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MonDediplo.com: ‘A potentially dark future is brewing’-Yemen’s dangerous war

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 31 December 2017

‘A potentially dark future is brewing’-Yemen’s dangerous war

By Laurent Bonnefoy

Saudi meddling in regional politics and its intervention in Yemen is destabilising the Middle East, and pushing the country into sickness and starvation.

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Johnny Haglund · Getty

Yemen has been engulfed in civil, and regional, war since September 2014; in the West it is often called a hidden or forgotten war, being so far from the minds of the major powers and media. The war has led to a severe humanitarian crisis, with the biggest ever cholera epidemic (nearly a million suspected cases since March 2017 according to the Red Cross) and a famine that threatens 70% of Yemen’s 30 million people.

All this seems barely to touch our consciences. The heavy human toll — now higher than the 10,000 victims, half of them thought to be civilians, estimated by the UN in January 2017 — has failed to put enough pressure on the belligerents to halt the fighting, in a war driven by regional actors (1). The coalition led by Saudi Arabia, supported by often Salafist local militias, militants from Yemen’s Southern Movement and supporters of President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi (who is recognised by most foreign governments), is fighting an alliance of Houthi rebels and supporters of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since hostilities began (see Yemen timeline), neither side has respected international conventions, civilian life, infrastructure or historical heritage; and both sides have prevented journalists and humanitarian organisations from working in the country.

Saudi Arabia claims it wants to restore Hadi to power and fight the influence of Iran, which it accuses of supporting the Houthis. The Arab coalition, despite its limited effectiveness and the crimes it has committed, continues to receive technical support (reconnaissance satellites, aerial photography, military advisors, in-flight refuelling) from the US, UK and France. The complicity of these powers, no doubt motivated by profitable arms contracts, has long led them to oppose the establishment of a UN independent commission of inquiry.

In October 2015 a Netherlands-proposed UN resolution calling for independent investigators was blocked at Human Rights Council level, in response to strong pressure from Saudi Arabia. In September 2017 France instigated a compromise, but the effectiveness of the resulting committee, which includes international experts, is limited by the difficulty of access to the fronts.

The legality of the intervention is questionable, notably because of the constitutional void that existed in March 2015: Hadi’s presidential mandate had officially ended by the time he asked for Saudi help. It was only indirectly validated by UN Security Council resolution 2216, adopted three weeks after the start of the coalition’s offensive. So Operation Decisive Storm remains based on a specious interpretation of international law.

Deep contempt

The laissez-faire attitude of the major powers shows a deep contempt for Yemenis and a refusal to understand the underlying motives of a conflict with consequences far beyond the country’s borders. The world’s lack of interest in this conflict suggests that it is regarded as just another low-intensity backwater conflict, yet Yemen is at the heart of critical issues that it would be foolish to ignore.

The former Arabia felix was not always a neglected, marginal country; lying at the crossroads of trade and strategic routes, it has been called ‘too well situated’ (2) and has always been coveted territory. The West saw it as a cradle of monotheistic religion, and the East as the source of Arab and Islamic authenticity. In the 17th century it was the biggest producer of coffee, and in the 18th Voltaire called it ‘the world’s most pleasant country’. It inspired the Orientalist dreams of Rimbaud, Malraux and Paul Nizan, who searched for traces of the Queen of Sheba on the Red Sea coast. From 1839 Aden was important to the British empire, and in the mid-20th century it became the world’s second busiest port. Yemen’s key position in the movement of goods and people is evident from the great mobility of Yemenis, who are found everywhere from the Horn of Africa to Southeast Asia, and in industrial areas of Wales and the US Midwest.

The West saw it as a cradle of monotheistic religion, and the East as the source of Arab and Islamic authenticity. In the 18th century Voltaire called it ‘the world’s most pleasant country’

Yemen has been gradually marginalised by conflicts, the cold war, expulsions of Yemeni workers (in 1990, 800,000 were expelled from Saudi Arabia because Yemen was seen as supporting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf war) and endemic poverty due to a lack of natural resources and corruption among its leaders. The 21st-century ‘war on terror’ quickly turned Yemen into a major theatre of operations against Al-Qaida, but there were no concrete undertakings to aid the country and its development. US drones, supposed to eliminate the jihadist threat, have been counterproductive because they help to legitimise the jihadists in the eyes of the population, who have become victims of collateral damage. Drones are also symptomatic of the US’s limited interest in Yemen, being something of a non-policy and a default mode of intervention.

Yemen was never a priority, even though US decision-makers stated publicly that the local branch of Al-Qaida (Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP) was the world’s most dangerous. When the Yemeni Spring of 2011 ended Saleh’s more than three decades as president, the legitimate enthusiasm aroused by the peaceful mobilisation of Yemen’s youth and the prospect of democratisation did not get enough, or even genuine, commitment from the international community. Yemen was abandoned and slipped into war as the US and EU chose to subcontract their policy on it to the Gulf kingdoms.

Gulf Arabs intervene

Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in March 2015 may have been motivated by a wish to legitimise its new leaders, especially Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (‘MBS’), born in 1985, who had just been appointed defence minister by his recently enthroned father. But the stagnation of the conflict could have costly repercussions far beyond the Arabian peninsula. The war may be costing $15bn a year (estimates of $60bn are probably exaggerated) (3) — when Saudi Arabia has a large budget deficit and the price of crude oil is around $50 a barrel.

The coalition’s inability to overcome the Houthi rebellion and the difficulties over the political future of Hadi, who has only limited popular support, underline the errors in Saudi strategy. The permeability of the border, clear from the daily incursions by Houthis into Saudi territory, has made it necessary to evacuate many villages. Yemeni rebels and their allies have even been able to fire medium-range ballistic missiles at Saudi cities (including Riyadh this November), though these have been intercepted or have come down in uninhabited areas.

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Just 40km from Saudi Arabia: a Yemeni woman drags water back to a camp for internally displaced persons in Abs governorate
Giles Clarke · UN OCHA · Getty

The war has also become a trap for Saudi leaders; Saudi authorities waver between propaganda that claims military operations are going well and a catastrophist approach that claims victimhood. A Saudi diplomat at the UN stated publicly in August 2016 that 500 Saudi civilians had been killed by Houthis (4). It is unlikely that MBS, who could soon be king, will be able to claim, on the basis of the Yemen war, to have shown foresight, leadership and efficiency. His image could even suffer lasting damage both at home and abroad.

Yemen was abandoned and slipped into war as the US and EU chose to subcontract their policy on it to the Gulf kingdoms

The collapse of Yemen’s state institutions because of the war has benefited armed Islamist groups. All the belligerents had the common aim of sidelining the Al-Islah party (the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), which had played a central and peaceful role in the Yemeni Spring. Saudi Arabia, and to an even greater extent the United Arab Emirates, also heavily involved, are strengthening Salafist groups that compete with the Al-Islah party by providing funds, and civilian and military equipment. This is the approach in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, under siege by the Houthis, and in the southern provinces. The line between these militias and AQAP occasionally seems porous, and there is still a serious risk that these groups will escape the coalition’s control.

Jihadist expansion

A sectarian interpretation of the conflict that projects it as being between Sunnis and Houthis (considered just as Zaydis, who belong to a branch of Shia Islam which differs from the Twelver variety that is the majority religion in Iran) is used to strengthen the jihadists’ position (5). In April 2015 the chaos allowed AQAP to take control of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city, which it ruled for more than a year in alliance with local tribes. This coincided with the emergence of ISIS (so-called Islamic State).

The jihadist expansion has not been effectively contained by an increase in US drone strikes or, since Donald Trump became president, by special forces raids. Though the number of foreign combatants travelling to Yemen is limited, there is a risk, if the conflict drags on, that it will become a fallback base for jihadists, offering them plentiful resources, especially weapons, with which to export their violence.

The conflict and the humanitarian crisis, linked to the sea and air blockade imposed by the coalition, have displaced more than three million Yemenis, according to the UN. Most have gone back to their ancestral villages: Yemen’s location in a corner of the Arabian peninsula, and the blockade and closure of airports, restrict their escape routes. Things could change if conditions continue to deteriorate, in which case Yemenis will cross the Gulf of Aden and easily find their way into existing migration networks that attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, which is already unable to cope with the influx of Syrian refugees. The Gulf states, which share a border with Yemen, are unlikely to be able to contain the increased migratory pressure.

These challenges may soon be trifling compared with the medium-term outlook. The exhaustion of underground aquifers, especially around Sanaa, could lead to massive population movements over the next decade. The consequences and cost of moving three million inhabitants out of a capital built at 2,300m altitude (hard to supply with desalinated water) would be huge. Taiz is in a similar position. Demographic growth (the population is expected to double every 20 years) and climate change, which has disrupted rainfall patterns and agriculture, are bringing the crisis closer. The war has obstructed responses to the ecological and human challenges, such as investing in manufacturing industry on the coast. In the late 2000s, engineers from the conglomerate Saudi Binladin Group planned to build new cities and even a bridge to Djibouti, over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, only 30km wide at its narrowest point.

For Saudi Arabia and the other states in the coalition, which are trying to diversify their economies and become less dependent on oil rents, the war, beyond its financial and human cost, is a bad idea because it is destroying a potential market. Without a long-term vision, Yemen will collapse, with serious consequences for the world.

History shows the Yemenis are a resourceful and resilient people with a capacity to adapt and to invent ways (some enshrined in tribal law) of coping with war, settling conflicts, sharing water resources and reducing inequality. They are an object lesson in surviving adversity. But with a potentially dark future brewing, the situation in Yemen should not be disregarded.

Laurent Bonnefoy

Laurent Bonnefoy is a political scientist, a researcher at the CNRS/Sciences Po International Research Centre (CERI) and the author of Le Yémen: de l’Arabie heureuse à la guerre (Yemen: From Arabia Felix to War), Fayard, Paris, 2017.
Translated by Charles Goulden
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