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Yemen: A People’s Tragedy and Geopolitical Challenges

Yemen: A People’s Tragedy and Geopolitical Challenges
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The suffering of the people of Yemen - a land once called “Arabia Felix” - is intolerable. According to the United Nations, in this country of 28 million people, 3 out of 4 are in need of humanitarian aid.

In Yemen, people die from Saudi-led coalition bombs - around 15 000 casualties since the beginning of the campaign in March 2015 - but also from hunger, poverty, or from lack of access to healthcare. Many hospitals have been destroyed. Some medical equipment has run out of fuel and become ineffective. The resurgence of cholera - an epidemic usually easy to combat - underlines the population’s fragility. Starvation threatens entire parts of the country. 

"For thirty years (1978 - 2012), Yemen has been ruled by a cunning tyrant, General Ali Abdullah Saleh"

How did we get here? For thirty years (1978 - 2012), Yemen has been ruled by a cunning tyrant, General Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was eventually assassinated on December 4. He had gradually exploited the country, allocating key job positions to his family members and cohorts. Over the years, he waged six wars against the Houthis, a military group of Zaidi faith (close to Shiism) from the Northern mountains. This group ended up representing the whole Zaidi community in Yemen, i.e. 40% of the total population.

It is estimated that around 80% of Yemenis are illiterate. General Saleh and his clan’s despicable management eventually pushed away a major part of the educated elites, especially those who had pursued foreign education. However, just as his “strong men” counterparts in the region, he still received important support from Western capitals. He benefited not only from Hadramaut oil, but also from al-Qaeda’s presence in the region. The latter was a strong incentive for Washington to give Sanaa’s leader a special treatment, as part of its strategy to lead the fight against jihadist terrorism. 

"Many solutions proposed by the UN were ill-advised and the transition eventually failed".

Nevertheless, General Saleh did not make it through the “Arab Spring”. Was he swept out of office by popular riots, when Sanaa’s turn for uprising came in 2011, or did he mainly give up under the pressure and intrigues of his peers? As it happens, the United Nations, supported by the Gulf States, appointed the general’s right-hand man Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi to lead the transitional government and to organise a national consultation in order to reform the Constitution. Nonetheless, many solutions proposed by the UN were ill-advised and the transition eventually failed. The General was even granted a general amnesty and never had to take responsibility for his crimes. Moreover, the former president was allowed to stay in his country, which allowed him to reestablish his authority over some parts of the army, to regain his party leadership, and to reactivate his clientelistic networks. In the end, the new Constitution’s federalization plan led to a renewal of the Houthi rebellion. 

In the meantime, it should be noted that similar action plans are currently on the UN’s “peace broker” agenda, in the event of a resolution of the Syrian crisis. In Fall 2014, the Houthis, who had become Saleh’s allies, broke into Sanaa. The rebels soon took control over the city, as well as over many others across the country. President Hadi fled in February 2015. The situation became unbearable for Saudi Arabia, which did not appreciate the settlement of an old enemy at its borders, to say the least.  

"Battlefronts have barely budged in a year and President Hadi is still hiding in Riyadh"

Along with the Saudis, several states including the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni countries (Morocco, Sudan, Bahrein, Jordania, Egypt, Senegal, Kuwait - Qatar was excluded) formed a coalition supported by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, in order to restore the legitimate government. The campaign began in March 2015 and achieved a few successes, amongst which the liberation of Aden. However, the massive bombings quickly became more precise. Rigorous control over land and sea accesses (to uphold the arms embargo) worsened the bombings’ humanitarian cost. Battlefronts have barely budged in a year and President Hadi is still hiding in Riyadh. The international coalition, which has currently reached a dead-end, is incapable of taking Sanaa back. 

There have been several attempts to find an exit to this crisis. The most significant negotiations took place in Kuwait, from April to August 2016. Why did these discussions fail? They were strongly supported by Secretary of State John Kerry, but Riyadh, given the context of the time, was reluctant to let him achieve anything. Besides, it is hard not to see Iran’s implication in the evolution of the crisis. It is certain that Houthis cannot be assimilated to a “Shia militia” controlled by Tehran. Neither can the war in Yemen be summed up as a “Shias vs Sunnis” conflict, since the country has always been divided by hatreds of all sorts, be they local, tribal or political. 

"It is now clear that the coalition’s interest would be to find an “exit strategy” as quickly as possible"

It seems likely that Iran’s engagement in Yemen will remain rather marginal. It is generally admitted that it “only” encompasses arms smuggling, exchange of advisors and a significant help from Hezbollah. Are the “Houthi missiles” - those able to reach Saudi Arabia, as demonstrated by the one which targeted Riyadh’s airport on November 4 - from Iran? Experts are still debating this issue. The UN investigation on this event seems to confirm that they are. In any case, it seems clear that the most sophisticated missiles could not have been assembled and launched without the support of foreign experts. In other words, minimal assistance is sufficient for Iran to exert non-neglectable influence on a conflict that considerably weakens its main regional enemy. For their part, the Saudis fear that the Houthis will become to them what the Hezbollah in Lebanon is to Israel. 

It is now clear that the coalition’s interest would be to find an “exit strategy” as quickly as possible. It is also in the West’s interest, as it has every reason to worry about the growing insecurity in the Bab-el-Mandeb detroit, where a huge amount of the world’s oil transits every day - 3.8 million barrels according to the latest estimation - and runs the risk of being involved in a potential escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But how can we translate words into actions? In just a few days, dramatic events potentially changed the whole paradigm: General Saleh turned against the Houthis, his supporters and other rebel forces engaged in a bloody fratricidal fight, which caused more damage to the Sanaa population, and which eventually led to the death of the General himself, who was murdered in an ambush. Just days before his death, the former President had advocated a fair reconciliation with the Coalition, in Yemen’s best interest. These declarations somewhat substantiate the thesis according to which Saleh had previously negotiated his rallying (in particular through his son) with the Emiratis.  

What conclusions should the Coalition draw from these events? Intensifying the bombings while targeting Houthi positions is an option, especially because the rebels have suffered from growing unpopularity amongst the population, who blamed them for the damages caused by the strikes. Let us however privilege a different scenario: that of the cessation of hostilities, initiated by a unilateral truce sponsored by the Coalition. Great powers could work in this direction, by demanding a return to peace negotiations, although perhaps with a different approach from that of Kuwait. As suggested by The Economist in November, shouldn’t the crisis recovery process first begin with the end of the fighting, rather than with the premature search for political solutions ? 

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