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Yemen port city may change hands but conflict far from over

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Yemeni boy Bachar, 9 months old, suffers from malnutrition in a country witnessing what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. RFI/Murielle Paradon

Government forces in Yemen are 20 kilometres from the port city of Hodeida, according to the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels who control it. But while the Red Sea port is strategically important in both the country’s conflict and humanitarian crisis, neither are guaranteed to be resolved if it changes hands.


Hodeida on the western coast of Yemen has been a key point of contention since 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies began fighting Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

While the Houthis hold the city, the Saudi-led coalition has been blocking access to the port it since last November, arguing Iran was using it to deliver weapons.

The blockade has had negative repercussions in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“About 22 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need humanitarian assistance, and about eight million of them, mostly in the north, are pretty close to starvation,” says Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies with Pembroke College at Oxford University.

“So this is a hugely important takeover, if it happens.”

A battle for the city could itself complicate the delivery of aid to those northern regions at least in the short term, if not longer.

“There is a chance the fighting will be long and deprive the entire population of the north of aid and food and that will worsen an already bad humanitarian situation,” says Nadwa Al-Dawsari is senior non-resident fellow with The Project on Middle East Democracy.

The densely populated area in and around Hodeida itself also risks falling into a prolonged crisis of its own.

“My worry is that the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition have not prepared a plan to mitigate civilian harm during the operation and also to establish security and governance immediately after the Houthis are pushed out,” Al-Dawsari says.

“It might create a vacuum with negative consequences on the humanitarian side as well as on the security side.”

Impact on conflict

Losing Hodeida would certainly be a blow to the Houthis, who used the port as a resource in their conflict.

“It would put them at a major military disadvantage and they would be isolated,” says Al-Dawsari.

“So it will definitely tip the scales in favour of the government and the coalition, but it’s too early to tell what implications the battle has for the Yemen conflict altogether.”

While taking Hodeida would put government forces in a position of strength and reassure Saudi Arabia’s coalition partners and international allies, it would not in itself advance negotiations towards an end to the conflict.

“What we tend to see is that the Houthis become more entrenched when they’re under pressure and less likely to negotiate or surrender,” says Elisabeth Kendall.

“Given that the UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, hopes to have all sides agreeing to a new peace initiative by June, this ongoing offensive could actually hinder rather than help the peace process.”

Griffiths himself warned of such a situation when he launched a new drive to bring warring sides to talks back in April, saying any new military offensives could “take peace off the table”.