By: Junaid Suhais
The news cycle time and again is dominated by political developments in the Middle East and undoubtedly, the conflict in Yemen has earned an unavoidable place. Since the war started back in 2014, the conflict has attracted the attention of the international audience on and off however, the conflict advanced into the limelight as the result of new developments in the conflict the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the origination of Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the augmentation in drone attacks by Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia, targeting oil tankers and international airports.
Realism is a prominent school of thought in the academic study of international relations. It has traditionally been the dominant theory of international relations and, importantly, a point of reference for opposing views. It aspires to be prehistoric, explaining the essential elements of international politics throughout all epochs, most notably conflict and war.
This paper will attempt to analyze the Yemen conflict through a realistic lens, undertaking mainly the element on the nature of intervention on the part of both Saudi led coalition and Iran. In addition, the paper will also direct some light on the current political scenario of Yemen.
The Republic of Yemen is currently under a six-year civil war, which resulted in the death of more than 233,000, including 1,31,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services, and infrastructure (UN Dec. 2020). The war has pushed 5 million people on famine doorstep, displaced over 4million people, and left 3 million acutely malnourished. With a total population of 30.8 million people, 20.7million require immediate humanitarian aid that accounts for 71% of the total population. The devastation of the civil war is so catastrophic that the United Nations in 2018 declared it as the “worst humanitarian crisis” in the world.
The population of Yemen is almost entirely Muslim, divided into two factions, the Shia Zaydis, who controlled the northern territory, and the Sunni Muslims holding their grip on the southern part of Yemen. A series of Shia Zaydi had ruled parts of Yemen from the ninth century to 1962. However, during 1960 in both the factions, an uprising against the British saw an unprecedented development of relations between the Shia Sunni groups. The Two groups emerged respectively in the North and South. “The Yemen Arab Republic” (YAR) and the socialist “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen” (PDRY).
The development in the relation between The YAR and PDRY ultimately paved the way for the unification of Yemen in 1990. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former ruler of YAR, became the president of Unified Yemen. His rule characterized by nepotism, and corruption proved delinquent and unsurprisingly, Yemen remained the poorest country in the Arab world.
THE YEMENI REVOLUTION
The Yemeni revolution, also known as the Yemeni revolution of dignity, followed the initial stage of the Tunisian revolution. Protests erupted in various parts of Yemen, including the capital Sana. In its early phase, people were protesting against unemployment, economic disparities, and corruption. Adding to this was the hostility against the policies of the government to modify the constitution. In mid- 2011, the confrontation became increasingly violent, widespread clashes in capital Sana and elsewhere resulted in many civilian deaths, and hundreds detained.
On November 23, 2011 Yemini state television announced the return of Saleh, who, during the clashes, had fled to Saudi Arabia. Apparently, on the same day, Saleh signs a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement granting him impunity in return for his resignation, turning over power to his Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
On February 21, 2012 Yemen held the presidential elections. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was the only candidate and was subsequently sworn into office on February 25, 2012. Hadi flopped on the presidential chair plagued with several problems, including attacks from Al Qaeda, separatist movement in South; continuing loyalty of some military factions to Saleh, unemployment, corruption, and food security.
The Houthis (Ansari Allah), a Shia Zaydi movement, took advantage of the weak government with innumerable conundrums and launched multiple military attacks on the Hadi government, capturing capital Sana and other neighboring South and West areas of the country until 2014.
In January 2015, Houthis seized the Presidential Palace, setting their shadow government in Sana by putting President Hadi and other government officials under house arrest. The next few weeks witnessed the completion of coup d’ etat by establishing the “Revolutionary Council.” In the meantime, Hadi fled to Aden, declaring a coup and highlighting his legitimacy as the internationally reorganized head of the state. Hadi swiftly formed the Anti-Houthi/Salah alliance comprising the separatists, Islamists, and tribal men mainly from the South to counter Houthis advancement to sustain the legitimacy on the ground. With the uncertain refashioning of political scenarios and acts of terror, Yemen rapidly descended into chaos.
The Houthis continued their policy of expansion and wanted to capture the entire country with the help of Saleh’s military forces; however, this in turn paved the way for the alienation of various segments of Yemen’s population. Adding fuel to the already burning fire, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a branch of Islamic states invaded the state asserting territorial control in Yemen’s southeast.
In the meantime, Houthis continued their advancements and prepared to capture Aden. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in March 2015. This was the moment, which added an entirely new dimension to the civil war in Yemen. Meanwhile, for Saudi King Salman and his favorite son and newly appointed successor, defense minister Mohammad bin Salman this was a tipping point to counter Iran in a proxy war, as Saudi believed that Iran was supporting the Houthis.
THE JOINT INTERVENTION (SAUDI-UAE)
On March 26, 2015 Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Houthi rebels and their allies, ultimately declaring Saudi’s involvement in the war. The operation “Decisive Storm” (Asifatual-al-Hazm) had backing of Sunni Muslim countries. The military campaign came after Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, on March 25, asked the United Nations for military assistance to stop the advancement of Houthi rebels towards Aden. Right after the airstrikes by Saudi, the Obama Administration announced that the United States would provide “logistical and intelligence” support to the Saudi-led coalition’s operation against the Houthi rebels, however, without taking any direct part in the war. Soon after that, a joint US-Saudi planning cell was established to coordinate the military campaign. In the Security Council of the United Nations, The United States supported the passing of resolution 2216 (April 2016), which among other things, required the member states to impose an arms embargo on Houthi/Saleh forces and demanded the Houthis to withdraw from all the areas they had captured during the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and UAE were the key elements of the Arab League that led to the intervention to support the Hadi government and stop the Houthi advancement who wanted to expand their reach and consolidate the entire country. From the beginning, the Saudi and UAE invasion was necessary and not optional, as they did not want the Houthi ideology to sustain in Yemen, which certainly was not in both countries’ strategic interest. In this case, Saudi launched a comprehensive attack against Houthi rebels citing the following three goals.
- To enable Hadi to return to Yemen safely, reinstalling his government
- Elimination of Houthis resources and facilities as the rebel group in Yemen.
- Reducing Iran’s influence.
A report by Middle East Eye on March 25, 2021 revealed that the Saudi-led coalition has conducted at least 22,776 air raids in Yemen and up to 65,982 individual airstrikes since it started bombing in March 2015. The report mentioned that the involvement of UAE behind the airstrikes led to the death of 8,759 civilians and injured another 9,815 (March 2021). Since the onset of intervention in 2015, Saudi has carried out a daily average of 10 air raids. It was found that 29 percent of all air raids hit civilian areas; 47 percent of the raids in which targets had been identified hit civilian sites. Another report released by “Save the Children,” highlighted that all the casualties in Yemen over the last two years had been children.
Historically, Iran has not been significant in Yemen’s political affairs nevertheless; Iran has maintained a long diplomatic presence in Yemen’s capital Sana. Meanwhile, it has been affirmed that two decades before the war, Iran’s role in Yemen was marginal. During the six Saadah wars between 2004 and 2010, Ali Abdul Saleh, the former president of Yemen, asserted the Support of Iran in the war. However, the US analysts rejected any involvement on Iran’s part.
In 2011 and 2012, Iran’s policy towards Yemen changed considerably. During the Arab Spring, when the country witnessed various protests, Iran’s Support for Houthis increased. However, Iran played no part in the negotiations, which led to Saleh’s resignation. Ironically, after he was overthrown, he turned toward the Islamic Republic as he calculated the prospectus for returning to power. It is believed that Iran probably played a role in forging the Houthi-Saleh coalition, which resulted in the current civil war.
Shreds of evidence of Iranian intervention to support the Houthis began to grow in 2012. In January 2013, the US navy, in cooperation with the Yemeni navy force, abducted an Iranian cargo ship containing forty tons of military supplies intended for the Houthis. The military supplies included air to surface missiles, rocket- propelled grenades, Katyusha rockets, and ammunition. The United States also tracked the Iranian Revolutionary guard providing training to the Houthi in the Sarah governorate.
The Iranian Support grew increasingly open and transparent after the successful drive by the Houthi-Salah coalition of capital Sana’a in the summer of 2014. The Houthi leaders travelled to Tehran and signed an agreement declaring the regular air services between the two capitals, Tehran and Sana’a. They also agreed to increase Yemeni-Iranian cooperation.
With time, Tehran started launching its supplies and Personnel, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, into Yemen soil. In addition, the Iranians started propagating their own band of Twelver Shi’ism over the indigenous Zaydi sect practiced in Yemen. This however deepened the sectarian divisions, opening another dimension of conflict. Since 2014, the Houthis rhetoric and provocations threatening Saudi Arabia had increased exponentially. In addition, the Houthis have launched several attacks on Riyadh.
In 2019, the Houthis named an ambassador to Iran and the following year Iran requited, installing Hassan Irloo, member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as its ambassador to Sana’a.
THE CONTEMPORANEOUS STATE OF AFFAIRS
The current situation in Yemen is delineated by turmoil, chaos, hunger, famine. People are dying more because of hunger and diseases instead of bullets and bombs. The country is share-out into copious factions fighting each other to procure more areas and consolidate the ones already in occupation. In February 2021 with Joe Biden’s decision to cease US assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a light of hope for peace appeared. However, the country is embroiled in internal rivalry between numerous groups, making it difficult to see a quick conclusion to the conflict.
- In the northern highlands, the Houthis hold their sway and ruled the region in partnership with the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, until December 2017, when the internal rivalry got Saleh eventually killed at the hands of Houthis. Since then, the Houthi’s have embarked upon an ambitious program of restructuring governing areas, making the removal of Houthis and reunification of Yemen impossible.
- Tariq Saleh, nephew of Ali Abdullah Salah, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, heads a group of fighters along the Red Sea against the Houthi frontlines in Hudaydah.
- In Taiz, the conflict is mainly between the members of the Anti-Houthi alliance. The Houthi hold the northern part of the governorate; however, Islah, a political party affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood, defeating the rival fighters from the 36th armored brigade and the Abu al-Abbas group, took hold control of the city of Taiz and much of the countryside.
- May 11, 2017, a new player emerged by the name of the Southern transitional council, headed by the former governor of Aden, Aidarus
al-Zoubaidi. The STC emerged soon after Hadi fired Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, accusing him of prioritizing southern Yemen’s independence. In August 2019, the secessionist-minded STC held the southern Port city of Aden after pushing Hadi’s forces out. The STC and its affiliated militant groups are backed by UAE, which opposes the Islah for its ties with Muslim Brotherhood
- The Salafi-led Giants Brigades, another secessionist-minded group that is active in Lahj, north of Aden, is also backed by the United Arab Emirates
- In Marib, the strategic oil-rich region of Yemen and the current site of the Houthi offensive is in charge of Islah. Hadhramaut halved between the Hadhramaut Elite Forces, who control the coast and Islah-affiliated units in the interior. The UAE backs both
- In Al- Mahra, on Yemen’s eastern border, Saudi Arabia and Oman leave no stone unturned for respective influence over local tribes. Saudi Arabia has built dozens of military sites, recruited people from tribal areas for paramilitary groups, and increased its military presence on the Omani border in the last three years. Oman regards Al-Mahra as part of its area of influence,
and is increasingly concerned by Saudi Arabia’s military presence on its borders.
- STC controls the island of Socotra, while Hadis troops dominate Yemen’s
“Triangle of Power,” which includes the oil and gas resources of Marib, Shabwa, and Hadhramaut.
None of these groups whether-The Houthis, Hadi forces or the STC –are strong enough to eliminate or impose their will on the rest of the country. Nevertheless, nearly all of these groups possess enough calibre in terms of men and munitions to behave, as spoilers to any national peace deal, they sense does not adequately address their stipulation. What is more concerning is the fact that the longer the fight continues, the more its catastrophic consequences and the eventual emergence of more armed groups will be. The STC did not exist in 2015. Today, the secessionist-minded party has its hold on Hadi’s temporary capital of Aden.
Amalgamate that with the shrinking economy, exports limited mainly to oil and gas fields of Marib, Shabwa and Hadhramaut, make these sites the origin of years of conflict to come. No doubt, in the future, more and more groups will be fighting for resources thin on the ground, resulting in countless deaths and destruction. This situation is already witnessed in Marib where Houthis go all out to procure the oil reserves of Marib and surrounding areas, knowing that to survive as an independent state in highlands, they will require export revenue.
The numerous peace attempts, whether led by UN or US special envoys or Saudi Arabia’s newest ceasefire offer, do not appear to comprehend that, the Houthis don’t want to be a part of the state, they want to be “the state.” They will not surrender at the negotiating table, what they believe they have already won on the ground.
Even erratically, if Houthis and the STC were disposed to negotiate to be part of a restructured state, there is no assurance that, at this late date, the state could be put together. Gratitude to a witless decision by Hadi to bifurcate Yemen’s Central Bank in 2016, the country has now two separate economies, attributing different valuations. The Yemeni Riyal trades at one rate in Houthi controlled areas and differs in STC controlled Aden. The Newly printed Riyal bills issued by the Hadi government are held invalid in Houthi areas.
Into the bargain, the most concerning stumbling block is that of civilians dying at an exponential rate not just by arms conflict but under hunger, diseases, famine, covid-19 and unavailability of the much needed humanitarian aid. The political situation in Yemen since 2021 has been marked by ongoing conflict and instability, although there have been some recent developments that could potentially lead to a resolution of the conflict.
In May 2021, the Houthi rebels launched a major offensive to seize control of the city of Marib, which is strategically important due to its location near the country’s oil fields. The fighting in Marib has continued since then, with both sides suffering significant casualties.
In June 2021, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, announced a new peace plan for the country. The plan called for a nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, and the resumption of political negotiations between the warring parties. However, the plan has yet to be implemented, and fighting has continued.
In November 2021, the Houthi rebels claimed to have captured a number of Saudi Arabian soldiers in a cross-border attack. The incident further escalated tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, who are backed by Iran.
Overall, the political situation in Yemen remains volatile and unpredictable, with no clear end in sight to the ongoing conflict. The humanitarian situation in the country also remains dire, with millions of people in need of assistance due to the conflict and a worsening economic crisis.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Critically analyzing the prior material available in the form of books, journals, news stories, and scholarly papers, I discovered that all of the facts and figures coincided, emphasizing the fact that the drive for regional predominance by the entities involved in the intervention, whether directly or indirectly by supplying munitions to rebel groups, has culminated in disaster. The United Nations, The Middle East Eye, Brookings.edu, Aljazeera, The German Institute for Global and Area Studies, and periodicals such as The Economist and Foreign Affairs deliver in-depth analysis of the conflict.
Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes (2010) Victoria Clark: The book is a rich source of the civil war in Yemen, the background of war and the Salah government. Ali Abdullah Saleh himself coined the phrase “dancing on the heads of snakes”, and this is an unconventional approach Victoria Clark sets out to explore in her book. The “snakes” in the question include the troublesome tribes, militant Jihadist, opposition parties and Salah’s ambitious-relatives.
Clark believed that Saleh was not a stereotypical dictator as he only dances on the heads of snakes rather than stamping on them. In Yemen, where the government control barely a few stretches of land and the militant elements capable of giving government forces a bloody nose, this makes sense; threatening, charming, bribing and opting works better than brute force.
Clark mentions that Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama-bin- laden and has always witnessed the presence of Al Qaeda. The book is a lively mixture of travelogues, politics and history. The historical part of the book provides a brisk run- through of some 500 years or so, revealing that the current situation in Yemen is not entirely attributed to acts of Ali Abdullah Saleh, even if it has exuberated some of them in the last three decades.
Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of State. (2017) Helen Lackner : This book is the culmination of decades of research and many years of first-hand experience filling the gaps left by most publications on Yemen. Through this book, Helen Lackner takes the reader on a journey attributed to the war against the British, the origin of Peoples Democratic republic of Yemen (PDRY), Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and eventually the unification of Yemen to the Republic of Yemen (ROY) in 1990. The first hand experience and long-term involvement, witnessing fortunes and misfortunes, provide in-depth insights into Yemen’s socio-economic and political scenario in time.
The assemblage of topics of this book is correspondingly comprehensive. The book opens with a very succinct and laudable account of the spring 2011 and, ended with the launch of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in 2015
The solidity of this book lies in the breadth of its topics and their balanced, unbiased presentation. Lackner’s caution in properly weighting such a complicated set of details are attributed to her expertise in the field and the firsthand experience of the entire scenario. Analyzing Lackner’s mention of facts and events, it is surprising to spot the eloquence and exhaustiveness with which the mention has been made.
Reviewing Abaad studies and research, a licensed nonprofit organization in Yemen, I came across the various geopolitical factors, authentic to understand the background of the cause of intervention by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen sits on the strategical geographical location, and good wealth is of considerable importance. Located on the gateway of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen overlooks the Bab al-Mandab strait, the vital corridor for international trade. In addition, located on the open waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean on one side and the Red Sea lining the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe on the other hand. This geographical advantage adds to the country’s influence on gulf regions, and the Horn of Africa and even northern Arabia and Africa, linked to Europe.
The very first assumption of realism is that the nation-state is the primary player in international affairs. Other bodies, such as people and organisations, exist, but their influence is limited. Second, the state functions as a unified actor. National interests, particularly during times of conflict, compel the state to speak and act in unison. Third, policymakers are rational actors in the sense that rational decision-making leads to the pursuit of national interests. Taking activities that might weaken or expose your status would be irrational in this situation. Realism implies that all leaders, regardless of political affiliation, recognise this as they seek to manage their state’s affairs to thrive in a competitive environment. Finally, nations exist in an anarchic environment that is, there is no one in power globally.
Interest Of Iran
Iran seeks to increase its influence in Yemen through its actions because of its unique strategic location and strong geopolitical weight in the area, Iran believes that by establishing a foothold near a key international strategic corridor, such as the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Bab Mandeb, it can greatly increase its influence and
dominance in the region by controlling traffic 11in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Bab Mandeb, which is the main link connecting the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean in the Red Sea
to the Gulf of Aden
Within this framework, Iran seeks to clone the experience of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which overtook Beirut by military power in 2008 12 and then agreed with opposition political forces to sign a new power-sharing agreement and form a new government in which the party would have veto power over its decisions. Meanwhile, Iran’s work in Undermining regional Neighbours and limiting their influence are two of the most significant goals of Iran’s intervention in Yemen, which stems from its view that growing Iran’s power in Yemen will reduce the influence of Arab Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia. As a result, Iran seeks to elevate its Houthi supporters to erode Yemen’s ties with its neighbours and hinder any future actions or complementing initiatives between Yemen and its neighbours that may result in the Gulf States increasing their influence in Yemen in specific and the region in general.
Interest Of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were important members of the Arab Coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to defend Yemen’s legitimate government. Their major goal was to save President Hadi’s administration from collapsing completely, while also preventing the Houthi organization, who ousted the government in September 2014, from extending its reach and solidifying its authority throughout the nation.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates viewed the intervention as a necessity rather than a choice from the start. From their standpoint, they simply could not allow an ideology organisation like the Houthis to take rule Yemen, where the group may endanger both nations’ strategic interests. The underlying opinion in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was that if the Houthis had been able to take control of the port city of Aden during their campaign in 2015, it would have been nearly difficult to expel them. There was a genuine fear that once in power, the Houthis would expand their links with Iran, an opportunity that Tehran would have found difficult to pass up given their success with organisations like as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq. As a result, a Houthi takeover was equated with Iran establishing a permanent presence right on Saudi Arabia’s eastern and southern borders.
Furthermore, the pull factor that’s, having unique strategic location gravity Saudi Arabia to Yemen. The Bab Al-Mandeb is a critical strategic chokepoint for world marine trade and energy supplies, connecting the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. It is as significant for marine transport routes and trade between Africa, Asia, and Europe as the Suez Canal
The restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have a significant impact on the Yemen conflict. With diplomatic channels reopened, there is potential for increased communication and negotiations between the two countries regarding the conflict. This could potentially lead to a de-escalation of tensions and a reduction in support provided by Iran and Saudi Arabia to their respective factions in Yemen.
In addition, the agreement could lead to increased economic cooperation between the two countries, which could potentially improve conditions for the Yemeni people. The Yemen conflict has resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis, and increased economic cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia could potentially lead to increased aid and support for Yemeni civilians.
However, it is important to note that the Yemen conflict is complex and involves multiple actors, both domestic and foreign. The impact of the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement on the conflict is uncertain, and it remains to be seen how the agreement will be implemented and how it will affect the conflict moving forward.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have proved to be two of the most powerful powers in the Middle East, but neither has been able to overcome the other in their battle for regional hegemony. The desire of power and hegemony has led Iran and Arabia to Yemen, where the Bab al-Saudi Mandeb strait provides a chance to take control of oil shipping. Iran and Saudi Arabia have proved their desire for dominance to achieve regional hegemony via historical research and contemporary events. Iran and Saudi Arabia are still operating under the paradigm of Classical Realism, with their engagement in Yemen emphasising their quest for regional hegemony.
About the Author
Junaid Suhais is a freelance writer with a passion for storytelling and is currently enrolled in a Master’s program in International Relations at Jamia Millia Islamia, following the completion of a Master’s degree in Political Science. He Tweets at @junaidsuhais. The views expressed are personal.