This blog is based on a paper I started for a class when COVID hit back in Spring 2020. I decided I would like to modify and use as a blog post to discuss my interest on political borders.
Little attention has been given to Yemeni refugees and their crisis back in their home country, leaving them silenced and forgotten. This negligence is referring to both those who have been displaced internally, which comprises most of the Yemeni population, and those displaced into other countries. This conflict has pushed people out of Yemen to live in refugee camps in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Malaysia (where an existing diaspora lives), Turkey, Jordan, and some are lucky enough to trickle into Europe. Looking at the borders of Yemen, there are many parts to consider. First, lay Saudi Arabia to the North of Yemen, which contributes to the chaos in Yemen which will be described below. Then there is the North and South split of the actual country. Finally, there is Hodeidah, a border which opens and closes in order to allow aid to enter the war-ravaged country. Hodeidah also serves as the borders which allows people to flee Yemen. Yemen’s borders literally can be referred to “disorder at the border,” as Hiltermann (2009) would say. This paper aims to delve into understanding the political borders of Yemen and how it has impacted the Yemeni people.
Borders in Yemen remain precarious and controlled by different actors making it challenging to depart from the country. Between Saudi Arabia’s Arab coalition, Yemen’s Houthi movement, and the constant movement of the government in the South (which was subjected to colonial rule) continues to cause conflict in the Gulf. This small country that is often ignored, has faced a number of political transitions and wars. This land is merely depicted as a proxy war of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though it is true that Yemen is caught in between this violence, their story is much more nuanced with the political and societal fractures than what is depicted in the media. There are many drivers and divides within its own borders contributing to the unseen narrative of Yemen.
Understanding the policy of borders requires an understanding of how movement is facilitated, how people become safe in an orderly manner, which refers to the accessibility to food, shelter, integration, etc. The fluid borders also make it nearly impossible to get aid in and out of the country and reach the Yemeni people inside of Yemen, who need it the most. Essentially, the more physical borders are hardened, the more dangerous crossing becomes, and the more challenging policies become. Yemen is particularly interesting in that there are multiple borders to consider when understanding the political fragments of the country: Northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Northern Yemen and Southern Yemen, and the port of Hodeidah where food and aid is delivered through. This paper will now provide background to grasp an understanding of each divide and the conditions which have become drivers of internal/external displacement.
The Saudi Border Areas
The Yemen – Saudi border plays an important role when looking at the conflict in Yemen. It is not your traditional border crossing like that of Mexico and the United States or the sea border crossing of Turkey into Europe, however it remains to symbolize a violent borderline with the constant Saudi-led attacks. It comes to no surprise that oil plays a role. Bab El Mandeb Strait, a shipping pipeline for petroleum barrels and other goods from the Middle East to Europe and North America, is strategically located between Yemen and Djibouti adding to the tension of a vital link.
The Yemen – Saudi border’s tense borderline is comprised with some of the most prominent actors, which are Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and Yemen were once one combined country. Today, Saudi Arabia is a country with significant financial support and a rich country versus Yemen, the poorest Arab country. Saudi Arabia is known to launch missile airstrikes into Sana’a, including agricultural sites where food was grown to provide food as well as livelihood for farmers. They are also known to target large activities where civilians gather. Dozens of civilians killed on a school bus attack leaving body parts scattered. (AlJazeera 2018) However, the borderland has historical significance which shares an ecosystem for tribal kinship, has an informal economy, architectures, and cultural significance (Ardemagni 2020). Unfortunately, the historical significance and beautiful architecture does not put an end to the destructive devastation caused inside of Yemen.
Facing destruction, updates and headlines always revealed attacks on spaces that are considered against international laws. Sana’a is the epicenter of casualty attacks on hospitals and school buses filled with children, water infrastructures, horse stables, boats, farms, funerals, and more. Meanwhile, Aden, located in the South of Yemen, has faced political turmoil, starvation and displacement. These larger institutions, or state actors, play a significant role in how violence is systematic. Yemeni people have had to transition into an enactment of systematic violence of war crimes, which has become tremendously harmful (Grace et al. 2018).
The Yemen Saudi border is not the typical border issues we see in violent crossings, such as the United States and Europe. Nor is it like neighboring countries with restrictions, such as Armenia/Azerbaijan or Lebanon/Palestine (Israel). This has become an accusation of Iranian influence when there have been no Iranians captured in Yemen and no evidence of Iranian weapons in Yemen leaving scant evidence for Saudi’s reaction (Massachusetts Peace Action 2020). An interesting relationship has developed which has extended from the Iran – Saudi divide resorting into the poor country of Yemen.
Racial Boundaries: Yemen and Saudi Arabia
Political boundary has been intertwined with many conflicts confronting racism within the Middle East, one of which Yemen is paying the price for. Yemen, being perceived as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has amplified this tension. This tension has allowed me to reflect on how racism is context specific and spreads through political borders. The reality is that minority groups are receivers and contributors of racism which is motivated by historic events. This is interesting, because outsiders might view Yemen citizens, Saudi Arabians, Iranians, and Houthis to all be the “same people” when in reality there is the reality of geopolitics. These geopolitics defined as a “proxy war” which has diffused through international borders and political affiliation. Of course this goes beyond the Saudi – Iran divide but it certainly plays a role in larger political affiliation which has caused internal divides in “backed support” in other nations such as Yemen.
North – South Divide
The borders and divides are not exclusive to the tensions between the “Iran supporting” Houthis and Saudi Arabia, but also the split between the Northern and Southern states. In fact, it was originally a war between Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former President of Yemen until the revolution in 2012. The divide is among North, Sana’a and the South, Aden who historically are recognized for being separatists (2017).
However, unifying Yemen was always sought throughout the years going forward. In 1972 and 1979 there were wars to fight for Yemen’s unity. In May 1990, after Yemen was unified, economic troubles brough Yemen to a collapse and a civil war in 1994 (A&E 2019). In 2011, there was also a demand for unity (2017). Eventually, Yemen and its war, not saved from Houthi or Saleh nor was legitimacy restored, stability, or development. Instead there was 1) growing untold destruction, 2) southern separatism worsened, and 3) Yemen became captive to international players and forces that are nowhere to be seen, this could also be referred to as the proxy war.
The Role of Religion
Yemen has faced many challenges in an attempt to unify the country’s North and South, which has been fractured by sectarian difference, colonialism, separatism, and other movements (Laub & Robinson 2020). The North – South divide in Yemen carries a long history of geospatially and geopolitical dimension on an ongoing division that has previously attempted reconciliation through unification. Initially the North-South divide was based on the politics of Yemen – the Ottoman North versus the British South. By the 9th century, Zaydis became dominant in the North (2017). Yemen’s conflict is not the assumed sectarian conflict however, given the actors involved, it has publically taken that stance. Zaydis, also known as Fivers, are a group that represents one of the branches of Shi’a Islam, which is practiced in Iran. However, not all Zaidis are Houthis but the majority of Houthi followers are made up of Zaidis (Rajji 2016). In the north is Sana’a, which was captured by the Houthis by mid-September 2014. One of the events that escalated was in 2015, Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s exile led to Saudi Arabia launching a military campaign to restore Hadi’s administration in Sana’a (Laub & Robinson 2020).
The process can be referred to the process of boundary-drawing, which is ethnicity taking a social and political meaning (Laub & Robinson 2020:78). Though boundary-drawing usually refers to the racialization within host nations, I use the concept as boundary drawing within a divided nation. This divide has been misconstrued to be a sectarian divide, which undoubtedly does play a role, but it also does play a political meaning. In drawing these boundaries, we see within the shared borders.
Invisible Political Borders
Borders are not only in reference to border crossing and exiting to a new place but how borders impact the internally displaced. How do borderlands put people in their homeland in danger?. This image is shaped by majority groups within borders that immigrants may or may not conform to. If they do conform, they may or may not be accepted within clear boundaries which is evident in Yemen’s overall borders.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has led to an immense amount of vulnerability of refugees who have become internally displaced. Yemen is a place which tends to have greater needs as it is constantly behind the curtain of a larger political tension known as the “proxy war between Saudi and Iran” leaving the citizens deprived of their basic rights to living at home, access to food, and aid provisions. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab region. As of 2019, nearly 100,000 people have been killed, 250,000 have been displaced, 10 million rely on food aid, and 24 million – 80% of the population – need humanitarian assistance and protection services to survive (Wintour 2019). These factors are coupled with the fact that Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet, huge gaps exist in understanding the social suffering, violence, and everyday life of Yemeni refugees in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as those who are internally displaced in Yemen (UNHCR 2019). In 2019, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that Yemen was the country with the highest number of people in need of humanitarian assistance. In this context, this is a war that has turned into prohibition and harming people rather than structural and political change.
Coastal City of Hodeida
The port of Hodeida, in the northwest of Yemen, lies along the country’s Red Sea and is a home for about two-thirds of Yemen’s population (Crisis Group Middle East 2019). Hodeida is not only a rebel-held area of fighting, but it is the entrance for needs for Yemen’s citizens. Now this particular border of Yemen has been a victim of animosity harming the health and lives of Yemenis or as The Independent refers to it, “Yemen’s aid lifeline” (McKernan 2018). Hodeida suffers desperately is not only where aid and 95% of the food, fuel, and aid is funneled through but is also a part of the rebel-held areas (BBC 2018). However, food has become a weapon of war as the port has been attacked as a threat (BBC 2018). Where does the distrust of political action draw the line from innocent civilians suffering?
The situation in Yemen has worsened due to the war which has led to the Saudi-led blockade of borders by land, sea, and air hindering vital supplies such as food and medicine into the country (Laub & Robinson 2020). However, rebels have been accused of also smuggling in weapons from Iran which has been denied (BBC 2018). After 2018, landmines planted by Houthi forces were found to have killed and injured innocent civilians, including children as well and harming crops and clean water supply for farmers (HRW 2020). This of course impeded on the livelihood of individuals contributing to their already poor conditions and suffering.
This man-made disaster has escalated to a humanitarian crisis where only a port is the access to provide entrance of resources. Invaders want to take Hodeidah and Sana’a from the Houthis. Targets have shown the “proxy war” showing no concern for human rights of the citizens who are caught in between the attacks. So long as the battle of Hodeida continues, millions of Yemenis will live without food, fuel and other vital supplies (Crisis Group Middle East 2019).
This post is not intended to take a side in who is causing harm to the civilians but rather shedding light on the different roles of different actors across the different borders of Yemen. This man-made disaster has debilitated the lives of Yemenis who now have no access to clean water, food, medical attention, and are dying of structural violence. However, this structural violence made up of political and economic violence, has not moved across the border enough to raise attention. I have especially wanted to draw on the common theme of belonging that often reoccurs during discussion of migration. Belonging often hones in on migrants, undocumented, and people who have been othered. Here, I would like to take the concept of belonging to understand belonging in the world. I have talked about a country that has been ignored and literally dying within its own borders.
Migration is often understood in moving towards a better life whether it is economic prosperity or political freedom. It is often forgotten what they left behind and why? It is often forgotten, who did they leave behind? What happens within the borders of exile is just as relevant to the narrative of migrating and pursuing a better life. In Castles et al 5th edition of The Age of Migration (2014) we are reminded that the origin of a migrant’s country is just as affected as the receiving country. A good example is to look at asylum seekers departing their country and how the state’s political or economic situation acted as drivers in pushing their citizens out. This can have a direct impact on growth of their economy as well as public perception, or lack-thereof, as it has with Yemen. This is often overlooked when focusing on how this will affect the receiving country or concerns on a global scale rather than looking at the tragedy occurring within borders. This movement of people can relate with the push-pull method which essentially looks at people in exile (pushed out) as a result of economic, environmental, social, religious, and political repression, and pulled into newer places whether that is a new society or internal displacement (Castles et al 2014). This has provided an understanding of the emerging dynamics of how those migrating or those who do not have the opportunity to migrate, should be considered during development and global attention.
Not only has Yemen begged for attention to all the oppression in the world, but the Yemeni community was trying to strategize pushing legislation and anti-war organization (2020). The goal of this paper has been to understand the story that shapes the global and public perception of Yemen, and the meaning of those who have been directly impacted by these systems of oppression through borders. These underlying structures of oppression through structural violence, both physically with their borders and with Yemeni citizens. The poverty rate in Yemen is more than 50% of its population leaving it to be the poorest country in the Arab world struggling from food insecurity, cholera, displacement of 3 million people (Laub & Robinson 2020).
As global attention has tried to shed light on countries and populations that have become underserved, we have seen that migration awareness has played a role among transnational communities. This is not exclusive to transnational Yemenis, but those also transnational from the region who are interconnected to the political gain(s). This perhaps is one of the few ways the world is able to access knowledge about the little discussed about places like Yemen and the policies around them.
Ardemagni, Eleonora. “The Saudi-Yemeni Militarized Borderland.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued January 9, 2020.
Castles, Stephen, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller. “The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World 5th (fifth) Edition.” (2014).
Grace, Breanne L., Rajeev Bais, and Benjamin J. Roth. “The violence of uncertainty: undermining immigrant and refugee health.” New England Journal of Medicine 379, no. 10 (2018): 904-5
Hiltermann, Joost R. “Disorder on the Border: Saudi Arabia’s War Inside Yemen.” Foreign Affairs 16 (2009).
The UN Refugee Agency. “Figures at a Glance in Malaysia.” UNHCR USA, 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance-in-malaysia.html.
Yemeni Alliance Committee. (2020, March 25). YEMEN: Five Years of War.