Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, left, walks with Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman as he arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, March 26, 2015.
SANAA, Yemen — On March 25, King Salman decided to engage the Saudi military against the Houthis of Yemen, after the latter marched on Aden, the capital of the former South Yemen, where former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had sought refuge after escaping from house arrest in February.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen came with the support of a broad Arab alliance — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt — plus Pakistan, as well as foreign powers including the United States and the European Union. Its stated goal is to re-establish stability in the region and address the security threat which the Houthis had come to represent.
Salman made his position clear on March 27, when he announced, as reported by The Independent: “A Saudi Arabia-led alliance is willing to wage a military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen for as long as it takes to defeat the Iranian-backed group that has forced the country’s president to flee.”
Speaking at a press conference, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir confirmed that Saudi Arabia, alongside ten other countries, launched a military operation in Yemen against the Houthis, rebel tribal faction organized under the leadership of Abdel-Malik al-Houthi.
“At the time Ambassador Al Jubeir already warned that the ongoing airstrikes will involve other military assets, leaving the door wide open to a potential ground invasion,” said Ali al-Amad, a leading figure of Ansarallah, the Houthis’ political arm, to MintPress News.
“Saudi Arabia took it upon itself to declare war on Yemen, arguing national security, claiming to want to restore Yemen’s legitimate president, Hadi, to the presidency in a bid to safeguard Yemen’s democratic transition, when really it seeks only to assert its imperialistic ambitions upon the Arabian Peninsula,” he added.
Sheikh Mabkout Nahshal, a tribal leader from the northern Yemen province of Hajjah, who in the space of four years saw his country teeter on the verge of civil war more times than he cares to admit, told MintPress that this war Riyadh is waging against the Houthis and, thus, against Yemen has nothing to do with Hadi, democracy or national security — or, at least not Yemen’s national security. It’s about oil and geopolitical maneuvering.
“Al Sauds have always viewed Yemen as a threat to their hegemony, both militarily and geostrategically. Ibn Saud actually told his sons that for Al Saud to survive in the region, Yemen would have to be tamed,” Nahshal said. “This war is about restoring control over a Saudi colony, this war is about putting Yemen’s freedom under lock and key.”
“Everything else, all these talks of sectarianism and democracy, legitimacy and national security, are shiny lies thrown out at the public to hide the truth.”
Indeed, nothing is ever really as it seems in Yemen. The country is a complicated maze of intermixing political interests, sectarian ambitions and geostrategic realities, where world powers are engaging in a bitter fight for control over oil access and resources.
“The new battleground of this Great Game world powers never stopped [playing], Yemen has become the region’s new frontline. What we see unfold in Yemen is the new oil rush, a bitter battle for control over the world oil route Bab al-Mandab. The fact that a nation finds itself caught in the middle of such ambitions is of no consequence to Al Saud,” Ahmed Mohamed Nasser Ahmed, a Yemeni political analyst and former member of Yemen’s National Issues and Transitional Justice Working Group at the National Dialogue Conference, told MintPress.
The NDC was a transitional dialogue process held in Sanaa from March 18, 2013 to Jan. 24, 2014, as part of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered transition of power initiative. It created a space for all Yemeni delegations to negotiate and engineer Yemen’s transition of power and set the terms of constitutional change.
As Yemen breaks under a barrage of bombs, Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a senior spokesman for the Houthis, opened up to MintPress on what he believes is the war which will define the region for decades to come.
Yet in order to understand how Yemen found itself the object of Saudi Arabia’s aggression and why Hadi, the Yemeni president who resigned in January and has fled twice, has called for a broad attack by foreign powers, one must dissect the political myth that Yemen is struggling under the weight of Western propaganda and a Saudi-fuelled sectarian narrative.
Speaking at the Arab League summit in Egypt on March 28, Hadi rejected U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar’s cease-fire proposal, instead making the case for a more intense military incursion in Yemen until, as he put it, “the Houthi gang surrenders, withdraws from government institutions and gives up arms.”
Yemen 101: A crash course in Yemeni politics
A Yemeni man stands at his house destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, Tuesday, March 31, 2015.
While it is always difficult to reduce a country’s political history and ambitions to just a few lines, especially a country as complex as Yemen, current events boil down to a conflict between the Houthis and Hadi. Behind those two sides rests a quandary of overlapping interests, opposing political entities, regional fault lines and wild personal ambitions.
From 1994 to 2011 Yemen was ruled by two main bodies: the General People’s Congress, led by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Islah, a political party which serves as an umbrella for several Sunni radical groups including the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Saleh ruled uncontested over a united Yemen following the unification agreement signed in 1990 and the failed Southern Separatist Movement in 1994, Islah acted as a buffer and counter-weight to the GPC, which operated under the strict patronage of Saudi Arabia.
As Ahmed, the Yemeni political analyst, explained, “Riyadh used Al Islah to control Saleh and keep his power in Yemen in check. The whole point of Al Islah was to keep Yemen in a semi-state of control and dependence. Al Islah was the perfect medium for that — Al Saud’s Wahhabis and Salafis used Al Islah to spread their influence across Yemen, slowly reshaping both its political map and its religious demography.”
“Under Al Islah’s influence Zaidism became a target. Clerics began to push the sectarian card and ever so insidiously Yemen began to be defined along sectarian lines. Religion became politicized and the seed of war was planted,” he continued.
Zaidism is the oldest branch of Shiite Islam. About 40 to 45 percent of Yemenis are Zaidi Muslims. “Hardly a minority one can dismiss or refuse to acknowledge,” Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ spokesman, noted.
This political order or political patronage by which Saudi Arabia managed to remain in control of Yemen was disturbed by the Arab Spring in 2011. As Yemenis rose in condemnation of Saleh’s rule, Islah began to assert itself as the country’s political, tribal, religious and financial power. Neither Saudi Arabia nor its allies, including the U.S., were keen on allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to such political heights in the region, especially not after the Egyptian experiment.
Thus, plans for Islah’s demise were set into motion. Marwa Osman, a lecturer at Lebanese International University in Beirut, explained that to destroy the very party it helped prop up and sponsor for three decades, Saudi Arabia envisioned a plan to exploit internal political and tribal tensions to allow Al Saud’s will to manifest in the impoverished nation.
“Al Saud played the Houthis against Al Islah in the hope that the Houthis, backed by former President Saleh, would actually neutralize the Muslim Brotherhood and in doing so weaken its own political traction in the country,” Osman told MintPress.
“This once obscure tribal faction from northern Saada was allowed to advance unchecked against the tribal might of Al Islah, as it played into Al Saud’s short-term plan for the region and Yemen: the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Saud never expected the Houthis to become as powerful and popular as they did. It is their unexpected play against Hadi and their meteoric rise to power in the country which has led to this war — that, of course, and the fact that the Houthis happen to be both Shia and on good terms with Iran,” she continued.
The Houthi connection
Members of the Houthi Shiite group watch a televised speech by the leader of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, as they attend the annual Eid al-Ghadir festival in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP
This rebel group which fought five wars against the Saleh regime from 2004 to 2009 came onto Yemen’s political scene in 2014, when its leader, Abdel Malik al-Houthi, decided the group would become the vessel of Yemen’s discontent and a flagship of popular power.
Just as Yemen began to revert back to its pre-revolutionary torpor, its officials keen to secure their places at Yemen’s new power table, the Houthis descended from their ancestral highlands to demand that the people’s wishes and calls for democratic reforms be implemented on the ground, per the National Dialogue Conference resolutions.
“The Houthis intervened in Yemen not in the name of the Houthis, but in the name of the people. We made clear from the beginning that our agenda was a popular agenda. We came to exert pressure on Hadi because Hadi stopped listening to the people. We came because we refused to let the people of Yemen suffer the fate we endured for decades under the boots of the MB and its acolytes,” said Abdel-Salam.
“The people of Yemen came to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in 2014 to call on the government to negotiate an acceptable political timetable and put the country on the right institutional and political track. We played by the rules of democracy, Hadi chose to play Al Saud’s game. Hadi chose to put Saudi Arabia’s interests over that of his people. That is a choice he will have to live with,” he added.
Because of their appartenance to Zaidi Islam, the Houthis were automatically labelled pro-Iran, or, as Hadi called them last month, “the stooges of Iran.” Though there is no denying that the Houthis are allies of Iran, this is not to say that the Houthis are Tehran’s proxy in the peninsula. Saying the Houthis are puppets, Osman warned, is dangerously reductive and short-sighted.
“The Houthis turned to Iran for support as early as 1994 because Iran was the only one in the region willing to offer support. It is as simple as that,” Osman said. “By looking at the Houthis’ military arsenal you will find their weapons come not from Iran but Yemen’s black market, [a black market which] is flowing with U.S. weapons.”
King Salman goes for the jugular: Bab al-Mandab
As the Houthis secured their hold over Yemen’s capital Sanaa, exerting ever more pressure on Hadi over the reforms they wished to see implemented, like oil subsidy reforms and a new federal composition, resentment over the Houthis’ power play gained traction both at home and elsewhere on the peninsula.
As Hadi appeared ever more a shell of a president, a man without power and a man without a party since Saleh forced him out of the GPC in November, Saudi Arabia hatched a plan to bring Yemen back into Riyadh’s fold.
“Yemen was coming out from under Al Saud’s thumb. The Yemenis were reclaiming their future. So King Salman went for the jugular and decided to destroy Yemen’s hope for a democratic future. He unilaterally decided that he would obliterate Yemen and rid himself of a dangerous contender in the region while securing control over the world oil route,” explained Mojtaba Mousavi, an Iranian political analyst and editor in chief of Iran’s View, told MintPress.
“The Saudis, with the blessing of the United States, have moved against Yemen to reclaim control over the very strategic and very crucial Bab al-Mandab. Should the Houthis, an ally of Iran, control the strait, then the peninsula would de facto fall under the sphere of influence of the Islamic Republic, and this is something the Saudis will never tolerate, at least not without a fight,” he continued.
Bab al-Mandab is one of the seven “choke points” in the worldwide delivery of oil. The Bab al-Mandab strait separates the Arabian Peninsula from East Africa and links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Most ships using the waterway have come from, or are going to, Egypt’s Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. This contributes about $5 billion a year to the Egyptian economy and gives the country a large degree of control over the world’s major oil route.
Indeed, Bab al-Mandab is of absolute importance when it comes to the stability of the world oil market, and Riyadh is determined to exert control over it, or at least over the government which oversees its — hence its desire to see Hadi restored at the helm in Yemen.
“Looking at the sheer size of this Arab coalition against this one country in the peninsula it is clear that Yemen represents more of a threat to the kingdom [Saudi Arabia] than ISIS does. Hundreds of planes have been committed to this war on Yemen. Ask yourself how many were sent to fight ISIS radicals in Syria and Iraq, and then you will understand what story the public is not being told,” Mousavi noted.
As Yemen strains under the violent and unprecedented aggression toward its sovereignty under cover of a justification which even the United Nations is finding difficult to articulate, Saudi Arabia could be endangering its own institutional survival.
Speaking in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, at the Arab League summit on March 28, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Saudi-led coalition to exert restraint toward Yemen and return to the drawing table. “Negotiations — facilitated by my Special Envoy Jamal Benomar and endorsed by the Security Council — remain the only chance to prevent long, drawn-out conflict,” he asserted.
Yet his calls for moderation were answered by additional rounds of bombing over Yemeni cities.
Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, warned in an analysis for the Brookings Institution:
“Saudi Arabia remains the leader of the Arab world, an important American ally, and one of the most important oil producers in the world. But it is also a country with significant internal challenges, financial problems, and now a dramatic shift in government power as a result of the death of King Abdullah and the accession of King Salman. The Kingdom lacks the military capacity to intervene decisively in Yemen, and if it tries by sending in large numbers of ground troops, the most likely outcome would be a debilitating stalemate that will drain Saudi military resources, financial reserves, and political will. It could also easily enrage key segments of the populace: some furious that after spending so much on defense the Kingdom has so little capability, others equally enraged that so much money is being wasted on a senseless quagmire in Yemen instead of being spent on critical domestic problems.”
“Don’t write off Yemen just yet”
Indeed, while the Houthis and its allies in Yemen remain vastly under-equipped to fight the Saudi-led coalition, Yemen’s history is full of stories of mighty empires coming to break their heads on the mountains of the fiercely independent nation. The Ottomans, for example, learned the hard way that Yemen, no matter how poor or fragmented, is not easily subdued.
“While Saudi Arabia has gathered around its throne and its billions of petrodollars a broad coalition of monarchies and arguably Arab dictatorships against the Houthis of Yemen, such actions could actually serve a catalyst of unification. Regardless of their political disagreements and sectarian resentment toward the Houthis, Yemenis have already begun to rally behind those rebels, keen to defend this land they call home against any foreign army,” said Mousavi.
Sheikh Nahshal, the tribal leader, warned that the world’s propensity to underestimate Yemen’s capacity for military retaliation and Arab leaders’ insistence on targeting civilians in their desire to bring the Houthis to their knees will only further enrage the Yemeni people.
“Hadi is the most hated person in Yemen right now. Regardless of what happens now, this man will never rule over Yemen. He called on foreign powers to kill his countrymen,” Nahshal said. “Can Yemen forgive and forget? I think not! As far Al Saud is concerned they are awakening Yemen’s dragon by killing our children. There have been talks of taking the fight to Al Saud.”
“Who knows,” he continued. “Al Saud’s regional enemies could team up and bring war to Riyadh. Don’t write off Yemen just yet, we are the fighters of Arabia.”