CDA Institute guest contributor Emmanuel Seitelbach offers an overview on the situation in Yemen and the Saudi Arabia-led intervention.

Last winter, Canadians enjoyed the price of gasoline below one dollar for only a short period of time. One contributing factor to the rising price of a barrel of crude is the crisis in Yemen. The chaos taking place in this impoverished country opposite the Horn of Africa is shattering confidence in the oil market, firstly because this conflict involves Iran and Saudi Arabia – two prominent oil producing countries – and secondly because Yemen, with little economic or political influence, is located along the strategic corridor to the Suez Canal, on the North side of the 30 km wide Bab El Mandeb Strait.

During colonial times, the North side of the country was part of the Ottoman Empire and became the independent Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, while the British protectorate of South Yemen declared independence in 1967 and became communist. The two Yemen unified in 1990 and maintained for three decades one of the highest rates of corruption in the world under the kleptocratic rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The one accomplishment that came from this leadership was its ability to quell competing tribal, regional, religious, and political interests. President Saleh fostered the Islah Islamist political party inspired from Muslim Brotherhoods Wahhabism, using generous funding from Saudi Arabia to provide largess to tribal sheikhs – powerful in rural areas – in a pacification effort that contributed to strengthening his rule.

Political opposition grew starting around 2009. A rebellion emerged in the north led by the Shiite Houthi clan, while the Hirak movement promoted autonomy for the south. The Arab Spring exacerbated the contestation starting in 2011 by inspiring thousands of students to demonstrate in the streets of Sanaa against corruption, economic hardships, social injustice, and a constitutional amendment that would have extended Saleh’s presidency. The Houthis’ specific grievances included economic and social marginalization, as well as excessive Wahhabi influence on state policy and schools. The Hirak movement, for the most part non-violent, proposed a federal system of government as a temporary compromise, followed by a referendum on partition. Saleh was eventually ousted in 2012 under popular pressure.

Another threat to the stability of Yemen came with the creation in 2009 of Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP), through a union of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda, taking advantage of a power vacuum in the secessionist south. The Sunni terrorist organization carried out a domestic insurgency along with spectacular operations against Western targets, including the USS Cole warship in 2000, a Delta Airline flight to Detroit in 2009, the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015, despite a US military campaign of drone strikes started in 2002. In today’s collapsing state of Yemen, the thousand-strong AQAP is perceived as a response to national grievance and a counteracting force against the territorial expansion of the Houthi insurgency.

In September 2014, the Ansar Allah Houthi militia, supported by Iran, launched an attack against the capital Sanaa, seized the presidential palace forcing President Hadi to flee, and announced in February that it was taking over the government, and dissolving the parliament. Concerned by the Obama administration rushing to end its presence in Yemen after these events, Riyadh’s new King Salman – who is more wary of regional turmoil than his predecessor – was able to unite the Sunni Arab world determined to hinder the spread of Iran’s hegemony in the region by creating a Sunni regional Arab force capable of fighting the Iranian backed Houthi insurgency: the coalition for Yemen is a 40,000 strong Arab rapid reaction force that includes forces from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. It launched a bombing campaign to contain the Houthi progression, keeping the Bab el Mandeb Strait clear of Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia’s major goal is to bring the Houthis back to the negotiating table over the future of Yemen by the application of military pressure. A complete failure of Yemen would bring millions of refugees to Saudi Arabia; it could create a corridor for Jihadi movements through Somalia, and bring back piracy to the Gulf of Aden.

The role of Iran in the Houthi insurgency has been greatly exaggerated by the Gulf States. Iran understands that the Houthi movement does not have enough momentum to control Yemen or even hold recently conquered territories and that a prolonged civil war would strengthen AQAP and overstretch its own regional involvement. A moderate position supporting a Houthis withdrawal from Sanaa would give Iran leverage for the lifting of sanctions as part of a nuclear deal.

These developments confirm that Sunni powers, once allied with the US, are now determined to protect themselves independently. The US is playing a complex balancing act that materializes into ambiguous actions: the US is supporting the Saudi led campaign against the Houthi in Yemen thus dispelling rumours of realignment in favour of Iran. But it is also fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in a tacit cooperation with Iran and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that is alarming Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Through this policy, the Obama administration is diversifying its portfolio of partners with which it is able to negotiate beyond the Sunni-Shiite divide. This may contribute to lowering anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world but it could also discredit it as a reliable ally.

Emmanuel Seitelbach is a technologist and an analyst of international affairs. (Image courtesy of Ibrahem Qasim via Wikimedia Commons.)

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