Is the Middle East Being Remapped?
Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has been embroiled in fighting for months since long. However, the situation has quickly reached a tipping point especially after the expanding conflict took an ominous turn on March 25 when Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against Houthi fighters who have tightened their grip on Yemen. Given Yemen’s strategic importance at the entrance to the Red Sea (and thus the Suez Canal), and its proximity to the Gulf States, notably Saudi Arabia with which it shares an 1800 kilometre porous boundary, the Yemeni crisis can’t be ignored.
Here is a brief discourse on the recent crisis in Yemen that is being trumpeted as the “New Great Game In Middle East”.
Located in Southwest Asia at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is a country that holds significant strategic importance to the Middle East. It is bounded to the south by the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and to the west by the Red Sea. The country borders Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the northeast and is situated at the entrance to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean (via the Gulf of Aden) and is one of the most active and strategic shipping lanes in the world.
Although the history of Yemen dates thousands of years back, modern Yemen itself is rather a young nation. The present Republic of Yemen came into being in May 1990, when the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) merged with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). By stipulations of the unification agreement, Sanaa, formerly the capital of North Yemen, functions as the political capital of the country, while Aden, formerly the capital of South Yemen, functions as the economic hub.
The contemporary borders of Yemen are largely a product of the foreign policy goals and actions of Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Saudi Arabia. Post-unification Yemen has been burdened by chronic corruption and economic hardships. Divisions based on religion, tribalism, and geography continue to play an important role in Yemeni politics, sometimes leading to violence.
The territory that lies within Yemen’s borders is one of the most ancient cradles of civilization in the Middle East, once known as ‘Arabia Felix’ — Latin for “happy” or “fortunate” — in ancient times. The lands of Yemen were more fertile than most on the Arabian Peninsula, as they received more rain due to high mountains. The country boasts a strategic location on the southwestern tip of Arabia. It is located along the major sea route from Europe to Asia, near some of the busiest Red Sea shipping and trading lanes.
Millions of barrels of oil pass through these waters daily in both directions; to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and from the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia to the energy-hungry Asian markets. The Yemeni transport hub of Aden was one of the world’s busiest ports in the 20th century.
Yemen is of great strategic importance to the stability of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. For all of the attention to the Houthis and Yemen’s growing civil conflict, the country also became the base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) after Saudi counterterrorism forces largely drove it out of Saudi land. It remains the most powerful terrorist threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Southern Gulf states, and both the State Department and National Counter Terrorism Center report that it is the most active single extremist movement in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Any serious rise of ISIS in Yemen can only make this worse. Yemen also poses a more direct threat to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and other GCC states.
“The tribes are Yemen and Yemen is the tribes,” is a saying that is often repeated by Yemenis from the north central highlands where the tribe and tribal life are most dominant. Yemen is dominated by several tribal confederations. Each includes tribes, clans and extended families. Determining which is the most powerful is difficult because of intermarriage and shifting alliances.
Listed in order of influence, the confederations are:
This is the second largest in population, with hundreds of thousands of followers. It is concentrated around the north-east governorate of Amran and associated tribes and clans include Al Osaimat, Othar, Kharef, Bani Suraim, Hamdan and Sanhan, which is the clan of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
This confederation has the largest population in Yemen. Its leaders are from Abu Lahoum and Nihm tribes and it is concentrated north of Sanaa. Associated tribes and clans include the Khawlan, Arhab, Al Hada, Al Jidaan, Anis, Dihm, Bani Mata and Al Haimatyeen.
This confederation is geographically dispersed but concentrated in the central part of the country. It is known for its business professionals and educated elites, and associated tribes and clans include the Murad, Abidah, Ans, Al Zaraniq, Al Awaliq, Kaifah, Al Bakzm, Al Sabyha, Al Abadil, Al Alhasani and Al Fadhli.
Yemen’s tribes have a long and varied history of self-governance that is characterized by periods of both enlightened and tyrannical rule. Some tribes developed highly efficient systems of delegatory government while others were less organized and more reliant on individual leaders. Outside big Yemeni cities, there are a number of tribal areas that are effectively self-governing. With a large number of civilians being in possession of arms – it is believed there are more guns in the country than citizens – local tribal militias often repress the national army and apply their own laws, based on traditions rather than the state’s constitution. Houthis have risen to be one of the most powerful militias in Yemen.
There are primarily two principal Islamic religious groups in Yemen with 60%–65% of the population belonging to Sunni sect whereas over 35%–40% are Shiites.
Sunnis are primarily Shafi’i but also include significant groups of Malikis and Hanbalis. Shias are primarily Zaidis and also have significant minorities of Twelver and Ismaili Shias. The Sunnis are predominantly in the south and southeast. The Zaidis are predominantly in the north and northwest whilst the Ismailis are in the main centers such as Sanaa and Ma’rib.
Who Are the Houthis?
The Houthi movement originally held a considerably broad-minded educational and cultural vision. A religious group affiliated with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, the Houthis maintain a stronghold in the northern province of Saada. The Houthi motto is: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Ansar Allah, previously known as Al-Shabab al-Muminin, is the military wing of the Shiite Houthis Movement. Yemen’s Sunni-majority government accuses Houthis of being a proxy for Iran.
The Rise of Houthis
The Houthi movement turned to arms in 2004 on grounds of self-defence when the first war with the government erupted. Tensions between Yemeni security forces and the Houthis first flared when the group’s supporters protested in mosques in the capital, which then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh saw as a challenge to his rule. Saleh ordered the arrest of some group members, and urged their then-leader, Hussein al-Houthi, to stop the protesters from disturbing worshippers.
Hussein al-Houthi was killed in 2004 after Saleh sent government forces into Saada. The years-long intermittent war ended in a ceasefire agreement in 2010.
In 2011, the Houthis were among many forces that took part in the revolt against Saleh.
The Houthis began to pick up momentum last August, when thousands of supporters of the movement protested in the streets of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, urging the government to step down. Among other demands, Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi requested that fuel subsidies, which had been cut significantly, be reinstated. If the government failed to meet an ultimatum, he said, “other steps” would be taken. The Houthis were also demanding a more representative form of government that would reflect the seats allocated to political groups and independent activists during Yemen’s 10-month National Dialogue Conference, which mapped out the political future of Yemen after its 2011 uprising.
Calling for a dialogue, the Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, invited the group to join a “unity government” and the two sides ultimately signed a peace deal brokered by the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar. It demanded that the Houthis withdraw from Sanaa and cease hostilities in other provinces in exchange for their demands being met. But the rebels did not comply, as their fighters pushed into other provinces, taking over the strategic port city of Hodeida on the Red Sea.
In October last year, Hadi named the country’s envoy to the US, Khaled Bahah, as the new prime minister. The rebels initially welcomed the appointment, but tensions flared in January 2015 when a constitution-drafting panel presented the first draft of the constitution. The Houthis rejected terms about dividing the country into six regions.
When Hadi refused to concede, the rebels stormed his palace, galvanising his resignation. Hadi accused the rebels of pressuring him to install affiliate figures in key positions in the government bodies. The Houthis put Hadi, the prime minister and two other ministers under house arrest and in February, declared that Hadi was being replaced with a temporary five-member presidential council.
Hadi fled to Aden on February 21, declaring himself the legitimate president of Yemen. Just over a month later the Saudi-led coalition began bombing the country, giving sanctuary to Hadi in Riyadh.
Some Western diplomats allege that Iran is bankrolling the Houthi rebellion in an effort to control Yemen’s Red Sea coast that lies on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. President Hadi blames that the Houthis are being trained and advised by Lebanese group Hezbollah.
The Houthis’ main political rival, the Islah party, accuses that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels are trying to restore the Zaydi imamate that ruled Yemen until 1962. Islah has repeatedly blamed the movement for creating unrest in Amran and other regions as part of a plan to seize control of the capital Sanaa. This seems a strong assertion given the fact that the Houthis have historically been concerned with reviving Zaydism amid the increasing influence of Salafism in Yemen.
On the other hand, the Houthis have accused Islah of inciting people against them, and allegedly encouraging some army regiments to fight them.
Yemen: A Web of Rivalries
Under its new king, Salman, Saudi Arabia is involved in major struggles to reshape the Middle East. The Saudi intervention in Yemen, and its organization of key members of the Arab League into a coalition to support that military move, is unusually adventurous for the royal family, which likes to work behind the scenes and more subtly. But, the least recognized fact in this whole scenario is that Yemen has at least four separate conflicts within its borders:
- There is a clash between the northern insurgents and the central authority (mirrored in the south by the Southern Movement, which is clearly demanding independence).
- Then, the Islah movement and the old regime’s elite, headed by Ahmed Saleh (son of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh), has been challenging the transitional authority.
- The Army has served as the ‘battleground’ for this conflict, where loyalties are not to the central government but to tribal leaders and their various allegiances. This phenomenon has effectively left the central government with no military forces through which to challenge the much more dedicated and disciplined factional militias.
- The Sunnis are divided among supporters of the former president and his clan and the transitional authority has created a vacuum making the Houthi advance even more dramatic.
Why Gulf States Have Apprehensions?
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, fears this instability and the void that has enabled insurgent groups such as AQAP to establish territorial footholds. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Emirates are concerned by the prospect of Yemen becoming another Afghanistan, which has had a destabilizing effect on neighbouring Pakistan.
Yemen could yet become another failed state overrun by extremists in an area already marked by the presence of that better-known failed state of Somalia. Through the Bab-al-Mandab, Yemen occupies a strategic position at the entry of the Red Sea, and is the main route for the shipment of oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Any unrest in Yemen is a cause of concern in Riyadh, the other capitals of the Gulf, and inevitably in the West as well.
“God created war so that Americans could learn geography.”
Yemen’s main export is petroleum, and it may or may not be vital to US interests. For several years, the United States has been fighting a quiet war in Yemen with the cooperation of the Yemeni government, mostly using drones and special forces, against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Many counterterrorism officials see AQAP as a uniquely dangerous terrorist group from a US perspective because it has demonstrated both the will and the capacity to attack US targets.
For reasons of history and geography, the Saudis are keen with developments in Yemen. It is simply impossible for them to stand aside while an Iranian-backed militia takes over in Yemen. Ken Pollack and Bruce Riedel have been making this point in various forums for several months. Riedel has particularly noted that the new King of Saudi Arabia intended to make Yemen his first priority. Saudi Arabia is far and away America’s most important Arab ally left standing.
Impact of Crisis on Oil Prices
The worsening conflict in Yemen brings to the fore the potential such regional flash points have to disrupt world oil trade. For instance, oil prices in international market saw a marked jump of more than 3% to $49.31 per barrel on the very first day after the Saudi attacks on Yemen. The fighting has raised concerns about the vulnerability of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and Djibouti, which has been identified by the US Department of Energy as a potential “chokepoint” in the global oil market. On average, almost 4m barrels of oil pass daily through the strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point. Tankers carrying crude from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq have to pass through it to reach the Suez Canal and Europe. But analysts say neither side in the Yemen conflict has the kind of weaponry that would pose a serious threat to tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb.
Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects, doubted that the Houthis could carry out a “sustained campaign against shipping”, because there was “no real threat to Saudi territory or oil production”.
Role of Pakistan
The growing concern that Pakistan’s direct involvement in the Yemeni crisis could have grave consequences for its internal security and sectarian harmony are valid. It will widen the sectarian divide in the society and the risk of sectarian violence will increase.
The existing complex militant landscape of the country will open up spaces for ultra-sectarian groups like the self-styled Islamic State (IS).
In that context, a rational and sensible choice for Pakistan could be to stay away from the Yemeni conflict and not become a party to it. But is this option available for Pakistan? If yes, what would be the cost of being impartial?
The Saudis have deep influence inside Pakistan’s state institutions and have gradually been encroaching into spaces that impact public spheres. Saudi Arabia is among the three countries that have had an important place in Pakistan’s foreign policy determinants.
There is still hope for a diplomatic solution, and Saudi Arabia may not have to escalate their military action. Securing the Saudi border and putting pressure on Yemen’s factions may be enough. Americans need to be ready for the fact, however, that the United States cannot call for strategic partners unless it is prepared to be one. They need to understand just how important a threat Yemen can be, just how deep the underlying forces that divide its current factions really are, that terrorism and extremism remains a far greater problem than ISIS, and that Iran’s ambitions to steadily broaden its strategic role throughout the region pose as much of a threat as its nuclear ambitions.