The underside of the cup: Yemen

Florence Marquis

Global coffee trade represents between 10 and 15 billion dollars depending on the year. More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day. The coffee economy represents a significant part of the income of several countries on either side of the equator. It is also the most exported product after oil and the movements of goods are therefore closely linked to the geo-political issues of the producing countries and we can see the traces of their histories colored by European colonization strategies.

This column is intended to be a different look at the industry and the content of our cups of coffee, with the perspective of Florence Marquis, an integrated baccalaureate student in public affairs and international relations at Laval University.

The underside of the cup: Yemen

Yemen; the largest humanitarian crisis in the world

The discovery of the Yemenia bean, a new botanical variety of Arabica coffee, was considered the most important discovery in the world of coffee since the 1900s. When tasting the batches, the quality was found to be exceptional, with some being are even ranked among the best in the world. Two of these lots were part of the advent calendar that we offered you this year. However, this superior quality coffee bears the weight of a very fragile political situation: a crisis has been raging in Yemen since 2015.

Context and geographic divide

Since European colonization, Yemen has been grappling with a particularly pronounced ethnic and religious divide between the south and the north of the country. Indeed, when the country was officially formed in 1990, it united on one side, the Yemen Arab Republic, supported by the United States and on the other, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, supported among others by the Soviet Union. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled northern Yemen since 1978, took the reins of power upon unification. Only four years after this event, a separatist movement in the south attempted to secede without success. They tried again in 2007, still trying to gain more autonomy. The divide deepened in 2001. During the terrorist attacks in the United States, the latter gave its support to President Saleh. Yet a southern group, the Houthis, created the group Al -Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rose up against Saleh six times between 2004 and 2010, claiming that his government was autocratic and corrupt. They accused him of having supported the United States attack in Iraq in 2003. Under increasing pressure, Saleh left power in 2012, leaving it to his vice-president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Fall of government and civil war

What are the causes that made this crisis so serious? First, the Hadi government stopped subsidizing gasoline, which caused prices to rise even though lower prices were one of the Houthis' biggest demands (that and having a new government). The president organized a national dialogue conference to separate Yemen into different regions without taking into account different socio-economic grievances. Towards the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, the Houthis took advantage of the general discontent with the president to strengthen their control over the capital Sana'a. They managed to expand their territorial control by seizing a number of army and security force positions in the city. Despite the fact that this caste had largely collaborated in bringing down the former president, Saleh ended up working side by side with the Houthis to bring down his former vice-president. This alliance was fruitful since the armed forces were still loyal to Saleh. Short-lived alliance, since the president was assassinated in 2017, by the same actors. After the capture of Sana'a, Hadi and his government were forced to flee.

On March 25, 2015, a coalition formed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened at Hadi's request and carried out an air raid in order to defeat the Houthis and allow the president to resume his post. This campaign was approved and financed by France, England and the United States who provided support and weapons to this coalition. In this case, there is neither party better than the other, since in the end, both are accused of serious violations of international humanitarian law. This is partly what makes the situation so difficult for civilians. The attacks by the two coalitions led to the death of 12,000 citizens, but also to the destruction of numerous health infrastructures, roads, houses, schools, etc. They have therefore contributed to exacerbating the humanitarian crisis taking place in these same places.

Economic collapse and humanitarian crisis

This crisis is currently considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world: there are more than 20 million Yemenis who depend on humanitarian aid to survive. With the economy completely collapsed, 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and finds themselves unable to buy anything to survive. Also, two out of three families find themselves completely without income, yet the prices of products continue to increase. For example, because of the fall of the government, the state can no longer pay its civil servants, so 500,000 people have not received their salary for more than three years. Also, even before the civil war, more than 90% of food had to be imported in order for the population to be adequately fed, but with the air control of the Arab coalition, these imports are enormously limited. Around 16 million people live in food insecurity and 5 million are on the verge of famine. Also, due to the demolition of several school infrastructures, 1 in 4 children are not in school. Also, citizens rarely have access to drinking water and it is often contaminated by cholera. In 2017 there was the largest cholera pandemic on record, with around one million reportedly catching it that year and more than 3,000 dying. In addition, half of the health infrastructure is no longer functional and there have been many cuts in medical equipment, so it is rare to obtain treatment when an illness is contracted. A Yemeni child dies on average every 10 minutes from an illness that could have easily been avoided if they had been able to obtain respectable living conditions. In fact, 7.4 million children are affected. We should not forget to mention the coronavirus pandemic and as with the rest of the world, Yemen was not put aside. However, it is difficult to imagine the real impacts that there may have been, since as mentioned earlier, the resources to carry out tests and to hospitalize patients are often lacking.

It's hard to ignore all these dark sides when we drink our cup of coffee from Yemen. Yet while it is important to be aware that living conditions are far from ideal, this is not what we should keep in mind. With this economic crisis, it is all the more important to support businesses that stand out from the crowd and are struggling to survive. By drinking privately imported coffee like the ones we offer, together we contribute to improving the living conditions of workers and farmers in Yemen. It is not charity which sometimes takes the form of a virtuous positioning marking a social level worthy of the privileged. But on the other hand: to support a network of farmers who produce real quality and who have a real impact while maintaining the dignity of producers. This is not charity but recognition of their expertise. And you will agree as I do, that the coffees we have acquired in the last two years are delicious and worthy of being part of the planet's club of great wines. Every coffee sold allows these businesses to survive and reach their full potential, one bag of coffee at a time.

Integrated bachelor's degree student in public affairs and international relations at Laval University.

Yemeni coffee available: Select Reserve Collection

ROBINSON, Kali. “Yemen's Tragedy: War, Stalemate and Suffering”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 2, 2021, (page consulted December 23, 2021)

Anonymous. “Yemen Crisis: Why is There a War?”, BBC News, November 2, 2021, (page accessed December 23, 2021)

Anonymous. “War in Yemen: no end in sight” Amnesty International, (page consulted on December 23, 2021 )

Anonymous. “Yemen: 6 years of humanitarian crisis in 6 questions”, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, March 26, 2021, 6-questions.html (page consulted on December 23, 2021)

Anonymous. “Yemen, UN warns of a terrible, increasingly disastrous and desperate situation”, United Nations, October 11, 2021, (page accessed on December 23, 2021)

Anonymous. “Humanitarian crisis in Yemen”, Canadian Red Cross, February 2021, (page consulted on December 23, 2021)

Anonymous. “Crisis in Yemen”, Oxfam International, date unknown, (page consulted on December 23, 2021)

RIEDEL, Bruce. “Who are the Houdhis and why are we at war with them,” Brookings, December 18, 2017, -why-are-we-at-war-with-them/ (page consulted on December 23, 2021)


  • Philippe Aubin

    Merci Florence, pour cette leçon d’histoire géopolitique concernant le Yémen, lieu de la production de mon café favori depuis toujours!

  • Reine Degarie

    Florence, tu nous présentes un portrait global et bien structuré de la situation au Yémen et établis un lien judicieux vers la façon de consommer leur café de choix. C’est presque un plan de thèse de maîtrise
    ! Bravo!

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