The crisis in Yemen, which is known to be a poor country with corrupted rulers, began in the year 2012 with the revolution against Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, as president of the country, had led Yemen for more than twenty years. Saleh resigned office in 2012 as per an earlier agreement between the Government of Yemen and the opposition groups. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the former vice president of Saleh wished to unite the fragmented landscape of Yemen by defending the threat to the country from forces trying to revolt from different sides. Yemen had to face the Al Qaeda threat from the Arabian Peninsula and the revolting Houthi militants in the northern region of the country for many years. The Houthi fighters went to the extent of sweeping into the capital city of Sana’a in 2014 and forced Hadi toward negotiating a united government along with the diverse political factions of the country. The continuous pressure from the rebels further weakened the nation, and on his private residence and presidential palace witnessing attack by the militant groups, President Hadi had to resign along with his colleagues in January 2015. This led the Houthis to declare themselves as having taken over the Government of Yemen the following month. The Houthis dissolved the parliament and installed a provisional Revolutionary Committee, which was led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The crisis did not end here, the resigned President Hadi, on escaping to Aden, declared that he is still the legitimate president of the country while proclaiming Aden as the temporary capital of the country. He also sought the support of the military and officials of the royal government to rally in favor of him before seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia following the rebellion of Houthis loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. By that time, protest against the Gulf Initiative got strengthened in many parts of Yemen, beyond the control of the government (Glosemeyer).
Internal Crisis in Yemen
Ever since both the north and south Yemen united in 1990, deep divisions continued to persist between both the north and south. Yemen was facing many challenges from militants linked to al Qaeda and separatists in the southern region and rebels of Zaydi Shia in the northern region by the year 2011. The political instability of Yemen has to do a lot with several internal crises. For example, the country has got very limited natural resources, and the average water availability to each Yemeni citizen per year is as low as 140 cubic meters as against the Middle Eastern average of 1,000 cubic meters per year (Heffez). The groundwater table in Yemen is known to deplete at a faster pace thereby making pursuing farming as a livelihood means very difficult. However, instead of growing food crops most of the farmers of Yemen grow a narcotic crop qat, most Yemeni men are fond of chewing. This makes Yemen incapable of fulfilling the food security of its population and makes it dependent on other countries for feeding the people. Even as the outsiders repeatedly hear about proxy wars fought between different factions supported by foreign countries, most of the conflicts occurring in rural Yemen are on water. About 80 percent of conflicts happening in the rural areas of Yemen are attributed to the less water availability for cultivation and drinking. Besides, every year 40,000 people get killed due to land and water related disputes, which is more than the number of people falling prey to terrorism, says an estimate of Yemen’s Interior Ministry (Heffez). Obviously, water shortage is one of the reasons why people flee the country in large numbers. During the ancient times, Yemen was known for abundant agricultural production as evidenced in the Bible about the greenery of the Kingdom of Sheba. Hence, Yemen still can hope to restore its past legacy if the rulers concentrate on conserving and managing its precious natural resources and winning back the confidence of its fleeing citizens. Thus, the failure of the local government to win the confidence of its own citizens by concentrating on the internal welfare measures has made the situation in Yemen still worse and prompting outsiders to manipulate the interests of diverse groups within the country.
Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni Interest
Yemen by virtue of sharing a long boundary with Saudi Arabia, has been popularly known as the back garden of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, facing threat from its natural enemy Iran and Shiites from the north of Yemen had always perceived Yemen as a friendly Sunni-dominated neighbor. In fact, Bab el-Mandeb, the strait on the southern coast of Yemen gives Saudi access to the Suez Canal and red sea apart from the ports located in the Western part of Saudi Arabia, known for exporting the highest quantity of crude oil. Thus Riyadh’s interest in the affairs of Yemen is quite evident to the rest of the world. The politics of Yemen has always been one of Saudi Arabia’s priorities even as the relationship between the two nations has been filled with a lot of complications. Saudi Arabia had a long history of political influence on Yemen that started from the 1930s. Even as the United Nations and Saudi Arabia jointly lobbied in 2011 for the smooth transition of power in the country from the former ruler Saleh to a democratically elected government, the attempt failed miserably. During the past years, Riyadh had significantly influenced Yemeni politics; in 1978 Riyadh played a crucial role in facilitating Ali Abdullah Saleh come to power, and in 1990 Saudi Arabia played its due role in the unification of north and south Yemen. Saudi Arabia also stood behind Saleh while he assumed power back in the year 1978. Saleh’s relations with Saudi Arabia soured temporarily during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s’ when the Yemeni president declared his support to Saddam Hussein, former Iraqi dictator. During the civil war of 1994, even as the Saudis and other Gulf countries expelled migrant Yemeni workers from their countries, the relationship between Saleh and Saudi continued to flourish.
Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen
Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of nine Arab countries, started airstrikes against Yemen on March 2015. ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ is the codename of the attack that began following the response to pleas for help from the worldwide recognized but still locally contested Yemeni government led by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The request for help followed an allegedly Iranian funded Houthi offensive targeting the interim capital of Aden. Subsequently, Hadi fleed Yemen and left to Saudi Arabia as airstrikes were launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Houthis and armed forces sympathetic to former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was overthrown during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Warplanes from the other eight allies of Saudi Arabia including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco were also actively involved in the operation. The United States of America has promised logistical and intelligence support for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. Countries such as India, Pakistan and China have evacuated their citizens from Yemen even as many fled to neighboring Djibouti and Somalia. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni coalition nations announced the end of their military operations on 21st April 2015. The coalition has also announced that having achieved their military goals, they would enter a new ‘political phase’ characterized with focus on counter-terrorism, aid, security and the hunt for an unbiased political solution to the Yemeni crisis.
Why Saudi Arabia started fighting the Houthis?
Also the weak nature of the Saudi Yemen border always posed a security threat to Saudi Arabia. Chances of terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda penetrating Saudi Arabia through Yemen is another reason why Saudi Arabia wants to take control of the political system of Yemen (Glosemeyer). The merger of both factions of Al-Qaeda in the year 2009 exposed Saudi Arabia to free intrusion of the banned militants through Yemen. The infiltration of Al-Qaeda militants throughout Yemen and Houthis rebelling in the northern regions of Yemen literally put the security of Saudi Arabia in peril. When the balance of power in Yemen shifted in favor of the Houthis, Saudi Arabia literally felt powerless, that prompted Saudi Arabia to attack the Houthis with its allies. Earlier, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in sponsoring the Gulf Initiative of 2011 that resulted in Saleh resigning in favor of his deputy and the Saudi-desired Abed Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to become the next president of Yemen. Saudi believed that Hadi along with his allies the Ahmer clan would be strong enough to take independent actions and rule the country. But, the series of military and political victories scored by the Houthis disproved the calculations of Saudi Arabia.
The events that led Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to flee Sanaa and seek refuge in Riyadh following defeat by the Houthis and the subsequent stepping down of Hadi as president of Yemen made Saudi Arabia take a strong stand to fight the Houthis with the help of its allies. Also, a favorite of the Houthis succeeding Hadi would prove fatal to Saudi Arabia’s future relations with Yemen besides jeopardizing its vested interests. With the Houthis taking control of Sanaa and deliberating on backing up a sympathizer as the future president had made Saudi Arabia along with most of its neighbors, perhaps in the first time during modern history, helplessly watching the developments in Yemen. Houthis, toward taking the Yemenis into confidence, also have strategic plans to reveal former Saudi-backed officials involved in misappropriating foreign grants, which would show Saudi in a poor light to the rest of the world. This strategy of the Houthis for gaining popularity among the citizens of Yemen who are already affected by mass poverty would have ended up Saudi Arabia losing Yemen to the Shia Houthi rebels thereby ending its role as a key player in the region.
Yemen – Victim of a Proxy War
The present day conflict in Yemen, resembling earlier developments in Iraq and Syria, appears more similar to a proxy war involving Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both Riyadh and Tehran seem to blatantly wrestle over each other for establishing supremacy in the region. Saudi Arabia started interfering in the internal affairs of Yemen citing security reasons. Iran had a long time strategic interest toward Yemen which is much logical and simple to understand. The fractious nature and poor governance of Yemen all through has been giving Iran hope to slowly enter Saudi Arabia through the traditional smuggling routes in Yemen. The 35 percent Shia population of Yemen has always given Iran hope for being a potential friendly base for its future operations against Saudi Arabia (Reardon). Besides, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence officials have always considered Yemen a weakest defense link in the bay and hence an easy target for Tehran to break in anytime and start its operations against the interests of Saudi Arabia. No wonder, Saudi Arabia would always avoid giving a chance to Iran to take advantage of the easier way in to Yemen. Hence fighting the Shia Houthis was Saudi Arabia’s strategy of keeping Iran away from Yemen and thus the Saudi territory even as the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis is still unclear (Glosemeyer).
Sunni Saudi Arabia had been historically an old enemy of Shi’ite Iran. But the two enemies always avoided direct confrontation or war; instead, they always fought through their supportive proxies in the Middle East. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Iran might use its military strength to influence the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) apart from the Shi’ite minority population in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Berti and Yoel). Saudi Arabia started the war by launching airstrikes aimed at Houthi rebels in Yemen backed by Iran, Saudi’s great all time enemy which gradually engulfed the entire Middle East region. In reality, even though the attack was meant to warn Iran, it turned the poorest country in the region into a battleground killing many innocent civilians. The Houthis’ daring response to the war even attracted the attention of world’s greatest powers like the United States, Russia and Great Britain. Apart from the direct assistance from Saudi’s eight Middle East allies, the United States too has offered intelligence and logistical support to Saudi Arabia. Even as the southern parts of Yemen, known for frequent Al-Qaeda intrusion, had been a frequent target for American drone attacks, attack by Saudi Arabia by killing civilians has made the situation still worse. Given the current situations, it is highly likely that the Yemenis, on giving options between foreign interventions and Houthi rule, are more probable to settle for the option of Houthi rule. Hence, Saudi Arabia is confronted with the challenge of fighting the Houthis without affecting the internal peace of Yemen for the safety of the Yemenis and its own Yemeni interests in the long run.
Importance of the war to Saudi Arabia and Yemen
First and foremost, Saudi Arabia has always perceived Iran’s interest in accumulating nuclear weapons as a threat to the entire Gulf region (Berti and Yoel) Also, most of the countries partnering with Saudi Arabia in the fighting, including the United States, want to do away with the Al-Qaeda from southern Yemen. But the Houthis and the Al-Qaeda militants being staunch enemies, the war gives Houthis the opportunity of sanitizing the region of the Al-Qaeda, if they are really interested in the security and safety of the nation they want to rule, snatching power from the erstwhile government known for corruption and dictating. In that sense the war has got the strategic advantage of helping Saudi Arabia fight both the enemies with the help of its allies. As for Yemen, the Houthis may not ensure a corrupt-free regime. Hence, intervention of Saudi along with its allies in fighting the Houthis has the advantage of Saudi helping the nation in future with the post-war rehabilitation works. On the other hand, Al-Qaeda also has got the strategic advantage of expanding its hold and consolidation in Yemen by taking advantage of the chaos prevailing right now in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has always restricted its involvement in the Yemeni politics by its strategy of quiet meddling. Although Saudi Arabia has been involved in the internal affairs of Yemen right from the old Imamate period and the earlier days of the creation of Yemen, it never launched a major military attack of this stature. Even the current bombing perpetrated by Saudi Arabia along with its allies is meant to target the Houthis and invite them to the negotiating table. But, the Houthis would not be in a position to come to the negotiating table unless Saudi ends its hostilities and ensures peace in Yemen. No doubt, the bombing has resulted in damaging bridges and other infrastructures along with loss of civilian lives. But Saudi, as an aspirant and legitimate member of the international community, may not wish to eliminate the Houthis completely. Rather, Saudi would wish to restore peace in Yemen which apart from having many strategic advantages would boost Saudi’s image in the international arena as a strategic partner for greatest powers including United States, Great Britain and Russia. Saudi’s strategy of inviting its allies including United States to fight the Houthis in Yemen speaks volumes about its intention of inviting the attention of the entire world to restore democracy in war-torn Yemen.
Could the war have been avoided?
I do hope that the existence of a number of power centers in Yemen only means that any settlement to end the present crisis would not be acceptable unless it proves to be a better alternate choice against the erstwhile corrupt regimes in the country. Hence, partially, decentralization and fragmentation seems to be an inevitable option to settle the current Yemeni crisis (Glosemeyer) I also do strongly believe that the way forward right now for finding a more amicable settlement to the Yemen issue is to establish a power balancing the interests of all the traditional leadership structures available in the country. This would include giving due representation to true local, tribal and religious groups in the new coalition government. At the same time, negotiation or an amicable settlement would only come when the most powerful have achieved all their goals by fighting their long-time enemies.
Berti, Benedetta, and Yoel Guzansky. "Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy on Iran and the Proxy War." Israel Journal of Foreigh Affairs VIII:3 (2014): 25-34. Print.
Glosemeyer, Iris. "Yemen Without Ali Abdallah Saleh?" Protest, Revolt and Regime Change in the Arab World February 2012 (2012): 27-30. Print.
Heffez, Adam. "How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry." Foreign Affairs.com. 23 July 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139596/adam-heffez/how-yemen-chewed-itself-dry>.