Yemen’s War Theatre – A Situation Report

Since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in late March 2015, citing UN Resolution 2216 as its justification, Yemen’s war has often been framed as yet another sectarian conflict – another proxy of Iran in the frame as part of Iran’s race to counter Saudi Arabia’s influence, both in the region and beyond, in the wider Islamic world.

Fearing the spectre of Iranian hegemonism south of its borders, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believed that military interventionism would best serve its interests – only Yemen, even if led by a minority group, was never going to walk quietly into the night. And now Yemen’s military standoff with Saudi Arabia and its war coalition, has exposed the region to much uncertainty.

While Yemen’s war may have sectarian elements, religion actually has little to do with the conflict – and yet our collective propensity to frame it as such to better rationalise political antipathies, risks playing right into the hands of Islamic radicals.

It is control over Yemen’s territories, and access to its geostrategic resources, that ultimately pushed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to wage war on those in control of its most direct neighbour, inadvertently reinforcing that nation’s zeal to resist what it perceived as foreign intrusion.

Interestingly enough Riyadh’s military pursuits run counter to its national security interests. It was King Abdullah who once warned that Yemen’s security was Saudi Arabia’s security – implying the two nations were forever locked in interdependency.

For all its crises, and overall unruliness, Yemen is a geopolitical jewel, which a great many powers would like to control, if only to secure its territorial waters and thus assume oversight of a key world trade route.

Yemen has in more ways than one been a victim of its own dormant geopolitical power.

Here is how Abdul Sattar Ghazali, the Chief Editor of the Journal of America, summarized the situation:

“The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.

“An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.

“The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.

“Any hostile air or sea presence in Yemen could threaten the entire traffic through the Suez Canal, as well as a daily flow of oil and petroleum products that the EIA estimates increased from 2.9 mmb/d in 2009 to 3.8 mmb/d in 2013. Such a threat also can be largely covert or indirect. Libya demonstrated this under Gaddafi when he had a cargo ship drop mines in the Red Sea.”

Beyond that, Yemen has a large, and vibrant workforce, and more arable lands than all the Gulf countries put together – but the current conflict has markedly increased Yemen’s water scarcity. Yemen was considered one of the world’s most severely water-stressed countries even before the war, with public water accessible to just half of the overall urban population, and to about 40 percent in rural areas.

Groundwater supplies have declined precipitously throughout the country, in both rural and urban areas. The World Bank estimates that the groundwater levels “plummet by six meters a year in crowded, mountainous regions outside the cities of Sana’a, Taiz, Dhamar, Amran and Sa’ada.”  Before the conflict, the government enacted policies that actively encouraged the depletion of the existing water supply, including subsidizing cheap diesel pricing and funding surface or spate irrigation for water-heavy cash crops such as Qat. Due to these policies, groundwater and irrigation were both cheap, which further strained the existing supply. In addition, a lack of central planning and general neglect of infrastructure—from porous pipes to poorly constructed and maintained dams—further contributed to water loss and caused the groundwater in many areas to become contaminated with sewage run-off.

With the onset of conflict, even regions once known for their lush green landscapes and arable soil have become unrecognizable. In Ibb, for example, Yemen’s most fertile area, an influx of internally displaced persons and the subsequent resource strain have rendered the land parched and unworkable. An inability to grow crops contributes to the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen’s growing population.

In Sa’ada, a Houthi-controlled territory, pomegranate exports – once a regional economic mainstay – declined by a third since 2015, owing to a lack of irrigation to grow the fruit and the rising costs of fuel to transport them. While this is in part because of the mismanagement of water resources and the effects of climate change on Yemen’s arable land, the impact of the conflict, particularly on trade routes and water infrastructure, has constrained the ability of farmers to transport and export the prized fruit. This latest blow to Yemen’s agriculture sector is but one example of the toll the water crisis, exacerbated by the conflict, has taken on the country’s already weak economy.

With no relief in sight, Yemen’s water crisis and its interaction with the conflict will continue to drive the country further toward humanitarian collapse. Yemen’s water situation may not be unique and will perhaps serve as the canary in the coal mine for similarly water-scarce countries in the region. The outcome of the conflict, and the ways in which water continues to shape it, may be a harbinger of what is to come for countries without protections to ensure the equitable provision and use of this most precious resource.

For all its potential Yemen has suffered from chronic mismanagement, and crippling nepotism at the hands of an elite whose ambitions have been to loot, raid and exploit the country’s resources, regardless of the repercussions. Bled dry by three decades of authoritarianism, Yemen is now being held ransom to the whims of armed militants turned warlords.

Unless the situation is addressed and redressed promptly Yemen will disintegrate into violent militantism and access new military technology to hold regional powers hostage.

Underdeveloped, mismanaged, squandered away, impoverished and battered, Yemen has remained highly dependent on its hydrocarbon resources to sustain its economy, thus exposing its markets to external shocks. To add to such economic dependency, Yemen almost entirely relies on foreign imports to meet its food needs – needless to say Yemen’s inability to produce its own food rapidly translated into widespread famine as war took hold.

Beyond that, Yemen has long put itself at the mercy of currency fluctuations and global food shortages.

A new report, Securing Imports of Essential Food Commodities to Yemen, examines the financial and logistical constraints the private sector is facing when importing basic food commodities, including wheat, flour and rice. The report offers solutions to help facilitate the import of food and other essential goods to ease the humanitarian conditions in Yemen.

Yemen depends almost entirely on imports to meet the local market demand for its staple food commodities. Those imports are secured almost entirely by the private sector which has shown great resilience and has been successful in sustaining the continued supply of those commodities into the country. However, despite their resilience to date, these market mechanisms could fail due to rising costs and risks.

According to the report, the biggest challenge to food security in Yemen is weakened demand. Food importers, wholesalers and retailers have identified a drop in purchasing power as a key challenge to their businesses. The majority of the population have lost their sources of income, which has resulted in the near-famine conditions that are present today. The coping mechanisms of a large part of the population have changed due to the decrease in purchasing power. Today, an increased number of people resort to increased levels of borrowing for food consumption as well as reliance on income support from humanitarian aid or remittances.

Access to foreign exchange (FX) has emerged as a key constraint faced by food importers, with limited availability and rising costs being the most pressing challenges. Additionally, difficulties withdrawing and transferring bank funds have eroded trust in the banking system and contributed to the rise of money exchanges as the major provider of finance – which comes with greater costs and risks. Finally, food importers are facing logistical challenges that include the disruption of access to key ports such as Al-Hodeida, Aden, and Saleef and rising costs due to delays in obtaining clearances for incoming shipments.

The report calls for the international community to scale-up income support measures to ease the burden on the Yemeni population. This includes scaling-up existing efforts to provide income support (cash transfers) and food assistance to address the negative impact of eroding incomes. Resuming income payments to public servants, retirees and social welfare beneficiaries should also be encouraged.

In 2012 the IMF released a report in which its experts highlighted some of Yemen’s most immediate challenges. It read: “Over the last few years, Yemen has faced multiple severe shocks which imposed a heavy toll on economic activity.”

The report specifically highlighted how Yemen’s declining oil production, social unrest and sabotage attacks against state interests negatively impacted the country’s economic future and potential. Since 2011 unrest, Yemen has been plagued by a litany of attacks on its pipelines, electric grid and other national interests, each claimed by groups serving contradicting agendas.

2011 also shrunk Yemen’s private sector, driving investors out of the country over fear of adverse economic risks. This in turn led to inflation, a drop in foreign currency reserves and higher unemployment levels. 

Yemen was a failed-state long before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became involved in this latest conflict. In truth for peace to flourish Riyadh would have to invest into its neighbour’s institutional and financial viability. With borders fast becoming illusionary barriers, nations will need to cooperate more than ever before to ward off the threat of both populist militantism and religious radicalism.

The Houthis have tapped into both those identities: one by linking themselves to North Yemen’s religious identity, Zaidism, and two by positioning themselves as the ‘voice of the people.’ As the old adage goes: “Vox populi, vox dei.” And though Abdel-Malek Al Houthi never claimed to have received a mandate from God, he did however, and in no uncertain terms, set himself up as the carrier of Yemen’s sovereign will against a foreign invader.

It would be a mistake to look upon Yemen’s war and divorce it from what can only be described as a grand geopolitical realignment – whereas the old axis: West versus East is being reinvented to the tune of tentative new alliances and shifting hegemonic interests. That is not to say however that Yemen’s conflict is a mere proxy war, rather, it has become the land where all overlappings have come to crash against one another to reinvent themselves anew.

As Professor at Tehran University Mohammad Marandi noted in late 2016: “The fate of the Middle East, and beyond the world geopolitical equilibrium will very much depend on how Yemen’s peace will come about.”

Where Yemen was already teetering on the edge – plagued by chronic mismanagement and pandemic corruption, Riyadh’s military adventures served to plunge that one ailing Republic of Southern Arabia well beyond the point of institutional no return. Stuck in a vacuum, Yemen remains locked in a conflict where no parties can claim to have the upper hand, politically, militarily or otherwise.

And though Saudi Arabia and its coalition of powers have towered mighty in their military arsenal, and exploitation of militias, most particularly  in South Yemen – where radicals continue to roam free, acting as a convenient asymmetrical weapon of war against Ansarallah a.k.a. the Houthis,  the complexity of Yemen’s war theater has led to a new status quo – a dangerous one at that since it cannot possibly be sustained.

For every passing day Yemen could see the rise of an unsuspected threat, and witness the inception of new powers no one predicted could ever come onto the scene. The possibility cannot be dismissed.

Eight years after its uprising (2011) Yemen is nowhere near a resolution – whether political, institutional or otherwise. If anything, Yemen has stood a nation interrupted in a dangerous institutional vacuum and no real national cohesion since its regions have exploded alongside political loyalties and tribal allegiances. 

Yemen’s Republic has become a constitutional shadow empty of any real substance.

The hope 2011 brought by ways of reforms and national dialogue, the war annihilated. The unity that was once Yemen, even though imperfect and a times tentative due to old regional disputes (North Yemen-South Yemen setup) Saudi Arabia’s military interventionism dramatically exacerbated – potentially passed its breaking point, turning Yemen into a dangerous cesspool of instability.

In truth, Yemen has long been a sitting-duck on the list of failed-states to be. 

As early as 2009 analysts labelled Yemen as a “fragile” state on the basis that Sana’a central government never had much control outside the cities. A commentary accompanying Foreign Policy’s 2009 Failed States Index said of Yemen: “A perfect storm of state failure is now brewing there: disappearing oil and water reserves; a mob of migrants, some allegedly with al-Qaida ties, flooding in from Somalia, the failed state next door; and a weak government increasingly unable to keep things running. Many worry Yemen is the next Afghanistan.”

Saudi Arabia’s military intervention precipitated Yemen’s descent into absolute chaos.

Today, a nation-state lies in rubles, its socio-sectarian lay lines laid completely bare. Yemen’s traditions need not be a threat – it would be a grave mistake to believe that the belief in any one particular school of thought – might it be Sunni or Shia, necessarily translates into political alliances. North Yemen has been Zaidi long before the Houthis came to be. More to the point, Yemen was a friend of Saudi Arabia and all GCC countries long before they became sovereign nations in their own rights.

Yemen has been a constant geopolitical fixture of Southern Arabia for as far as memory stretches back and faith never was a matter of contention. Why should it be one today, when it could be instead a powerful bridge?

Back in 1918, under the rule of Imam Yahya, the Jews of Yemen were guaranteed freedom of worship and religion under the premise the state owed all his people protection and equality before the law.

More than ever Yemen needs a unifying vision. A vision which will allow for all actors and proponents to its political and tribal landscape to find their place within a greater whole and together work to ward off instability and back-breaking poverty. 

Ultimately, it is hopelessness which will shatter Yemen and spell disaster for the region. Without hope, all manners of radical outfits will thrive, bringing with them the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

No military campaign, however violent and thorough will make up for good old fashioned economic growth and reforms. If we keep in mind that Saudi Arabia’s leadership is actually tackling that very issue at home, its stands to reason that Riyadh will expand its reach and include Yemen in its plans.

And not a moment too soon either. With the reality of targeted attacks against the Kingdom’s national interests now firmly cemented in the public consciousness, war came home to bite the hand that started it all off. Yemen’s stability was never going to be won by the barrel of a gun … if anything, war empowered the very factions which the Kingdom sought to destroy by giving credence to their ideological grievances.

War and its  Devastation

Before the influx of violence the Greater Middle East has witnessed since the Arab Spring (2011), Yemen has arguably endured the most devastation and hardship, except maybe for Syria. And though Yemen did not have to contend with ISIS mercenary armies like Syria and Iraq have done, war proved to be a ruthless foe.

In January 2017, the United Nations recorded Yemen’s death toll as a consequence of war as having reached 10,000.

The UN’s humanitarian affairs office said the figure, which is a low estimate, was reached using data from health facilities that have kept track of the victims of the war, which has largely been ignored by the international community.

The US State Department estimates that as of September 2019, that number far exceeds 90,000, notwithstanding those deaths which came by way of famine and diseases. 

A report by  the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled) issued in June 2019 shows the conflict’s total death toll is fast approaching the 100,000 mark.

Since 2015, Acled has recorded 4,500 direct civilian targeting events that led to approximately 11,700 reported deaths. Acled found that the Saudi-led coalition and its allies were responsible for 67% (over 8,000) of such fatalities, with the Houthis and their allies were responsible for over 16% (1,900).

The statistics suggests that, despite international efforts to bring about a ceasefire in the region, there is little prospect for peace for those directly or indirectly caught up in the conflict.

The report, which counted 10,200 events that were responsible for the deaths of 30,800 people, identified 2018 as “the war’s deadliest and most violent year on record.”. So far in 2019 there have been 4,900 recorded events that have caused 11,900 deaths.

Taiz was identified as the most violent governorate in Yemen, largely due to a four-year siege laid by Houthi forces. The statistics revealed more than 18,400 reported fatalities and nearly 2,300 reported fatalities from direct civilian targeting since 2015. Hodeidah – where the report warned civilians are at especially high risk “due to intense urban combat and indiscriminate attacks” – and al-Jawf followed, with almost 10,000 total combat fatalities reported in each region since 2015. 

But official figures pale in comparison to those published by independent non-state actors.  Research conducted by Sheba for Democracy and Human Rights asserted that Yemen’s war – as of November 2016, claimed the lives of in excess of 20,000 civilians in North Yemen alone.

Writing for Foreign Policy in April 2016, Colum Mitch wrote on the world’s silence: “Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-majority Persian Gulf allies don’t hold a single seat on the UN Security Council. But you’d hardly know it: Over the past year, they have wielded their diplomatic clout like a major power, shaping the 15-nation council’s diplomatic strategy for Yemen and effectively suppressing UN scrutiny of excesses in their 13-month air war against the country’s Shiite rebels.”

And: “Working through its military allies — principally the United States, Britain, and Egypt — Saudi Arabia has succeeded in blocking actions to restrain its military conduct and highlight humanitarian costs of the conflict.”

War has devastated Yemen beyond all manner of recognition. 

UN officials estimate that nearly 19 million people – 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian aid, and more than 3 million have been displaced. Those numbers are increasing every day.

Isolated and starved under a punishing humanitarian blockade, Yemen sits a prisoner of war among factions racing for control over its future.

In July 2015, Hassan Jayache, a senior leader of the Houthi movement told MintPress News in an exclusive interview that local NGOs find themselves caught in a political web, forced to surrender their neutrality to secure not just funding but access to areas where aid is needed.

“The Saudis have exerted political pressures onto local NGOs and international aid organizations, demanding that aid be restricted to pre-approved segments of the population, based on political affiliations and according to religious criteria,” Jayache said.

While Saudi officials will rationalise the move by arguing political pragmatism and the need to flush out ‘undesirables’, such decisions have played right into the hands of ideologues, fanning social dissonance among communities.

The Shia of Yemen

Although removed from Iran’s direct influence, Yemen shares important socio-religious markers with the Islamic Republic – a reality Riyadh was never willing to overlook in its perpetual quest for control against Iran’s hegemony.

Like Iran, North Yemen’s religious identity has been identified as Shia, and yet it is very different from Iran’s Twelver school of thought. In truth Zaidi Islam is somewhat in the middle of both Sunni and Shia Islam, similarly to Abadi Islam, as practiced in Oman.

Yemen’s history is tied to the many and great migration movements which took place in between the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and beyond that, Asia – either through economic necessity or the product of war, Yemen’s demographic makeup reflects its position as gateway in between continents – with one notable exception: Yemen always managed to ward off foreign invaders. Not even the Ottomans could bring Yemen to heel.

The Houthis’ history, the genesis of the movement is tied to Yemen’s history and its fight for cultural relevance in a fast-changing world. One should also keep in mind that the Houthis have legitimate grievances and that those predate Saudi Arabia’s intervention. 

The Houthi movement was born in reaction to a political landscape which proved to be increasingly inhospitable to those Yemenis who still hoped to abide by the old rules of Zaidism and not that of the republic – as formulated under the Imamate. The Houthis need also to be looked as a knee-jerk reaction to the violent political and institutional shift which took place in 1962. Because Sana’a central government failed to integrate the highlands to the new republican schema, the highlands withdrew behind their traditions, seeking comfort in its past glory.

Zaidis we need to remember have fought for control of Yemen with various degrees of success for centuries. A succession of Zaidi Imams ruled the community and Zaidis were the majority of the population in the mountains of the north. They fought against both the Ottomans and the Wahhabis in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaidi monarchy took power in North Yemen called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. The ruler, or imam, was both a secular ruler and a spiritual leader. Their kingdom fought and lost a border war with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, losing territory to the Saudi state. They also enjoyed international recognition as the legitimate government of North Yemen. Their capital was in Taiz.

In 1962, an Egyptian-backed revolutionary military cabal overthrew the Mutawakkilite king and established an Arab nationalist government with its capital in Sana’a. With Soviet assistance, Egypt sent tens of thousands of troops to back the republican coup. The Zaidi Royalists fled to the mountains along the Saudi border to fight a civil war for control of the country. Saudi Arabia supported the royalists against Egypt. The war ended in a republican victory after the Saudis and Egyptians resolved their regional rivalry (1967) and lost interest in the Yemen civil war.

In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi, rose to power, only to resign some three decades later.

The American intervention in Iraq in 2003 deeply radicalized the Houthi movement, like it did many other Arabs. It was a pivotal moment. The Houthis have been at war with the Yemeni government almost constantly since 2004. In the first six years, the Houthis fought an increasingly effective guerrilla war in their mountainous home provinces, but after 2010, they metamorphosed into the most powerful military entity in the country, capturing the three largest cities in Yemen. The Houthis quickly fielded advanced weapons they had never before controlled. 

The story of how they moved from small-arms ambushes to medium-range ballistic missiles in half a decade provides a case study of how an ambitious militant group can capture and use a state’s arsenals and benefit from foreign support.

A fact often overlooked has been the Houthis’ thirst for vengeance over the death of their leader: Badr Al-Din Al Houthi who led a regional movement for self-government against Sana’a. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh put a bounty on his head of $55,000 at the time. Hunted down by the General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar’s men – the former powerful commander in chief of Yemen’s 1st Armoured Division turned Vice President under President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Al Houthi was murdered sometime between June of 2004 and the 10th of September 2004. 

To all intents and purposes Yemen is a land of tribes and its relation to the Saudis has been tenuous at best – not only in the loss of its territories in 1934, but in the presence of separate Yemeni tribes that dominate routes into the Saudi peninsula or again access over  water resources along the border. Water has been a substantial problem in recent years as pressure for farmed products has changed needs and destabilized water rights and usage.

Yemen’s Zaidism has played into the conflict insofar as it has always inspired a fierce thirst for independence from foreign meddling.

At first, Abdel Malek  Al Houthi only ever wanted to restore his people’s voice and to reaffirm Yemen’s religious pluralism … that was then back in 2012. Today his ambitions and that of his men have evolved rather dramatically -given depth  by their de facto control over Yemen’s state institutions.

The Houthis’ wars and the rise of a movement

In the first Houthi war, fought from June 22 to September 10, 2004, the group was unable to even defend cave complexes in their native Sa’ada province, with the result that their charismatic military leader Hussein Al Houthi was captured and summarily executed on the battlefield in September 2004. By 2010, the same organization was able to fight the Yemeni government to a standstill in four provinces, seize and hold strategic towns, force entire surrounded brigades into surrender, and carve out tactical footholds inside Saudi Arabian border settlements. This evolutionary transformation was arguably largely due to the counterproductive tactics of the Yemeni government, plus incremental improvements in the traditional soldierly qualities of northern Yemeni tribesmen.

In 2004, the Houthi movement’s armed cadres appear to have been small, numbering in the low hundreds – largely the family, friends, and students of Hussein Al Houthi. From 2005 onward, the numbers of Houthi movement fighters swelled in response to government errors. 

Northern tribes also flocked to the Houthis to gain revenge on common enemies and express tribal solidarity. Indiscriminate government use of heavy artillery and airstrikes resulted in a wave of tribal recruitment for the Houthis from 2006 onward, a reaction to the perception that the government was executing a retaliatory policy against everyone in the Houthi home provinces. The government also alienated tribes by deploying rival clans as auxiliary fighters within their native districts. The Houthi movement was well-placed to absorb and shape this influx of allies because of the aforementioned cross-cutting social relationships developed prior to 2004, notably the tens of thousands of young men sent through Believing Youth summer camps and social or educational programs under the stewardship of  Al Houthi’s sons. War and mutual loss reinforced this spirit of tribal solidarity or cohesive drive against others.

From the outset of fighting in 2004, the Houthi movement was able to field what Barak Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, and Madeleine Wells called “kin-network-based fighting teams.”

These teams have typically been no larger than platoon-sized. The most common ‘guerrilla war’ (harb al-’isabat) tactics employed were ambushes with small-arms fire, sniping, and mines – the time-honored methods used by the same tribes (albeit then with Saudi support) in the 1960s war against Egyptian occupiers. As in the 1960s fighting, extraordinary ruthlessness and brutality was frequently employed by the Houthi movement to punish pro-government tribes, notably the ancient tradition of hostage-taking to ensure compliance.

Over the course of the six wars, Houthi combat operations became progressively more effective and spread beyond Sa’ada province, requiring the Yemeni state to commit greater and greater effort to contain the threat, eventually also drawing the Saudi Arabian military into direct combat operations by 2009.

In the second (March 19 – April 11, 2005) and third (November 30, 2005 – February 23, 2006) wars, the Houthis fought a hit-and-run war of raids, assassinations, ambushes, and guerrilla-type operations in Sana’a.

During the fourth war (January 27 – June 17, 2007), the Houthis developed the defensive resilience to fortify and defend towns against armored attacks using mines, RPGs, and Molotov cocktails. They also mounted larger storming attacks on government complexes, sometimes in company-sized (i.e., 60-90 strong) units. 

In the fifth war (May 2 – July 17, 2008), the Houthi movement was attacking government logistics by controlling or destroying key bridges linking Sana’a to Sa’ada, probing the northern outskirts of Sana’a, and encircling and forcing the withdrawal of Yemeni units of up-to-brigade strength. During this war, the Houthi movement began producing its slick battle report video series, Basha’ ir al-Nasr (Prophecies of Victory).

By the last of the six wars (August 11, 2009 – February 11, 2010), the Houthi movement was confident enough to force the surrender of an entire Yemeni brigade and mount a major assault at battalion strength (i.e., 240-360 strong) with armored vehicles on Sa’ada, seizing parts of the city from the government. The Houthis also initiated offensive raids into Saudi Arabia, undeterred by an unparalleled level of air surveillance and bombardment.

Where late King Abdullah ibn Saud may have chosen financial and political patronage to rein in Yemen’s politico-religious ambitions; pitting the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood against Northern Yemen’s Shia majority, so that somewhere in the middle they would cancel each other out, King Salman’ son: Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman chose another route. 

And so began Yemen’s stand off against Riyadh’s interpretation of Yemen’s socio-political landscape.

Unlike other countries in the Middle East, which, by the makeup of their borders, have grappled with ethnocentrism and sectarianism, Yemen has sat well above the fray, unburdened by such a tug of war. That is until March 2015.

Yemen’s fate as it were, is reminiscent of that of many others across the Islamic world where faith has long been used as a military banner.

Exploded by design along those sectarian lines which for the most part never really were, Yemen’s war theatre has been painted as one of religious divide and theo-imperialism – another manifestation of the infamous Shia-Sunni divide, Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Iran is not the only regional player the Kingdom has been wary of, Qatar’s influence by way of the Muslim Brotherhood has too, been closely monitored and frowned upon.

But a binary analysis of both the region, and in this particular case Yemen, fails to encompass the complexity, fluidity and pluralism that is Yemen, the nation-state.

Yemen’s religious identity cannot be reduced to a sectarian label – not if we are serious about understanding those dynamics, which, for well over 14 centuries, have torn communities apart over competing allegiances.

It is Yemen’s allegiance today which stands the real battle-ground.

Set aside geopolitics and military hunger to consider, even if for a brief moment, that Yemen’s war echoes in fact of a drawn-out battle between two competing “political” legitimacies. At its core, Islam’s schism speaks not of antithetical theologies, but rather a dispute fought over institutional legitimacy and religious legality.

Yemen’s history reflects such a struggle. Yemen’s war holds a mirror to such competing agendas and ambitions.

Another domino to have fallen to the Saudi Arabia – Iran nexus, Yemen has been denied the courtesy of its religious heritage so that its communities could be absorbed into a political construct that claims itself sanctified.

In between Saudi Arabia and Iran

For all the great many attempts to dilute Yemen’s heritage to make its traditions more palatable to an over-bearing Salafist audience, Yemenis’ link to Shia Islam is as old as the tale of its conversion to the Islamic faith – and why not!

Where nations across the Middle East exploded in a grand yearning for democratic reforms, 2011 came to crystallise Yemen’s religious revival – or rather, a people’s desire to return to a system of governance it judges more in sync with its own socio-political ambitions.  It is not that Yemen wishes to be fundamentalist in its religious expression, but rather that its communities’ ambition to mold their own democratic future, in keeping with their own sensitivities. 

Driven by a need to reinvent their nation and more importantly the principles that command and define them as a nation-state following decades of blind nepotism, Yemenis rose in rejection of Saudi Arabia’s intervention as they viewed it as yet another attack against their right to political self-determination – and like magnets they rallied behind the only faction which stood in rejection of it: the Houthis. The Houthis’ popularity is largely by default, and not necessarily by choice.

It is from a yearning for social-justice and political emancipation that Yemen withdrew behind its religious heritage, and there, found a new centre for its national ambitions. One can argue that for a lack of institutional identity and economic prospect Yemenis were essentially forced to return to the one default setting that has united its many tribes: religion.

And finally

Before we ask just how much destruction Yemen has suffered in the current war, and look into those war dynamics, we ought to ask as well just how long will Saudi Arabia be able to sustain its war efforts without irrevocably damaging its own economy and thus precipitate the rise of other regional superpowers – Turkey, Iran.

Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, wrote in 2012 that “fiscal sustainability will be an issue”  for Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In its 2012 regional economic outlook, the IMF recommended to “curtail current expenditures while protecting the poor” as a response to the risk of declining oil prices. 

It is important to remember the unspoken agreement existing in between oil-exporting monarchies and their citizens – the exchange of welfare for political freedom. Should this tentative balance fold under the weight of economic duress, it is likely Saudi Arabia will face dissent both at home and throughout its de facto economic colonies/zone of influence.

The longer the Kingdom wages war in Yemen, the more politically vulnerable the Kingdom will be at home due to economic hardship. More importantly still, a loss in economic status will automatically mean a loss in political capital to Saudi Arabia’s immediate contenders: Iran, Turkey and to some extent Egypt.

It appears evident a bid to politically weaken Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement, the Kingdom has resorted to collective punishment. Only Sana’a has proven to be far more resilient than anticipated.

One can argue that the source of Sana’a endurance in the face of unprecedented, political, economic and military pressures is drawn from its position of perceived defense against Riyadh’s “aggression”. It is pertinent to note that where both the Houthis and Saleh were perceived as self-serving political entities right until 2013, when they began to position themselves against now resigned President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s then-rising regime, the two factions have managed to anchor their power in popular legitimacy, acting as the guardians of Yemen’s sovereign rights and independence.

It is unlikely brute force will dislodge the Houthis. The more foreign powers push against Ansarallah the further the group will assert its position as “freedom fighters” against Saudi Arabian hegemonic ambitions. 

Missing this dynamic will only prevent the promotion of a political settlements and entrench factions within the dynamics of war. 

For all intents and purposes, President Hadi has lost complete legitimacy – not even southern Yemen backs his bid to return. Whatever support Hadi enjoys in Yemen exists in reaction to  the Houthis, not out of any political loyalty. It would therefore be dangerous to anchor any resolution on Hadi’s gravitas since the people will automatically reject it.




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