Viewing the Yemeni civil war as a yet another example of the religious struggle for dominance in the Near East between Saudi Arabia’s Salafi Wahhabism and Iran’s Shia Islam would be seeing the forest for the trees. Although the ideological divisions within Islam certainly form a component of the conflict, on this occasion, division along sectarian lines does not fully explain the forces at play in the Yemeni civil war. A closer analysis of the Houthi insurgency and the broader conflict quickly dispels the sectarian lens through which the conflict is often portrayed and uncovers vested interests from across the world.
As a starting point, it is worth noting that the majority of the Houthi insurgency follows the Zaydi sect of Islam. This sect is so different from Iran’s Twelver Shiism that several of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Sunni supporters actually align themselves with the insurgency. Further illustrating the fact that the dispute in Yemen cuts across different sects within Islam, is the fact that the Houthis repeatedly violated recommendations from Iran when they captured the capital of Sana’a in 2014. Finally, Yemen’s various factions in the war were on the verge of signing a peace deal in 2015 before seemingly unexplained Saudi airstrikes derailed any hopes of a ceasefire being reached.
Therefore, with no end in sight to the conflict plaguing the nation, the question worth asking is: who benefits from a Yemen at war?
The answer reveals a panoply of foreign interests at play implicating, among others, the United States, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. This coalition serves as the opposition to self-gratifying Iranian interests in Yemen as well. Therefore, only if we see Yemen as an invaluable piece in the region’s political chessboard do we finally understand the apparently senseless actions that continue to perpetuate the civil war. Yemen has essentially become part of a three-way bid for regional dominance.
The main orchestrators of this war are the Saudi-backed Hadi coalition, the Iranian-backed Houthi coalition and other sporadic actors in the region, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Examining each interest in turn helps to explain the erratic nature of the conflict and paints a bleak picture for the Yemeni people.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is arguably the most visible interest in the war. Their intervention in Yemen is a change of pace for the Saudis who have largely sought to influence events from afar and orchestrate events through indirect means as opposed to committing boots on the ground. With the Arab Spring of 2011 came the reinvigoration of several social movements across the region and unity across political lines for a democratic transition. This posed an imminent threat to Saudi interests in the Near East. Former political enemies such as the northern Houthi rebels and the Hiraak secessionist movement formed a joint front with the goal of overthrowing Saleh. Unable to stem the tides of change ushered in by the Arab Spring, the Saudi kingdom constructed an alternative plan to replace Saleh with a government that would maintain the status quo.
So, why does the oil-rich kingdom have such a vested interest in Yemen? The strategic bombing runs of the Saudi forces which have left the eastern Hadramawt region relatively untouched serves as a vital clue to the motives behind their involvement. The alluring status of the Hadramawt region in east Yemen lies in the Saudi’s hopes of constructing an oil pipeline through the area. Confirmation of this pipedream was provided by a leaked communication.
In this leaked message we finally understand the overarching scheme behind Saudi Arabia’s interest in a destabilised Yemen. Furthermore, if the multiple human rights violations and civilian bombings were not enough to convince reluctant sceptics of Saudi Arabia’s indifference to the real needs of the Yemeni people, its relations with AQAP is damning. Saudi Arabia has avoided any confrontation with AQAP so long as the terror group remains a key ally in defeating the Houthi insurgency. How does the saying go? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? This method is not a new strategy for the Saudis and has been utilised in its support of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as a useful tool to defeat the Shia government of Bashar al-Assad. Sadly, whereas Saudi support of AQAP serves both groups’ interests, it does not serve the Yemeni people. The expansion of AQAP in the east of Yemen has prompted the group to call themselves the “Sons of Hadramawt” and has emboldened the terror organisation to carry out its jihad in Yemen (which includes the imposition of Sharia law). But the Saudi kingdom is not the only party playing a role in fuelling the war.
After burning their fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US foreign policy in the Near East shifted to a more indirect, but no less influential, strategy. During the tenure of former president Barack Obama, the Hadi-government was heavily equipped with US weapons and ammunition. Subsequently, the discovery that those very same US cluster bombs were being used in air raids to destroy large swaths of residential land and rural hospitals forced former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon to tepidly concede that the US involvement in Yemen may amount to a war crime.
The Trump administration has simply continued the precedent set by Obama in its approval of billions of dollars in arms deals to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Reasons for American involvement in the region were alluded to in a statement to the US Senate committee on foreign relations by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in which he said: “Iranian malign activity poses a fundamental threat to the stability of the Middle East and to American security at home and abroad…[Iran] directed repeated attacks on civilian and military infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by Iranian-designed explosives-laden drones and ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, who receive financial, technical, and material support from Iran.”
Thus, the fear over growing Iranian influence in the region and the geopolitical as well as economic benefits of a US-friendly Yemen serves as important reasons for their involvement in the country.
The UK have also been implicated in fuelling the war. A recent report by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) found that the UK had facilitated the transfer of £6.3-billion in arms and ammunition to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally oversaw the contribution of £1.2-billion in arms during his time at the helm of the foreign office. Additionally, with British and US personnel overseeing operations in the command centre of the Saudi-coalition, there can be little doubt as to the the two countries’ influence in perpetuating Yemen’s civil war.
The UAE have also sought to increase their control in the region, but the reasons for Emirati interest in Yemen is more multifaceted than the other actors. The UAE is keen to keep the rise of Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al Islah in Yemen, in check. Following Al Islah’s alignment with the Saudis, the UAE wasted no time in providing support to Yemen’s secessionist movement in the south, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). A short period of regional fighting ensued in the Aden region before the UAE overwhelmed President Hadi’s Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) forces. With the south of Yemen now effectively in Emirati-control, Saudi Arabia intervened to quell any threat to its broader goal of defeating the Houthi insurgency. The Saudis managed to coax the STC over to their side of the war with the Hadi-government now only ruling as a proxy force in the region. Control over Yemen’s southern region and the numerous port cities along the peninsula has bolstered the UAE’s commercial and energy interests. This then, was ultimately the driving force behind the UAE’s emergence as a role-player in the conflict.
Finally, we arrive at the principal opposition to the Hadi-coalition, namely the Iranian-backed Houthis. The Houthi rebels have a long and checkered history in Yemen, but the modern Houthi movement formed in 2004 as multiple groups in the northern region of Sa’dah coalesced to form a unified resistance to government rule. Between 2004 and 2010, six successive wars were fought between the Houthi rebels and the government with the Houthis expanding their influence and support with each subsequent encounter. The arrival of the Arab Spring provided the perfect opportunity for the Houthis to adopt a more populist rhetoric to their insurgency which has since seen them make significant strides in their bid for power.
Iran has sought to apply deft touches and subtle interventions in Yemen. Iran’s indirect involvement is seen by many commentators as an attempt to establish a weaponised, stateless, non-Sunni force aligned with interests in Tehran. An important caveat though, is the fact that Iran’s interference in Yemen only seems to have escalated once the civil war broke out and there is little evidence of major institutional links to the Houthi insurgency prior to the war. Increased Iranian influence on the side of the Houthis, however, was recently personified by a meeting between the Houthi ambassador to Iran and the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.
A leak from private intelligence company Stratfor further confirms the growing presence of Iranian influence in Yemen. It is important to note that Iran’s involvement from a distance is a tactic employed by the country in other parts of the Near East. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) have supported local insurgencies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hashd al-Sha’abi in Iraq as a mere means to an end for greater Iranian power in the region. Ultimately, Iran’s backing of the Houthi insurgency seems to be little more than a ploy to destabilise Yemen and install a leader with a friendly disposition towards Tehran.
As the war rages on, the likelihood of reaching a peaceful settlement becomes a remote dream of the Yemeni people. All the external role-players have made significant investments in the war and are unlikely to relinquish their bid for regional dominance. Thus, as the maelstrom ensues and likely worsens in the wake of Covid-19, the only voices not being heard are those of the Yemeni people themselves. UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock best described the situation when stating: “Yemen is now on the precipice. Right on the cliff edge, below which lies a tragedy of historic proportions.”
Covid-19 may be the final push over the edge.
Cameron Joseph is an undergraduate medical student at the University of Cape Town. He has a keen interest in investigating the effects of geopolitics on healthcare across the globe. This is an edited version of an article first published by Merion West and used with permission.