Originally published on May 22, 2015, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)
While political instability in Yemen might not be new, the intensification of military action in the region is highly alarming. What is Saudi Arabia doing here, who are the Houthi rebels, what’s the alleged role of Iran in all this and what’s the role the West is playing: answering all these questions leaves us with an extremely grim situation on the ground.
Two Yemens, Countless Conflicts
The history of Yemen as a modern nation state is rather short and until relatively recently would have required us to address it using plural. The country was founded in 1990, when what was then North Yemen and South Yemen got united. South Yemen, officially called the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was a pro-Soviet state that was established in 1967, after having been under the British rule, while North Yemen was historically ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Just four years after the unification of the two Yemens a civil war broke out, resulting in a victory for the North. The south wasn’t allowed to leave, yet the victory itself didn’t eliminate separatist movements nor the conflicts that they would bring after the civil war was officially over.
The Arab Spring arrived in Yemen in its usual shape: mass protests. In 2012, following Yemen’s Uprising of 2011, major political players came together and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement was signed to facilitate Yemen’s transition to peace. Following this agreement, the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down and was granted political immunity while his Vice President, Abd Rabbu Mansour al Hadi, took over. The plan was for Hadi to stay in power during the transitional period only, however, not only did this period get prolonged, but also didn’t meet the expectations set as the current situation on the ground demonstrates.
The Rise of the Houthi Rebels
With their official name of Ansar Allah, which translates to “supporters of God”, the Houthis come from North Yemen. The religion they practise is Shia Zaidi, a branch of Shi’ism, Shi’ism and Sunnism having a relatively equal split (45% to 55%, respectively) in the country. The origins of the group referred to as Houthi rebels can be traced to 1992, when an organisation called the Believing Youth was established to teach young people about the Zaidi religion. It was a response to an increasing influence of Salafism in the region coming from Saudi Arabia.
As separatist movements gained strength, so did the Houthi position in the country. In 2014, Yemen became a federation of six regions, which was supposed to grant more autonomy to each of them. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent the divisions in the county from further deepening. In September 2014, the Houthis launched a military coup and in January 2015 the president was forced to resign. The Houthi leaders are officially recognised nor in Yemen, neither internationally, so working on any kind of political compromise in the country is hardly imaginable.
The Superpowers and their Roles
Although it would be an oversimplification to call the situation in Yemen a proxy war for Iran and Saudi Arabia, these are two important players in this conflict. Let’s start with the fact that Saudi Arabia never wanted to see a strong and economically independent Yemen. Following Iraq’s invasion in Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia forced thousands of illegal Yemeni immigrants to leave, as Yemen was officially supporting Iraq in this conflict. When Yemen discovered oil on its territory, Saudi Arabia has tried to persuade oil companies not to engage in oil exploitation projects in Yemen. The Saudis supported South Yemen and their separatist ambitions until the country’s unification, and now it is leading a coalition that has started bombing Yemen at the end of March of this year. Rather a concern than an objective: this is what a strong and unified Yemen has been to Saudi Arabia, so it’s really hard to see how bombing it together with Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf States would lead to this outcome.
While the role Saudi Arabia plays in this conflict is more defined, the extent of support that Iran is providing to the Houthi rebels remains unclear. On one hand, Reuters reports that even before the onset of the military coup Iran has been providing military and financial aid to the Houthis. The Saudis don’t want to see a strong Shi’ite state as their neighbours, Iran doesn’t want a Sunii Yemen: this is how this conflict, when using a proxy prism, is oftentimes presented. On the other hand, as Graham E. Fuller, a political analyst and an expert on Islamic terrorism, writes: “Iran actually views itself as an ‘Islamic’ power, not a Shi’ite power. It rarely invokes Shi’ism in its geopolitical statements. But when Shi’a in the region are oppressed, Iran will speak up for them, as it has done about the oppressed Shi’a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
While unable to easily point to the arms that Iran has been providing to the Houthis, mainstream media seems to emphasise how crucial Iran’s support has been in this conflict. Asharq al-Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, recently claimed that the arms that the Houthis used in the coup were actually seized from the government military bases, which, if at least partly true, would serve as an important reminder not to reduce Yemen’s situation to a pawn in the game of more powerful forces.
A powerful force with ample weapons to sell here is the US: knowing its close ties to Saudi Arabia, it’s not surprising it’s been supporting the coalition Saudi Arabia is leading. The US is working with Saudi Arabia in their joint effort to fight ISIS, and the arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been record-high in the past years. William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, reminds us that during the first five years of his presidency Barack Obama has already sold more arms to Saudi Arabia than what George W. Bush has sold in eight years. It’s also worth noting that the arms sales under the Obama administration have been the highest since WWII. We find the major buyers, totalling approx. 60 percent of all sales, in the Middle East and the Gulf States. The biggest buyer remains Saudi Arabia itself. Having previously brutally cracked down on the protests in Bahrain, now it’s threatening to destabilise the whole region. To add to this destabilisation, this March The Washington Post reported that the US government had managed to lose track of $500 million in military equipment bound to Yemen. Now, whether we see these weapons end up in the hands of Houthis or other military groups in Yemen or not, it would be absolutely shortsighted to expect these arms to somehow de-escalate the conflict.
Finally, Russia is another player with its own interests in the region. One would think that as a country tightening its strategic ties with Iran (for example, through a recently signed cooperation agreement) Russia should support the Houthis. A delegation of Ansar Allah visited Russia this February and have allegedly agreed for Russian companies to start working in the oil fields in Yemen’s Marib province. We can assume that having access to one of strategic sea corridors would also seem like an appealing offer to Russia. Hence, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia having abstained in a recent UN Security Council voting on an arms embargo to Houthi rebels. At the same time, if the fighting in the region continues and pushes oil prices up, that in itself might be beneficial to Russia, which makes guessing Russia’s ideal outcome here a bit more difficult.
Questions with Bombs for Answers
If there’s one thing that is clear in this situation is that there is no end in sight to this horrific conflict. As Brian Whitaker, a British journalist and a Middle East expert, states, the plan the UN has put together for Yemen doesn’t fuel optimism. Whitaker reminds us that the Gulf States, left to shape the future of a democratic Yemen, don’t have deep democratic traditions themselves. Lastly, to have a democratic state, we first of all need to have a state: something that resembles a political unit upon which democratic institutions and practices can be built. We can see how a “security before development” rhetoric hasn’t really helped Yemen in the past: instead of focusing on its infrastructure, the country started arming itself – which in itself should be questioned – and now some of its military equipment might get into the hands of active military groups who would likely not be promising democratic reforms any time soon.
On top of this literally explosive situation, let’s not forget Yemen is home to the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now followed by the Islamic State and its recent attacks (one of them has left 137 killed). The Houthis have distanced themselves from both of these groups, which could potentially make them allies to Saudi Arabia as well as the US in their efforts to fight them. What we have is a complicated web of interests resulting in major world powers fighting groups who could easily be their allies in a different and perhaps more strategically important fight. It bears resemblance to what we’re seeing in Syria, where the West is fighting a power that could otherwise be their ally against ISIS.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and one of the most unfortunate ones globally, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to imagine any kind of political compromise being reached soon. Without a compromise Yemen simply can’t exist, as a unitary country nor as a federal state. It’s even more difficult to imagine how any kind of compromise can be reached by bombing its already fragile infrastructure, deepening the humanitarian crisis the country is in.