Yemen is one of the oldest cradles of civilization of the Near East. A prosperous land, “Eudaimon Arabia”, or “Arabia Felix” (happy Arabia) of the texts of Ptolemy, it reached its maximum splendor as the Kingdom of Sheba, the one noted for its mysterious queen and her amorous relationship with the Jewish King Solomon. After successive civilizations that flourished protected by a lucrative trade in spices, the territory fell into the orbit of Islam under the control and influence of the Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad. An emirate of the Zaid dynasty, a branch of Shiite Islam, was maintained as a separate kingdom, with temporary periods of submission to the Ottoman Empire and to the Saudi dynasty. A colonial presence arrived at the hands of the British who installed themselves in the South, in the area of Aden, in 1839.
In the First World War, Yemen achieved its independence in 1918. After joining the Arab League and the UN, the last king was ousted in 1962. The Arab Republic of Yemen was established and was called North Yemen. Meanwhile, in the South, in the area around Aden, after years of violence and guerrilla attacks, the British colonial rule gave way in 1967 to the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. This was the first Arab state with a Marxist orientation and had the support of the Soviet Union. After several confrontations between the two States and the fall of the Soviet Union, the two republics advanced toward reunification. In 1990 they ended up being fused into one, what is today the Republic of Yemen.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CONFLICT
The Yemeni “Arab Spring”
In 2011, within the context of a whole series of revolts and protests which occurred throughout the Arab world (the Arab Spring), the Yemenis rebelled against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh with peaceful demonstrations which were violently put down by the Government. The President saw himself forced to abandon power after having exercised it for 33 years (first as President of North Yemen and later as President of the Arab Republic of Yemen), amid accusations of creating a “kleptocracy”, corruption and having a failed government.
In his removal from power, a large part was played by the Houthis, an armed rebel group from the North of the country and one of the principal political actors in the present conflict. The relationship of the Houthis with President Saleh has been a sort of roller-coaster. Sometimes as his ally and others as his enemy, they would end up by assassinating him years after his retirement after accusing him of treason.
A Failed Transition
After the abrupt departure of Saleh, the vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, assumed the Presidency at the end of 2011 with the goal of shining a light on a new era of political openness and of opening the process of transition to the whole country. Within the framework of a “National Conference of Dialog”, he attempted to deal with all of the subjects which related to governance, territorial restructuring and reform of the State, as well as to give a response to the claims which arose from the popular protests.
After two years of consultation, the Conference presented a plan for a federal structure that divided Yemen into six regions. However, it did not take into account the claims relative to the distribution of natural resources, the weight given to the commercial or agricultural regions or access to the ports. The projected reform received only a minimum of popular support, and in particular the firm opposition of the Houthis. For them, the change to a regime of regional autonomy meant a lesser participation in the natural wealth and at the same time deprived them of access to the sea which they considered essential.
The protest ended in insurrection and with the coup d’état in 2015 the Houthis took control of the Presidential Palace, they dissolved Parliament, and brought to an end the Hadi administration. They expelled him from the capital, Sanaa, forcing him and his ministers to seek refuge in the port city of Aden and afterwards to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.
It was then when, at the request of the deposed President Hadi, a Coalition of Arab States, headed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened with the goal of restoring again to power the government which was internationally recognized by the United Nations. This operation signaled the beginning of an open armed conflict against the Houthis through a campaign of air bombardments called Operation “Decisive Storm”. Nevertheless, five years of military operations have not been enough to bend them.
The rebels strategically occupied new territory in their advances toward the South. They established their power in nine of the 22 provinces of Yemen. They came into the control of key elements like the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea through which 80% of the country’s imports entered and which was the nerve center for the food supply of the country. Another bold stroke was its attack with drones in September, 2019, on the main oil storage facilities in Saudi Arabia. This led them to suspend production in them and production was reduced to half normal, nearly 6% of world production. There continues participation by Iran in the operation without it’s being clear about the type of the participation. Indeed, its collaboration can be presumed given the magnitude of the participation.
As if it were a small thing, and taking advantage of the weakness of the national Government and the failure of the federalist reforms that were tried during the transition, the separatist militia groups, united around the “Transition Council of the South”, fed the dreams of secession. In their favor they could count on the support of the United Arab Emirates, a country which has played an ambiguous role in the crisis. On the one hand it was allied with the Government in its struggle against the Houthis, but at the same time it abetted the secessionist aspirations of the South against the Government. Finally, the Government, with the help of the Arab coalition, reached what was called the “Riyadh Accords” (November, 2019) by which the separatists were promised their integration into the national Government, halting temporarily the secessionist adventure.
Only months after the above-mentioned agreement, the situation became worse on all fronts. The separatists in the South charged ahead again by proclaiming “self-determination” in the zones that were under their control (April, 2020). The Arab coalition received a death blow due to the divergent interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Aram Emirates which controls, with the support of the separatist militias, the strategic port of Aden and the mythical island of Socotra. Also, the Houthis launched the greatest military escalation in two years (October, 2020) in the strategic city of Hodeida, putting at grave risk the fragile “Stockholm Agreement” from the end of 2018. We can conclude that after five years of war the situation is at a military stalemate and there are not any prospects of a negotiated settlement to end it.
WHO IS WHO IN THE CONFLICT?
A Zaidi emirate governed North Yemen under a system known as “imanate” during nearly 1000 years until 1962 when the monarchy fell. The heirs of this political and religious tradition ended up coming together in constituting a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Party of God). The name of Houthis comes from that of its founder, Hussein Badr al Dim Huti, the leader of the first uprising in 2004. This was an attempt to recover the political weight which had been lost by the Northwest of the country and at the same time to protect the Zaidi religion and its cultural traditions that they considered to be threatened by the Sunni Islamists.
Their origins are marked as a group of anti-Saudi resistance and their role became relevant in the protests of the Arab Spring which, in turn, gave rise to the events of the civil war which are described above. Its qualitative jump from being a political group making its own claims to an armed rebel group is a determinative factor in the development of the conflict.
From the beginning, they were able to count on the sympathy and support of Iran although Iran formally denied that. However, it would not be possible to understand the military arsenal or the financing of the rebel group without the participation of a great power like Iran.
International coalition of Arab countries
This group was created by Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2015 in order to fight the Houthis. This was at the request of the government of Yemen whose president, Hadi, had just been deposed by the Houthi offensive on the capital, Sanaa. The objective is none other than to put back into power their Yemeni ally (already in the past Yemen had been linked to the Saudi monarchy), and to counter the influence of Iran in the region. This was done to prevent what had happened in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon where the Shiites had exercised their power illegitimately and converted their governments into accomplices of the Irani strategy.
The coalition can count on the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the support of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar and others to a lesser extent, all of them in the Sunni sphere. In the “Western” camp, the coalition is backed by the United States, which has lent important logistical support to their Saudi allies, as well as the United Kingdom and France, although with a lesser involvement.
The separatists from the South
Grouped primarily around what is called the “Transition Council of the South”, they have concentrated their goal on the holding of a referendum of self-determination for the old South Yemen. The failure of the federalist reforms which were attempted during the transition, gave wings to the separatist movement and their militias. This happened with the complicity of the Emirates who were looking to expand their geopolitical power in the region through the establishment of military and naval bases in the Horn of Africa and the control of the ports, the maritime routes and the nearby islands.
SOME KEYS TO UNDERSTANDING THE CONFLICT
- The strategic factor
Yemen, overlooking both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is a vital area for controlling the supply of hydrocarbons on a world scale, and in particular for the energy interests of the United Stats and Europe. Through its waters flow nearly four million barrels of oil a day.
- A failed government
The autocratic regime that was put in place by President Saleh during his 33 years in power was based on a clientelism of families, clans and tribes which Saleh used and divided in his alliances depending upon the interests that were in play. To that can be added the almost absolute domination of his party, the “General Congress of the People”, in Parliament and the other institutions. The economic bonanza of the decades of the 1980s and 90s based on the profits from oil allowed for a certain stability. But the subsequent confrontations with the Houthis and the revolts of the Arab Spring ended up in its demise.
A similar fate occurred to his successor and the current president in exile Hadi with the failed process of transition. Despite this, his government maintains international recognition and that of the United Nations.
- The fracturing of the territory
The fusion of the two Yemen’s (North and South) that gave way to the new Republic resulted in being somewhat forced and asymmetrical. It was felt more like an absorption of the South by the North rather than a true fusion. The attempts made during the transition to balance out the situation resulted in failures and the breach between the territories of the two prior States has been hardened.
- The struggle for regional political hegemony
Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Arab coalition, is the principal ally of the deposed President whom it seeks to put back into power. Iran, as the antagonistic power in the region, is the principal backer of the Houthi movement. Both of them are playing their cards in the region in one more episode in trying to lead the political hegemony of the entire Near East. Yemen is in large part the theater of operations where the more global interests of two confrontational geopolitical visions are aired.
As has occurred in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, both powers have given rein in different scenarios to what has been called “wars by proxy or delegation”, relying upon their local “confessional groups” for operations on the ground. Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government share the same Sunni cause while Iran gives its support to the Houthi movement, both in the Shiite camp.
- The interests of the great powers
Both the United States and Europe are pursuing goals based on “security”: energy security and of the maritime routes through which flows the largest world traffic in oil, and also political security in facing the threat of jihadist terrorism. Given the weakness of the national Government, Yemen has become an enticing territory for the goals of radical Islamism. Al Qaeda installed one of its strategic bases in Yemen and has bathed the territory with terrorist attacks. The Islamic State tried to make Yemen one of the main “provinces” of its chimerical State. Al Qaeda continues to live while the Islamic State has been pulled into its current decline.
- The “religious” factor
The conflict has its roots in the religious rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis, with ancestral differences that come out of the year 632 with the internal struggles for the succession to the Prophet Mohammed. This was the beginning of a dispute between two branches of Islam that have been divided ever since. Sunni Islam is clearly in the majority in the Arab world, while Shiism is concentrated in Iran, with its tentacles of influence in the whole region and particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. In the case of Yemen, 47% of the population belongs to the Shia branch and 53% to the Sunni.
Nevertheless, the reality in Yemen has not been particularly virulent with regard to religion. According to some analysts, the Zaidi are the most moderate group of Shiite Islam, and in times past that included maintaining peaceful relations while living together with the local Sunnis. It has been in recent times, in the heat of feeling the marginalization of its community as compared to its past of centuries of Zaidi power, when they have seen themselves pulled into an attitude of maintaining their own identity and staking claims faced with what they consider to be a usurpation by the Sunni. It is good to remember that a “Zaidi Emirate” was actively in power until its fall in 1962 and that the constitution of the Republic carried with it a loss of power for the Zaidi and an increase in that of Salafist Sunnism both in the political parties and in the control of the mosques.
A HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE
According to the United Nations, the situation in Yemen constitutes the “worst humanitarian disaster” caused by humankind. Some numbers will help to understand that.
Nearly 80% of the 28 million Yemenis are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. 14 million persons suffer from food insecurity and 18 million do not have access to potable water. Critical severe malnutrition threatens the lives of some 400,000 children under the age of five. “Save the Children” has sounded the alarm about an infant malnutrition that is almost endemic which leaves 100,000 children under the age of five between life and death. Only half of the 3,500 health care facilities in the country are functioning, which means that 19 million people lack basic medical assistance. The war has forced three and a half million people to flee from their homes, of which two million continue to be displaced. Famine and cholera epidemics have caused havoc especially among the infant population, given the destruction of the sewage and health systems. Now it is feared that the coronavirus and other illnesses like “dengue” will complete the tragedy.
The reconstruction of a State which has failed politically, has been economically devastated, has had its infrastructure destroyed and has seen a large part of its rich patrimonial culture ruined, will require massive aid from the international community. The figures are nevertheless very far from the contributions that the United Nations has sought from the Conference of Donor Nations. In 2019 of the $2.6 billion pledged, barely half was disbursed. In 2020 the pledge has remained at $1.35 billion of which only 24% has been received. In the words of Lisa Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, “We are going to have to close our projects in 189 hospitals that he UN supports in the country, for lack of funds.”
PERSPECTIVES FOR THE FUTURE
The situation is far from getting back on track. Light cannot yet be discerned at the end of the tunnel. For that to happen, some preliminaries need to be accomplished.
- A military de-escalation of the conflict that gives way to silencing the guns. After five years of war, the armed solution is stalemated. There is no clear winner, nor prospects that there ever will be. The growing perception of that exhaustion could serve as the stimulus for the search for other ways out of the conflict.
- The gradual implementation of “measures to instill confidence” (prisoner exchanges, armistices, etc.) that would reduce the tension between the parties and help to overcome the mutual distrust.
- Give form to the belief that the political route, based on a negotiation that culminates in the integration and participation of all the parties to the conflict, is the only solution. But the positions continue to be very far apart.
- The geopolitical tendencies in the Arab world and the chronic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, don’t help the situation. The confirmation that the present paralysis does not bring advantages to either of the two powers could auger an openness to negotiations among the Yemenis, which will only be initiated with the good will of their respective patrons.
A personal note. In March of this year, I had occasion to participate in a meeting with the Yemeni community in Brussels, organized by UNESCO, about the projects in the works for the reconstruction of the country. The data, overwhelming, invited discouragement, but the contact with the human capital represented by some 150 Yemenis, a majority of them being young, gave me an unexpected surprise. If the task to be done is large, the enthusiasm transmitted by these citizens was even larger. They are enthusiastic to return to their country to participate in its reconstruction. May that be and may that be soon.
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