Trade, War, and More: Using Trade Data to Quantify the Cost of Conflict

News & Insights
Oct 29, 2019

When it comes to war, it is often visceral images that capture the attention of the public. But trade data, such as import and export flows, can also be a valuable tool for quantifying and understanding the impact of a conflict. Attorneys and trade analysts at Picard Kentz & Rowe are using their understanding of such data to work toward achieving greater accountability in the current conflict in Yemen.

In times of war, disruptions to trade patterns directly affect a country’s economic foundation, as well as its citizens’ access to imported food, medicine, and other goods necessary for survival. Additionally, following the resolution of a conflict, trade repercussions can reverberate for decades, preventing a country from engaging with global trade partners and limiting a government’s ability to provide its citizens with the resources and services that they need.

One tool that can be used to track international trade patterns is the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database (“UN Comtrade”), which is available both publicly and by subscription. UN Comtrade is the world’s largest repository of official international trade statistics, and it contains over three billion records from as early as 1962. Over 170 countries or areas provide the United Nations Statistics Division with their annual and monthly international trade statistics, such as import and export data.1 Once compiled, these statistics are published by UN Comtrade, and users can sort through data based on the type of good or service, the partner country, and the time frame. UN Comtrade data is one resource that can be used to better quantify the impact of the Yemen conflict on the country’s trade flows, finances, and consequently the well-being of its citizens.

Conflict broke out in Yemen in March of 2015. Data from UN Comtrade demonstrate that once the conflict began, both exports from and imports to the country dropped sharply. Subsequently, as the political situation continued to deteriorate, less money flowed into the country’s economy, and access to imported goods decreased. UN Comtrade allows users to quantify the extent to which trade flows were impacted.

As Figure 1 shows, in 2015, Yemen exported less than one-fourth of what it had exported the previous year. More specifically, exports began decreasing in the months following March 2015, which marked the official beginning of the conflict. This is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1
Annual Exports From Yemen 2012-2018
Figure 2
Monthly Exports From Yemen 2015

The pattern for imports is largely the same. In 2015, imports to Yemen dropped by nearly 50 percent (Figure 3). In the first few months of the conflict alone (March – May), imports dropped by more than 80 percent (Figure 4). Although Yemen’s imports began to recover slightly by the end of 2015 (likely as a result of humanitarian assistance), these data further solidify the correlation between the Yemeni conflict and Yemen’s pattern of trade.

Figure 3
Annual Imports to Yemen 2012-2018
Figure 4
Monthly Imports to Yemen 2015

Top Essential Yemeni ImportsThese changes in trade patterns directly affect Yemeni citizens. Yemen’s main imports aren’t luxury goods; rather its top imports include essentials such as wheat and rice. From 2014 – 2017, imports of wheat, rice, milk, and cheese, all decreased significantly. Although there was an influx of food imports to the country in 2018, overall imports of the listed commodities continue to be lower than their original pre-conflict levels. Such data support reporting that strategic blockades by Saudi Arabia and its allies (the “Saudi-led coalition”) have systematically prevented food essentials from reaching Yemeni citizens.2

But even as the Saudi-led coalition has enforced these trade blockades, Saudi Arabia has continued to export its own goods into Yemen. UN Comtrade allows its users to track the imports and exports of specific countries, and statistics on Saudi Arabia show a distinct pattern. From 2014 – 2018, while Yemen’s imports from other trading partners sharply decreased, the proportion of Yemeni imports from Saudi Arabia steadily increased. In 2014, Saudi Arabian goods made up only seven percent of Yemen’s total imports. However, by 2018 that proportion had more than doubled to 15 percent of Yemen’s overall imports.

As the conflict in Yemen has intensified, other countries with a strategic interest in Yemen have also played an outsized role in Yemen’s trade relationships. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the Russian Federation comprise some of Yemen’s top trade partners. In 2018, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the Russian Federation made up four of the top five exporters to Yemen and accounted for 44 percent of Yemen’s total imports. This is a notable increase from 2014, when those same countries accounted for only 21 percent of Yemen’s imports. Understanding these countries’ trade relationships with Yemen can provide useful context for evaluating the overall impact of the conflict on Yemen.

On the whole, this kind of data on imports, exports, and trade partners provides another tool for quantifying the effects of the conflict in Yemen, which extend beyond the physical destruction caused by the parties to the conflict.


1Beginning in 2016, Yemen stopped reporting annual import and export data to UN Comtrade. Therefore, in order to consistently report statistics over a larger time period, the data represented in graphs and charts are based on information submitted by other countries about their trade with Yemen.

2From 2014-2018, imports of wheat have decreased by 29.84 percent, imports of rice have decreased by 8.24 percent, imports of milk have decreased by 25.10 percent, and imports of cheese have decreased by 9.73 percent.