For too long has the conflict in Yemen remained in obscurity owing to a disinterest by the Global Community in comparison to matters deemed more newsworthy. However for good or worse it is perhaps one of the more pressing matters in Global Politics at the moment. Many here in Pakistan are unclear about the facts surrounding the crisis and considering the fact that we’re most likely to enter the conflict on the GCC’s side many would want to know the basis of this conflict in Yemen.
There’s a lot of confusion about what’s going on in Yemen. A simplistic narrative would be that it’s a Sectarian war between Sunni and Shitte groups backed by the GCC (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain; Oman though a GCC member isn’t part of this conflict) and Iran respectively. But is it really just a Sectarian conflict or a far more complicated situation with multiple key players each with their own vested interest? Is the Sectarian conflict just a convenient label to gather support for political positions of regional players?
To explain the answer to these questions we must take a look back at the contemporary history of Yemen. Yemen as most countries in the region was struck by the Arab Spring protests against the President at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2011. It is important to understand who these protesters were. Along with the Youth groups and Human rights groups were political parties and powerful Tribes (Like the Al Ahmar). At the forefront of these protests were members of the ‘Joint Meeting Parties’ which is a political alliance of five major Socialist, Nationalist and Religious parties. The largest political party in this alliance is the Al-Islah Party, which is a group of tribal and religious parties. Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Laureate and Human Rights activist is a member of this party.
Another significant group in the protests were Ansarullah who are Zaidi Shias, fighting to revive their Religious Ideology and the return of their Imamate. Ansarullah are also more commonly known as the Houthis, who take their name after their deceased leader Hussain Badreddin Al Houthi. Hussain was killed fighting the forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh, bitter enemy to the Houthis as they’ve fought no less than six wars with each other. Protesters were supported by dissidents in the Military such as the influential Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar (A kinsman of Ali Saleh but closely allied with Al-Islah). These protesters demanded the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ruling the country for over 30 years. Ali Abdullah Saleh was a key ally of Saudi Arabia and USA as he was staunchly against Al-Qaeda in the region and allowed the US an ‘open door’ to deal with the AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; possibly the most dangerous Chapter of the Terrorist Organisation). His willingness to cooperate with regional and global powers allowed him to maintain his despotic regime while the World looked the other way.
That’s until the Arab Spring Protests. Yemenis eventually rose up to oust him. 2000 people were killed as a result in escalating tensions. To neutralise the tensions Saudi Arabia, leading the GCC, brokered a deal (the Gulf Initiative) between the Opposition Parties and Saleh’s Ruling General Peoples Congress Party, whereby Saleh would resign and hand over the power to his deputy, Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The deal was brokered with the aid of the UN. Crucially, the US and EU backed the deal. Initially resisting the deal as many as three times, while attempting to put his son, Ahmed Saleh in power, Ali Saleh eventually succumbed to the pressure built by the International community. Abd Rabbuh Hadi then won elections with the approval of the Ruling Party and the leading Opposition party. President Hadi was the lone candidate in an elections that had a healthy turnout percentage at 65%. Following his victory at the Elections, President Hadi continued as per the Gulf Initiative, by establishing the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), where Political and Tribal representatives would determine the future of Yemen by solving key conflicts and paving the path for Elections throughout the country. One of the key hindrances to the talks was the boycott of various parties, such as the Southern Secessionists. The two Yemens, i.e. the South and the North, had merged in 1990 under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then the Southerners felt they were being marginalised by the North. The talks concluded with a decision to divide Yemen up into 6 autonomous Federal Units. This was opposed by the Ansarullah (Houthis) and Hirak (Southern Secessionist Movement). Houthis felt their respective unit wouldn’t have access to lucrative natural resources. Hirak wanted a division of two Federal Units; North and the South. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the NDC by passing a Resolution (2140); furthermore threatening those attempting to sabotage the peace process with sanctions and travel bans.
Here’s when things started to get out of hand for President Hadi. Ex-President Saleh and two senior members from the Houthi militia were deemed, by the UN, to have violated the peace process and the transition of power. The UNSC responded by freezing their assets and implementing travel bans on the three individuals. Ali Saleh, exerting his influence ousted President Hadi from the Ruling Party (General Peoples Congress Party). This was a major setback for President Hadi as it now reduced his earlier influence as Head of the largest political party in Yemen. Houthis disappointed with the decisions of the NDC stepped up their armed rebellion against Hadi’s Government, swiftly capturing Sana’a. The ease with which the Capital City was captured was worrying. It happened as key military commanders refused to fight the Houthis. This was a result of President Hadi’s reforms in which he targeted Ali Saleh’s loyalists (including his sons and nephews) in the Military and refused to strengthen the standing of the pro-uprising Military commanders who had helped him into power. This further fragmented the army and added to the resentment against Hadi within the armed forces. Al-Islah who are staunch opponents of the Houthis lost confidence in President Hadi as he was unable to exert his control on the Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda who routinely destroyed power cables causing power outages within the cities. Protests had erupted under against Hadi’s Government for his inability to provide basic services such as Electricity and his Government’s ill advised decision to raise fuel prices. President Hadi tried to rectify these mistakes by overturning the decision to raise fuel prices. It was all a little too late as the chain of events that follow would prove.
The Houthi takeover could not have been possible without the astonishing alliance with Ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ironically, it was Saleh who was responsible for the Houthis’ sense of deprivation and he was responsible for the killing of the Houthis’ Godfather, Hussein Baderdin Al Houthi. Furthermore, he refused to return Hussein’s body back to his relatives and it was the current President Hadi who returned the remains of Hussein, 9 years after his death, as a goodwill gesture. This alliance provided the Houthis with the assistance of Saleh loyalists within the Military who aided the rebels and in some instances refused to check their advance when instructed to do so by Hadi’s Government.
Subsequent peace deals failed to serve their purpose owing to lack of mutual trust and President Hadi was forced to resign and flee to Aden in the South. Once in Aden President Hadi restated himself as the constitutional and legitimate President of Yemen. Again Hadi, despite hailing from the South was unpopular in the region. President Hadi was the Defence Minister who led the offensive against Aden in the 1994 Civil War. This strengthened the Houthis position further.
Having attempted to address the causes and happenings of the conflict within Yemen we will now direct our attention to the larger regional turmoil; one that is further fueled by the conflict in Yemen.
The GCC has fully thrown its weight behind President Hadi as they refuse to allow an Iranian proxy to takeover an Arab country in their own backyard. Their worries stem primarily from the close ties Houthis share with Iran and its affiliates, the Hezbollah (the Houthi militia is modeled after the Hezbolla). Iranian officials have likened the Houthis to the Hezbollah and have spoken of exporting the revolution to the Gulf. Hadi’s Navy had seized a ship bringing sophisticated weapons to the Houthis. It is also reported that many Houthis were trained in Iran for this uprising. It has long been Iran’s strategy to exert control in the Middle East through Shitte proxies such as those in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
As mentioned earlier a simplistic narrative would seem nonsensical when challenged by the unique facts of this conflict. Ansarullah came into existence as a result of persecution by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh wasn’t oppressing the Houthis owing to Sectarian differences as he himself is a Zaydi Shia. Furthermore those accusing Saudi Arabia (and GCC) of fighting a Sectarian war wouldn’t be able to explain why the Kingdom supported a Zaydi Shia (Saleh) backing him with funds and resources to rule a predominantly Shaafi (Sunni) country. It should also be noted that Houthis intend to revive the Imamate. The Imamate ceased to exist after 1962 after a bloody Civil War in Yemen. Interestingly the Saudis supported Imam Muhammad Al Badr, the last Imam of the Zaydi Shias, backing him with finance and resources against the Nationalists. If the narrative indeed is true then why would Saudi Arabia support President Hadi who doesn’t enjoy major support from the Sunni faction. It’s all realpolitik for Saudi Arabia instead of the stereotyped image of an ideology set to persecute Shias in the region. This is true for the Houthi rebels too who have struck the most unlikeliest of alliances with their true oppressor, Ali Saleh.
So what are the actual causes of worry for Saudi Arabia and the GCC which has led them into this conflict.
The major worry for Saudi Arabia (Also Egypt and Sudan) is the geopolitical significance of Bab-Al-Mandab. It is the strait that links the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and Suez Canal. 2.5-3% of the World’s Petroleum flows through this region. Around 8-10% of the World Trade passes through this route. It contributes around $5 Billion to the Egyptian Economy; which is why the significance of this Strait cannot be overstated. Losing it to an Iranian proxy would be disastrous not just to the Saudis and the Egyptians but Europe too.
Another cause of worry for the Saudis would be the territories of Asir, Jizan, and Najran which owing to historical reasons could still be considered disputed by a hostile Yemen. Though the issue was resolved by the Treaty of Jeddah (2000) signed by ex-President Ali Saleh granting total control to Saudi Arabia over these territories.
Which leads us to Iran’s rising influence in the region. Saudi Arabia owing to International pressure couldn’t intervene in Syria and Iraq and watched silently as these Northern Arab States drifted further into the Iranian nexus. Yemen on the other hand was a conflict which would allow Saudi Arabia to gather regional and international support for its cause, which they did quite shrewdly. Another positive development for the Saudis is the formation of the Peninsula Shield; a unified task force or military. This has been a priority for Saudi Arabia for a while now and due to various hindrances couldn’t be realised. Until now. This shifts the balance of power back in favour of the Saudis as it allows them to be a regional power at the helm of a multinational alliance. These developments suit them in the long run.
Iran may feel it has made developments but they seem to be short term gains. Iran could not have expected such aggression from Saudi Arabia who are trying to reassert themselves under a new King. The wide International (EU/UN) support GCC’s intervention has gathered makes any gains made by Iran seem unsustainable. Countries which aren’t necessarily opposed to Iran have seemingly jumped into the Saudi camp; countries such as Pakistan and Morocco. This development will make Iran wary of further aggression or retaliation as it wouldn’t want new enemies especially on its border. Iran is more interested in exporting turmoil, not bringing it back home. Thus, Pakistan’s involvement in the conflict could serve in its part by balancing the odds and forcing the rivals onto the negotiating table. This is another tactical victory for the Saudis. More than 150 Warplanes and 150,000 Troops on its border were more than sufficient to deal with the Houthis but insisting on Pakistan’s participation was an attempt to gain moral backing and putting pressure on Iran to back down from the conflict in the region. A matter of deterrence.
Locally the biggest winner so far seems to be ex-President Ali Saleh. The man has proven to be a shrewd and astute politician who has a very clear understanding of the Yemen’s political realities. His ability to grasp politics of necessity and make others, especially his rivals do the same is extraordinary. Reportedly he is trying to position his son, Ahmed Saleh to take over the reigns from President Hadi. Instability in Yemen suits him best and that’s what he has accomplished. It seems almost certain that his love affair with the Houthis will come to an end sooner than later as while the Houthis seem dogmatic in their beliefs and cannot be persuaded or reasoned with Saleh is projecting himself as one who is willing to cease hostilities. It is very likely that the GCC may be forced to consider such a proposal in the near future as it would weaken the Houthis significantly, who Saleh will willingly sacrifice to serve his purposes.
Other groups sure to benefit from the current crisis would be the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State. The common factor between Saleh, Hadi, and the Houthis is that they are all sworn enemies to the terrorists. However as we’ve seen loyalties change to suit necessities in the region and that could be the worrying fact. A sectarian narrative doesn’t just suit Houthis and Iran but also Al-Qaeda and IS. It propels them to the forefront of the conflict gathering recruits from a majorly Shafi (Sunni) territory. It makes for good propaganda and would give them much needed support to thwart the ‘Shia takeover’. This was the major reason why IS made great gains in Iraq and Syria. Due to the currently weak nature of most political and tribal forces against the Houthi-Saleh-Iran nexus, there is a propensity to look at other options for assistance. The Sunni Tribes in Yemen may look at IS or Al-Qaeda for this much needed assistance. It will be worth remembering that Al-Qaeda and IS each have their own agenda and aims for the future but in the current conflict they’d be most likely interested in working together. IS started flexing its muscles through recent bombings in an attempt to assert itself as the main opponent of the Houthis hoping Sunnis would rally behind them for support.
Which is why the Saudi led intervention couldn’t have been more timely (from the Saudis’ point of view). Saudi Arabia is as apprehensive about an Al Qaeda/IS takeover as it’s about conceding Yemen to an Iranian proxy. It is Saudi Arabia’s official position that they will not let Iran sow seeds of Sectarian strife in the region. Sectarian conflicts will only serve to strengthen IS/Al-Qaeda.
Zaydis don’t have the historical tensions their Ithna Ashari cousins have with Sunnis. As I’ve mentioned earlier the last Zaydi Imam was a Saudi ally. This sudden sectarian war being pursued by the Houthis is foreign in nature to Yemen. It must be pointed out that all Houthis are Zaydis but not all Zaydis of Yemen are Houthis. Some even accuse the Houthis of having subscribe to Iran’s ‘Islamic Revolution’ Ideology during their historically close ties with the Iranians. Hussein Al Houthi formed his faction after returning from Iran and had close ties with the clergy there. This is why Saudis feel the sudden rise in sectarian strife has outside connections.
Finally this isn’t the only conflict going on in Yemen. There are various tribes with their own ambitions (and varying loyalties). Then there’s the issue of the Southern secessionists. Which is one of the most pertinent issues in Yemen and has been eclipsed owing to the current conflict. This adds another dynamic to the conflict.
I hope we realise the complex nature of this conflict and refrain from making simplistic assessments as it’ll only undermine the significance of the actual issues faced by the Yemeni people. I do believe that a sectarian tag would irk most Yemenis as they’re less concerned with the sect of the warring parties and more focused about the basic necessities such as peace, prosperity, and rights. They want an end to this conflict and are more concerned with an end to corruption and resumption of basic services than joining any particular bloc.