Yemen: Saudis' war to regain control
By Simon Korner
The US-backed Saudi war in Yemen is destroying one of the world’s poorest countries to maintain control over a strategically important region
Despite the official end of Operation Decisive Storm – Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, which began in March – the war is continuing. The bombardment, including illegal cluster bombs, has given the Saudis control over Yemeni airspace and coasts, allowing them to blockade Yemeni imports – not only arms – so that severe fuel shortages are afflicting the population. Disease is widespread as necessary fuel to power water-pumps is unavailable.
The Saudi war aims are to reinstate its puppet leader, the unelected president Hadi, to power. Hadi fled to Riyadh after being toppled by the Houthis (from north western Yemen) last September, and now the Houthis hold the capital Sana’a, and have taken large swathes of territory to the south and west.
The former president Saleh remains in Yemen and is backing the Houthis, even though when in power he conducted six brutal campaigns against them. Many sources believe Saleh is significant in maintaining Houthi power, whose fighters are composed largely of military units loyal to Saleh, while Saleh’s son is being groomed for the presidential role.
The Saudis claim the war is being waged to protect the Yemeni people from a group “allied and supported by Iran and Hezbollah.” But this protection has caused 3,000 deaths – some estimates put the figure as high as 8,000 – and left 6 million at risk of starvation and 9 million without reliable water supplies.
All the countries comprising the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) except Oman are supporting the war, and the US and Britain are providing intelligence and logistics. Other Arab countries, such as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have also offered help.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is also fighting the Houthis. AQAP has gained control over increasingly large sections of Yemen since 2009, particularly in the southern Hadramaut province, exploiting the current war between the Houthis and pro-government forces. Though its leader Wuhayshi was recently killed by US drone attack in mid-June, objectively AQAP constitutes a pro-western force. For example, the Saudis did not bomb AQAP during Operation Decisive Storm; Wuhayshi’s killing by drone may have been a warning to AQAP to stay onside. The new AQAP leader used to work for the Yemeni intelligence agency under US direction.
Other groups opposing the Houthis in the complex civil war are: the powerful Ahmar clan; the Muslim Brotherhood party Islah, which has a fundamentalist wing and is backed by former Saleh general (and later opponent) Mohsen; and army units loyal to Mohsen, who fled to Saudi Arabia after the Houthis took Sana’a.
Meanwhile, in the oil-rich south, which was formerly a separate socialist people’s republic during the Cold War, a divided secessionist movement also opposes the Houthis, because of the latter’s commitment to Yemeni national unity.
Yemen’s fragmentation fits US policy, which is to break up territories to keep them as weak and undemocratic as possible – as in Libya and Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iran has sent 5 shipments of humanitarian aid to Aden, but has been forced to suspend the aid for fear of the Saudi air force – backed by US ships in the Gulf of Aden, including an aircraft carrier – which has threatened Iranian vessels.
The Houthi tribal movement makes up 40% of Yemen’s population and has suffered discrimination for decades. Its Zaydi branch of Shi’te Islam underwent a revival in the early 1990s and its anti-western position – with links with Hezbollah and Iran – set the Houthis against the Gulf state leaders and made them popular; the Houthis took the capital, Sana’a in September 2013, pushing Hadi aside with ease. Ideologically, the Houthis are fundamentalist Shi’a, though with few theological differences with Sunnis.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have fluctuated over the years. The Saudis, like the US, supported the long-time ruler Saleh against the Houthi uprising in the early 1990s. After Saleh was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring, the Saudis switched support to Saleh’s deputy Hadi. Hadi’s austerity policies and continuing corruption made him unpopular, and to bolster his position, he allied himself with the Islah party, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. But that alliance became problematic for the Saudis – which had previously backed Islah – when Saudi rival Qatar increased its influence over the party; and by the time of Sisi’s coup in Egypt in 2013, the Saudis followed Egypt in branding the Muslim Brotherhood (and affiliated groups) terrorists, though there is contact with Islah again now that the Houtis have become the Saudis’ main enemy.
Saudi Arabia perceives Iranian influence as a threat to its power in the region, and claims that the Houthis are getting military and financial help from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Saudi bombing campaign thus has a strategic aim of weakening Iran.
Some sources believe the US was not informed of the first Saudi bombing attacks in March, suggesting that the Saudis are moving out from under US control, critical of Obama’s rapprochement with Iran which has gathered pace particularly since the collapse of Iraqi forces in the face of IS. The Saudis also fear that the US could ditch their autocratic regime, if it ever faces popular revolt, just as the US ditched Mubarak in Egypt.
There is reason for Saudi worries over US loyalty. Voices in the US are urging a turn towards the Houthis. This article in Foreign Affairs put the point clearly:
“Those loyal to the Houthi family have emerged as one of the most effective military forces combating the expansion of al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in the Arabian Peninsula. If the West turns its back on Houthi leadership because of slogans, opportunistic aid from Iran, or Hadi’s protestations, it might end up forsaking a serious partner in the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, the Houthis are attacking Saudi Arabian border regions – with the aim of stirring up Shi’ite Zaydi tribes in Saudi territory.
Between the Gulf states there are divisions. The UAE backed ex-president Saleh against Islah, due to its fear of political Islam, so that when Saleh turned towards the Houthis last year, the UAE found itself indirectly supporting the Houthis. Meanwhile, Qatar, with its Muslim Brotherhood connections, is allied with Islah, the enemy of the Houthis and Saleh.
For Iran, the war on Yemen is a dangerous escalation of Saudi power, which could force it into intervention more directly in Iraq and Syria, or in the Shia areas of Saudi Arabia itself. In a recent speech Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon warned that it would be possible to arm Shi’ite rebels in Bahrain.
At least 700,000, Yemenis are in need of food assistance, according to the UN. Water is in short supply due to the Saudi fuel blockade, reinforced by the US navy. Hospitals are unable to cope without supplies.
Underlying the situation in Yemen are stringent spending cuts that have hit the poor hardest. Since 1990, when Yemen, as a non-permanent UN security council member, voted against war in Iraq, the US has cut its aid to Yemen massively. At the 2010 London conference on Yemen, western powers agreed to intensify ‘security’ and increase austerity – targeting the 153rd poorest nation in the world.
Meanwhile, money is being spent on arms to the Saudis and the GCC states – massively increased since the terrorist attack on a US ship in 2000 and the 2008 bombing of the US embassy.
Yemen has been critically important strategically since the British Empire developed the port of Aden as a staging post to India – and it is notable that British Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, visited Riyadh just before the Saudi bombing campaign began, given that the Saudi war planes are built in the UK, with Saudi Arabia a major market for British arms under the series of Al-Yamamah deals. Yemen is important now to the Americans due to its position on the vital straits of Bab el-Mandab, linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, giving it control over the passage of oil tankers through the Suez Canal. Moreover, Yemen is a country with potentially the world’s largest oil reserves. US policy is dictated by its need to control both the strategic chokepoint and the oil reserves.