Why UN Chief Says Yemen 'Is Collapsing Before Our Eyes'

PHOTO: Supporters of Houthi Shiites shout slogans while marching on a street as they celebrate the fourth anniversary of the uprising in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 11, 2015.Hani Mohammed/AP Photo
Supporters of Houthi Shiites shout slogans while marching on a street as they celebrate the fourth anniversary of the uprising in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 11, 2015.

For the first time since Farea al-Muslimi can remember, there was absolutely no traffic today on the road to Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

“No one wants to go into the capital,” he told ABC News.

The 24-year-old said he’s seen 10 wars in his lifetime, and this is the first time he thinks his life is in danger.

His country “is collapsing before our eyes,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon told the U.N. Security Council Thursday. U.N. Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar warned that the country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula is at a crossroads between "civil war and disintegration.”

On Friday -- following the lead of the United States, the United Kingdom and France -- Italy, Germany and Saudi Arabia all evacuated their embassies.

"It’s not as if Yemen was not in bad shape before,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former Sanaa-based journalist. “Before the current political crisis started, things were already bad ... and now, each day gets exponentially worse.”

PHOTO: A group of Houthi Militia in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 07, 2015.Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A group of Houthi Militia in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 07, 2015.

This week's diplomatic departures follow a month of declining stability in the capital in the wake of Yemen’s sudden change of power in January. After shoring up power, the anti-American Houthis, a minority Shiite Muslim group believed to be bankrolled by Iran, forced the ruling U.S.-backed government to resign. Within 24 hours, Yemen’s president, prime minister and cabinet stepped down, and experts warned the country would sink deeper into chaos. And it did, almost immediately, coinciding with the breakdown of U.N.-brokered peace talks.

Muslimi, also a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East, said questions such as, "Does this republic still exist?” are being asked seriously now. Both Muslimi and Baron said it’s a distinct possibility the international community will have to prepare for what Muslimi described as “the fragmentation of Yemen.”

For the Middle East’s poorest country, the problems will only worsen as big powers close their doors in Sanaa.

"On one level, the U.S. is citing ’security risks’ -- but leaving is a politically charged statement to put pressure on the Houthis,” Baron said.

PHOTO: Houthi Shiite Yemenis hold carry a large representation of the national flag during a celebration marking the fourth anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 11, 2015.Hani Mohammed/AP Photo
Houthi Shiite Yemenis hold carry a large representation of the national flag during a celebration marking the fourth anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 11, 2015.

The other consequence, he added, is the real risk that international aid may dwindle as international presence shrinks.

Once generous supporters of Yemen’s previous U.S.-backed government, Saudi Arabia yanked its $4 billion in aid late last year when the Houthis began to consolidate power, and the United States has averaged some $200 million annually in recent years.

Now, more than half the population in Yemen needs humanitarian assistance, according to Oxfam, one of the largest NGOs working on the ground. More than 13 million people do not have access to clean water and nearly nine million people are unable to access basic medical care.

“We cannot reach 16 million people on our own,” said Kate Wiggans, campaigns and policy head for the Middle East for Oxfam. “And if the international community starts pulling funding, that can only make things so much worse for those 16 million people.”

Experts say the dire health of the country’s economy, combined with the strength of the al Qaeda affiliate known as AQAP, which is opposed to the new and heavily armed ruling Houthis, may mean the worst is yet to come.

“The light at the end of the tunnel" that the international community once promised, Muslimi said, "is actually the light of the train coming straight for us. And it’s a dangerously, armed train.”

PHOTO: Pro-Houthi protesters demonstrate to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the uprising that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Feb. 11, 2015. The banners praised Allah and expressed anti-Western sentiments.REUTERS
Pro-Houthi protesters demonstrate to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the uprising that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Feb. 11, 2015. The banners praised Allah and expressed anti-Western sentiments.