiations and phone calls by then-US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, it has been largely held.[21] The next step is for the Houthis to withdraw from the port, which will uphold the ceasefire. According to Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, the ceasefire is a “crucial first step towards averting outright famine” and “perhaps even [ending the war]”[22]. It would stop the blockade by Saudi Arabia, which would allow goods and aid into the country. In addition to improving the emergency aid effort, an official from Yemen’s Social Development fund has said that in order to stop the hunger, in addition to improvement of emergency aid, the country’s financial system must also be improved.[23] The talks in January will require discussion on the country’s financial system, releasing Saudi Arabian control of banks, and improving macroeconomic stability as well as more short-term aid for the humanitarian crisis. The World Bank estimated that if violence can be contained by late 2018, there can be a double digit recovery of GDP. [24]

With the ceasefire that has just been agreed upon, it may not be too late. In one of his last articles published in September, Khashoggi noted that Saudi Arabia has a unique opportunity to be a peacemaker, and that they must realize that the longer the war lasts, the more irreversible the damage.[25] This does not only include malnutrition and starvation of a generation, but includes Yemeni distrust and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia. While it may not be in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have an Iranian-backed country as their neighbor, which is what they fear, it is equally not in their interest to continue to contribute to suffering and loss of life in Yemen, which will be remembered locally for years to come.

[i] The Brookings Institution reports that the conflict costs Tehran a few million dollars per month, and Riyadh $6 billion per month.



[1] Walsh, D. (2018, October 26). The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen. The New York Times. Retrieved January 4, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-war-yemen.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer

[2]  Slemrod, A., & Oakford, S. (2018, December 6). What’s at stake in Yemen peace talks. IRIN News. Retrieved from https://www.irinnews.org/news/2018/12/06/what-s-stake-yemen-peace-talks

[3] Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? (2018, December 18). Retrieved December 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423

[4] Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? (2018, December 18).

[5] Slemrod, A., & Oakford, S. (2018, December 07).

[6] Riedel, B. (2017, December 18). Who are the Houthis, and why are we at war with them? Brookings. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/12/18/who-are-the-houthis-and-why-are-we-at-war-with-them/

[7] Riedel, B. (2017, December 18).

[8] Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? (2018, December 18). Retrieved December 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423

[9] Riedel, B. (2017, December 18).

[10] Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? (2018, December 18).

[11] Yemen: United Nations Experts point to possible war crimes by parties to the conflict. (2018, August 28). Retrieved January 4, 2019, from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23479&LangID=E

[12] Doucet, L. (2018, December 29). Yemen war: What will the new year hold? BBC News. Retrieved December 29, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-46524251

[13] Kirkpatrick, D. D. (2018, December 28). On the Front Line of the Saudi War in Yemen: Child Soldiers From Darfur. The New York Times. Retrieved December 31, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/world/africa/saudi-sudan-yemen-child-fighters.html?fbclid=IwAR1GlTQzHMo5–BaujOalqUaeylmRvGALx1qCbaDVe7Wg0fd7I_DtQuoQhQ&login=email&auth=login-email

[14] High food prices in Yemen causing hunger – Save the Children. (2018, October 25). ANSAmed. Retrieved December 26, 2018, from http://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/generalnews/2018/10/25/high-food-prices-in-yemen-causing-hunger-save-the-children_8dc85a8e-f925-415f-bf85-d5bcc8d20993.html

[15] Yemen Economic Outlook – October 2018(Rep.). (2018, October 3). Retrieved January 4, 2019, from The World Bank website: http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/547461538076992798/mpo-am18-yemen-yem-9-14-kc-new.pdf

[16] Slemrod, A., & Oakford, S. (2018, December 07).

[17] Dewan, A. (2018, November 20). Jamal Khashoggi’s murder could be a game-changer for the Yemen war. CNN News. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/19/middleeast/khashoggi-yemen-saudi-arabia-analysis-intl/index.html

[18] Macron slams calls to halt arms sales to Saudi as populist. (2018, October 26). Reuters. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-khashoggi-france/macron-slams-calls-to-halt-arms-sales-to-saudi-as-populist-idUSKCN1N01XV

[19] Dewan, A. (2018, November 20).

[20] Walsh, D. (2018, October 26).

[21] Doucet, L. (2018, December 29).

[22] Doucet, L. (2018, December 29).

[23] Graham-Harrison, E. (2016, October 4). Yemen famine feared as starving children fight for lives in hospital. The Guardian. Retrieved January 1, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/04/yemen-famine-feared-as-starving-children-fight-for-lives-in-hospital

[24] Yemen Economic Outlook – October 2018(Rep.). (2018, October 3).

[25] Khashoggi, J. (2018, September 11). Saudi Arabia’s crown prince must restore dignity to his country — by ending Yemen’s cruel war. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 3, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/09/11/saudi-arabias-crown-prince-must-restore-dignity-to-his-country-by-ending-yemens-cruel-war/?utm_term=.fac603df6c70


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