“Welcome home to the labourers returning from Saudi Arabia. You still have a job: defending the nation on our military bases.”
So declared Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthirebels’ de facto government, in a recent al Thawra newspaper article published in Sanaa.
It barely seems possible, but Yemen – a country that has come apart at the seams since the outbreak of civil war three years ago – is facing a new crisis.
As a result of reforms to Saudi labour laws designed to tackle the country’s high levels of unemployment, hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers have been deported from the Kingdom since November last year.
Saudi Arabia’s economic overhaul is desperately needed, but could be having a dangerous unforeseen effect.
Forced back to a country in the grip of a humanitarian crisis and with no economic prospects, it is feared thousands of deported Yemenis could be picking up guns to join the Houthis or al-Qaeda, who see the influx of jobless young men as a prime recruitment opportunity.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is spearheading the Vision 2030 reforms designed to modernise the country and wean it off its reliance on oil, has previously described the jobs of foreign workers as “reserves” he could give to Saudi nationals “at any time of my choosing”.
According to statistics from the Saudi interior ministry, 65 per cent of those deported recently are Yemeni – which means a total of 100,000 have already been sent home, and 130,000 more await a similar fate.
Accurate figures are impossible to come by, but estimates given by several sources for this story were usually that around 10 per cent of the 100,000 returnees so far could have joined a fighting force.
One million Yemenis are currently thought to live in Saudi Arabia and remittances sent home by workers abroad are a lifeline for their families. Three-quarters of the 22 million-strong population has become reliant on aid to survive since the conflict began and eight million people now live on the brink of famine in the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
That money drying up “could destroy Yemen”, said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni non-resident fellow at London’s Chatham House. “It will be worse than the war.”
In a country where GDP reached a record low of £515 in 2016 and has only decreased since, the prospect of steady wages has already led thousands of men with little desire or understanding of the reasons for the violence to join a fighting side.
“The declaration from Mohammed Ali al-Houthi was really scary,” said Faizah al-Sulimani, who left Yemen for Saudi Arabia in 2015 and works on aid projects remotely.
“We haven’t had salaries paid in Yemen for two years. It’s already caused a crisis where people feel like they have no choice but to fight to put bread on the table,” she said.
“I personally know five young men who were students in other countries and got deported and joined the Houthis and other militias like the Southern Transitional Council. It’s very frustrating.”
Houthi fighters are paid $100 (£72) a month to defend the front lines against a coalition of Yemeni soldiers, tribal forces local to the exiled Yemeni government and Saudi and UAE troops. Al-Qaeda and Isis’s Yemeni branches offer similar remuneration.
A 20-year-old injured Houthi prisoner of war The Independent met in government-loyal Marib province last year said he thought when he signed up he’d be fighting Americans and Israelis.
“They said I’d be protecting Yemenis, not fighting them. They said the Americans were coming and they were going to try and change things,” he said, wincing through the pain of his bandaged arm and leg.
Read full article by Bethan McKernan, on The Independent, March 11, 2018.