In 2014, Yemen broke out into civil war. The United State’s counter-terrorism ally President Mansour al-Hadi was overthrown and forced to take shelter in Saudi Arabia. The group responsible for the coup? The Houthis, a group with an ideology that is a radical offshoot of Shia Islam and allegedly funded by Iran. When Saudi Arabia intervened in support of the exiled President, the United States moved to provide logistical and intelligence support for its long-time ally. One year later, with mounting evidence of war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition against civilians, Yemen’s economy has been utterly decimated and anti-American sentiment is ubiquitous. These conditions are fertile ground for groups like al-Qaeda to come back to power.
Anti-American sentiment pervades Houthi-held Sana’a. One billboard reads “America is killing Yemeni people. They are feeding on our blood.” while another reads, “Boycott American and Israeli products.” Not since the Islamic Revolution in Iran has there been such a display of anti-Americanism in a capital city. While this display of anti-Americanism is in part due to the Houthis’ ideology (as their flag reads “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”) the United States’ support for the Saudi coalition has heightened hostility even among the less zealous. Saudi coalition forces have been accused of bombing numerous hospitals, schools, and residential areas with the US providing logistical and intelligence work.
In addition to rampant anti-Americanism, Yemen’s economy has been destroyed by the war, pushing civilians to the brink of starvation. Haunting images of skeletal children barely holding on to life emerged in the aftermath of reports stating that Saudi Arabia blockaded the country, which caused the price of food and medicine to skyrocket, catastrophic for a country that imports nearly 90 percent of its food and medicine. These conditions have increased the suffering of Yemen’s poor, especially those who live in rural areas. Families are unable to afford nutritious food, like fruits and vegetables, leading to a malnutrition crisis among rural children. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that 370,000 Yemeni children are severely malnourished with another 2 million in need of urgent care.
It is not only the poor who are suffering. The war has gutted the middle class. According to the UN, Yemen’s economy shrank by 34.6 percent in 2015 and is expected to shrink another 11 percent in 2016. With Saudi Arabia bombing power plants, factories, and warehouses—essential parts to a healthy middle-class job market—business owners must pay the price. Factory manager Abdullah al-Haimi says that his factories were bombed by the Saudi-led coalition, leading to countless job losses and revenue reductions. To compensate for his lost money, he sold his wife’s gold and other possessions. For him, the future looks bleak, as he believes he will soon be “living on streets”.
The bombing of vital infrastructure by coalition forces is not the sole reason for Yemen’s economic collapse. A banking crisis triggered by the President al-Hadi made an already precarious situation worse. He moved the Central Bank from the Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a to the government-controlled city of Aden and fired its director. This move “opened a host of uncertainties, including a breakdown of the banking system and continued inability to pay salaries that would accelerate economic collapse and could tip large parts of the country into famine” (Crisisgroup.org).
All of these conditions point toward a bleak future for Yemen’s children. Lack of economic opportunity and a hatred towards the US aid the kind of desperation that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Daesh (ISIL) exploit. In Afghanistan, the Taliban “preys on poverty for recruitment” and the high youth unemployment rates in Europe are a driving force behind the influx of European foreign fighters to Daesh. Many scholars on radicalization believe that the poverty-to-recruitment theory—which has been around since the 1980s—is outdated, but it is undeniable that youth in the Middle East, where the youth unemployment rate was 29.8 percent in 2015, are desperate for a source of income. Jihadist groups can provide that income, hence creating the incentive for recruitment. Given how extremist groups are known to use economic desperation and hatred for recruitment, al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is almost certain to return.