On the politicisation of hunger – Yemen’s famine is largely artificial

Since war broke in Yemen – late March 2015, the country has walked a treacherous and arduous path, one paved by hunger and disease. More dangerous and cruel than any of the military brutalities Yemen’s warring parties have rained on each other; famine, and its companion, pestilence have mercilessly demanded their fill. 

In 2018 Save the Children reported that over 85,000 children had died since the beginning of the conflict as a direct result of the famine. Since, entire communities have been decimated by hunger, bringing the death toll to dizzying heights. 

In May 2020, UNICEF described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”, and estimated that 80% of the population, over 26 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance.

By contrast, war has been kinder, somewhat less brutal in its haste to lay waste an entire people.

In late 2019 a UN-commissioned report by the University of Denver, Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen,  confirmed that more Yemenis had died of hunger, disease and the lack of health clinics  than from fighting – an estimated 131,000 people.

War in comparison, if ever there should be such comparison, proved responsible for only 100,000 deaths total – a figure published by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED) which tracks confirmed fatalities of war. 

Today 80% of the country’s 30 million stands before a precipice, a precipice one must add which was not only engineered but exploited for political gains. For all the criticism Saudi Arabia’s war coalition may have faced in the past, little has been said of factions’ efforts  to accentuate, perpetuate, and enforce hunger to better dress themselves in Victimhood and from such lofty platforms, demand political vindication.

Yes war crimes have been committed but the blame is shared across the board, so has been factions desire to thwart the distribution of humanitarian aid and other vital necessities (fuel, medicine etc …) to better play up people’s hardship to their political demographic and present themselves as the grand defenders of Yemen and its people.

A report published by Human Rights Watch back in 2017 lifted the veil on such a reality. It read: “The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on imports to Yemen have worsened the dire humanitarian situation of Yemeni civilians. The restrictions, in violation of international humanitarian law, have delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed a critical port, and stopped life-saving goods for the population from entering seaports controlled by opposing Houthi-Saleh forces.”

And,

Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country, have also violated international legal obligations to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians and significantly harmed the civilian population. They have blocked and confiscated aid, denied access to populations in need, and restricted the movement of ill civilians and aid workers.”

To put it more plainly Yemen’s many political warlords have exploited the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis to advance their agendas, and while feigning concern before the media, acted as profiteers  behind closed doors. 

Needless to say that covid-19 and the strain the virus has put on Yemen’s ailing medical services has only further served to exacerbate an already dire situation. Yemen is simply dying … warplanes and factions’ canons are not the only factors contributing to Yemen’s ills – far from it in fact.

Rather it is greed and a morbid hunger for control that have tipped Yemen over the edge. War here has been but a convenient rationale.

And though it may be not morally satisfying for many to admit to the fact that Yemenis’ suffering does not lay solely at the feet of those who chose war as a medium for peace and democratic empowerment, one must note here that Saudi Arabia is only but a cog in a much greater geopolitical machine. It would be intellectually fraudulent NOT to hold responsible those who share in the make-up of Yemen’s fall.

This is not to excuse the many grave abuses committed by Yemen’s warring factions. The realities of war are often bleak and unforgiving … it is in the nature of war to demand blood. Yet, as with everything real answers demand that we look beyond the veneer of political correctness to recognise that many of our political bias and prejudices have blinded us to one rather simple reality: Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has become a weapon of war and control, a tool wielded by politicians to anchor a new form of populist demagoguery, which goal is to drape one party with a convenient halo of moral outrage to better leverage power.

As noted by Jan Egeland, secretary general of the council and a former top U.N. humanitarian relief official on Twitter “Yemenis aren’t falling into starvation … They are being pushed into the abyss by men with guns and power.”

This is not to excuse the many grave abuses committed by Yemen’s warring factions. The realities of war are often bleak and unforgiving … it is in the nature of war to demand blood. 

In an interview with the New York Times earlier this September, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the anti-hunger arm of the United Nations emphasised the gravity of the situation when he noted, “Yemen is absolutely without a doubt our greatest problem area in the world … What’s happening is deplorable, disgraceful.”

Indeed … nearly half of all Yemeni children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition, something that could be rather simply remedied if only there was a will. But Yemen’s ruling elite, on both sides of the river, has proven unbending. 

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is not a by-product of Yemen’s institutional and political failures, and it is solely the result of a protracted military conflict; it was breathed into existence by the very parties which benefit from the political opportunism it represents.

How easy it has been for many to claim national duty and cry concern when they have stood in the way of deliveries, demanding that taxes be levied and aid rerouted so that it would benefit their respective militias?

A UN Panel of Experts reported in June 2017 that the Houthis had earned up to US$1.14 billion from fuel and oil distribution on the black market, and that fuel was “one of the main sources of revenue for the Houthis.” 

Yemen’s humanitarian problems are, while compounded, mostly artificial!

A reign dedicated to peace – Remembering Sultan Qaboos

The longest-serving monarch of the Arab world, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, passed away this January 10, 2020 at the age of 79, ceding power to his cousin and former culture minister: Haitham bin Tariq al-Said. While the smooth transition was welcomed by all – both foreign powers and Omanis, the loss of Sultan Qaboos will leave its mark on his people for years to come.

Made famous for his commitment to peace and his astute ability to maneuver through the most troublesome political waters, Sultan Qaboos is, to all intents and purposes irreplaceable. The new decade is forever poorer for such a loss …

Since news of the Sultan’s death became public, a litany of officials and world leaders made a point at highlighting the legacy he leaves behind, one, which, better than any eulogy could, speaks of the man he was, the world he aspired to build, and the lessons he hoped to impart.

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said,” said UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay. “He will be remembered for his wisdom and vision of peace and development for his country and his endeavors in building a more sustainable planet. His commitment for biodiversity and nature conservation, encapsulated in the UNESCO – Qaboos Prize established some 30 years ago, remains as a legacy for today’s generations and those to come.”

Speaking to the press Queen Elizabeth II noted warmly “Sultan Qaboos’ devotion to Oman, to its development and to the care of his people was an inspiration. He will be remembered for his wise leadership and his commitment to peace and understanding between nations and between faiths. He was a good friend of my family and of the United Kingdom, and we are thankful for all he did to further strengthen the bond of friendship between our countries. My State Visit to Oman in 2010 remains a cherished memory.”

Speaking at his swearing in ceremony the new Sultan of Oman’s tone was one of continuity. 

“The trust in us is great and the responsibilities are great … We will follow the same line as the late sultan and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others.”

For the first time in four decades Oman will sit under the reign of another. Sultan Qaboos rose to power in a bloodless coup against his father in 1970. Educated in the UK, he oversaw something of a revolution in Oman during his reign, guiding the Gulf state in its development from an isolated loner to active member in the Arab League, the United Nations and eventually the World Trade Organization, as well.

Omanis will now have to navigate an unforgiving region without their Sultan, the only leader most of them have ever known. Needless to say that the challenges laid down before the new sultan are as formidable as they are many and protracted, both at home and abroad.

Even more consequential than the sultan’s passing, however, is the fate of his temperate model and dedication to implementing change gradually through regional cooperation. A man defined in tolerance and moderation, Sultan  Qaboos understood more than most how to mitigate risk in a region plagued by instability.

As Bruce Riedel, a U.S. diplomat noted in an article published by Brookings: “Qaboos was the 14th generation of his family ruling Oman. His shoes will be difficult to fill. No successor has the decades of legitimacy and leadership that Qaboos enjoyed, nor the training needed. The disruption in the region due to the crisis over the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani adds to the concerns about the future of the sultanate. He had a unique view toward the Arab-Iranian and Sunni-Shia divide in the Gulf, one that stressed engagement with everyone. I remember seeing Iranian Navy ships in Muscat harbor not far from vessels from the U.K. Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. That unique viewpoint is much needed today. Let’s hope his successor can help us find a way out of the dangerous waters we have recklessly blundered into with Iran.”

 

Yemen’s exiles … millions live in limbo unable to return home

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called on the United States government to extend and redesignate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Yemen, which expires on March 3, 2020, so that those Yemenis who found themselves stranded in the US when the war broke out in late March 2015 would not end up being forcibly deported back home – which home it needs to be said has become a thing of nightmare.

“Given the US role in the Yemen conflict, it would be particularly cruel not to extend TPS for Yemenis in the US,” said Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Washington needs to make clear that it won’t send people back to a country wracked by war and famine.”

While few people will need to be reminded that Yemen remains in the throes of a devastating and brutal war, it is seldom the press has spoken of the millions of Yemenis stuck in exile across the world, more often than not, in abominable conditions due to governments’ refusal to offer due protection and status. In Turkey where many managed to escape due to a kinder visa policy, immigration officials have so far refused to allow Yemeni refugees to obtain work visas, making it virtually impossible for families to meet their needs.

Forced into poverty, tens of thousands have had to rely on hand-outs and work on the black market – a euphemism for human exploitation. 

Refugees in Turkey and Malaysia have reported back-breaking work conditions in factories which equate to slavery to the full knowledge of the local authorities.

Ali Ahmed, a former student in engineering at Sana’a University who escaped to Turkey in early 2016 claims that Turkish local officials are playing the refugee crisis to their advantage, using undocumented migrants to ‘furnish’ rich industrial factories for a fraction of the cost of local labour, in exchange for handsome backhanders. “This is human exploitation at its most basic … we have no choice but to accept whatever work and whatever pay they will give us. And if we refuse there is always the fear of deportation,” said Ali. “It’s not like we can say or do anything. I tried to file a complaint at the UN refugee agency but no one is listening to us, we are invisible,” he added.

Since 2015, reports and investigations have exposed poor wages, discrimination, and child labour by refugees working in the Turkish garment industry. Apart from the widespread use of casual labor, Turkey’s garment industry heavily relies on migrant workers. Long before Syrians and Yemenis arrived in Turkey, garment workshops employed Azeris, Afghans, Uzbeks, and other (domestic and international) migrants who were willing to accept jobs unattractive to local workers. 

For refugees like Ali, exile has become a daily battle for survival. Charities have been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding refugee situation. It is becoming increasingly clear that disinterest is driving the bus.

For all the promises of humanitarian aid the United Nations and other international agencies vowed to deploy in Yemen, few officials have looked into Yemen’s exile crisis. There are an estimated three million Yemenis in exile, of those three million too few were offered asylum under the UNHCR. 

Let me rephrase that … of the 3 million refugees currently waiting for their status to be legalised, the United States accepted only 50 since 2015, and about zero since President Donald Trump entered the White House.

The issue is not merely bureaucratic or political, it stems from complete and utter disinterest in Yemen’s plight. Forgotten and abandoned by a system which ought to have offered refuge and safety, Yemen’s exiled population has been relegated to the shadows.

In Djibouti where the UNHCR erected make-shift camps in a baboon-infested area, families have had to fend for themselves as their tents are regularly torn apart and their food stolen by the wild animals.

To say that the international community is failing its mandate is a gross understatement – at what point should carelessness qualify as a crime against humanity?

Because countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia systematically refuse to revisit Yemenis’ application for work and residence thousands of families have been made vulnerable to human traffickers, prostitution rings and other criminal organisations – not to mention religious radicals who would love nothing more but to coerce a few more souls to their dogmatic ways.

Several families in Malaysia are said to have contemplated selling their organs to make ends meet. The Yemen Organisation for Combating Human Trafficking, a Sanaa-based non-governmental organisation documented 300 cases of organ sales in Egypt as of September 2017. Malaysian sources have claimed this number to run to several thousands as of September 2019. 

While organ trafficking largely predates Yemen’s war, it is clear that desperation and the ever-pressing need for cash has forced many exiles to resort to such measures to survive. Elham al-Dulaimi, a doctor at the University of Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera in an interview back in 2017 that he has documented cases in which Egyptian hospitals have bought organs from Yemenis for $5,000 and then sold them to affluent customers from the Gulf or Western countries for nearly $100,000. 

Those stories of course have seldom pierced through the thick screen of self-censorship which seems to become the new ‘normal’. After all Yemen’s holds a mirror to the international community few officials have dared looked into …

This article was published first in the New Eastern Outlook

The Depletion of Yemen’s cultural capital

There is an important aspect of the war in Yemen has been so far ignored – under sustained bombing Yemen, an important world historical, religious and cultural landmark has seen its patrimony and its heritage disappeared, exploded and overall annihilated.

Whether such a campaign is by design or by default remains to be determined. It is nevertheless important at this stage to recognise that such loss of national cultural capital will gravely, and irrevocably affect the future of the impoverished nation – and beyond, that of the entire region.

The loss of historical landmarks – mosques, shrines, UNESCO listed landmarks, museums and other precious reminders of Yemen’s rich and buoyant cultural makeup will weigh heavy on both the economy and the country’s socio-religious fabric. Without a past to hold on to and associate with, without landmarks to remind a people of the bonds which unite them and make them who they are as a nation-state, Yemen could be claimed, and re-invented by such groups as al Qaeda, or ISIS.

Yemen, a country with three UNESCO world heritage sites – the Historic Town of Zabid, the Old City of Sana’a and the Old Walled City of Shibam – and a further ten on the organisation’s tentative list, has suffered greatly since March 2015. As well as the large-scale loss of life, important historic sites have been severely damaged, more often than not, intentionally.

Countless other sites and cities are at risk of annihilation: Al Qahira Castle in Taiz, (10th century) which suffered damage during an airstrike in June 2015 according to UNESCO. And then Taiz museum in 2016 when a fire engulfed the premises.

The Old City of Sa’ada – founded in the 9th century and on UNESCO’s list – has also seen a number of its historic buildings destroyed. Sa’ada, like Sana’a, is of worldwide cultural importance due to the extensive survival of its medieval architecture – including its city wall and 16 gateways, houses, palaces and mosques – and its importance as an early centre of Islamic learning. Sa’ada has almost completely disappeared under Saudi fire.

In July 2015, an emergency action plan for the safeguarding of Yemen’s heritage was announced by UNESCO, with the goal of raising awareness, gathering information and providing technical assistance to heritage experts in Yemen.

In July 2015 the Old City of Sana’a and the Old Walled City of Shibam were added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger – in reaction to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war.

The UNESCO-listed residential neighbourhood of Fulayihi quarters has been hit by airstrikes.

A study conducted by the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in collaboration with the Islamic Heritage Foundation established disturbing bombing patterns leading them to the conclusion that sites were being systematically targeted.

Speaking to the Middle East Eye in September 2015, Anna Paolini, UNESCO’s representative for the Gulf countries and Yemen slammed the kingdom for its intentional targeting of historical sites, warning that unless stopped such systematic destruction could claim more precious and irreplaceable sites.

In August 25, 2016, the ninth-century mosque of the Prophet Shuaibi in the Bani Matar area of Sana’a, was destroyed by an air strike. The country’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums and the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities confirmed the destruction.

Beyond the evident loss of patrimony, questions pertaining to the intent behind such campaign beg answering. Should Yemen’s cultural, religious and historical heritage had been declared war on, as part of asymmetrical military campaign strategy, such actions might be categorised under war crimes.

Movable heritage has also suffered severe losses, as in the case of the Dhamar Museum, which used to host a collection of 12,500 artifacts, and which was completely destroyed in May 2015.

Taiz National Museum also suffered many attacks – ancient manuscripts were damaged and and historic documents were burned.

More troubling still is the long term impact and social repercussions such a loss will carry to Yemen the nation-state. If we bear in mind that such radical groups as Daesh aka ISIL/ISIS or al Qaeda have been worked to erase History so that they could rise their own dystopian and warped religious and socio-cultural markers, Yemen could be made ready for a re-engineering of sort.

In August 2016 the Director General of UNESCO, Irana Bokova described Yemenis’ plight accurately saying: “It is evident that the destruction of their culture directly affects the identity, dignity and future of the Yemeni people, and moreover their ability to believe in the future.”

It has been unable so far to assess financial losses as such as teams have yet to investigate the extent of the damage. Economically speaking, Yemen is expected to suffer a dramatic income loss on its tourism industry for years to come – maybe permanently in some cases.

In an interview Amin Jazilan, former director general of Ibb tourism office confirmed that prior up until March 25, 2016 Yemen tourism industry was well set to exceed yearly expectations. “According to Yemen Tourism Ministry, the tourism industry generated an annual income of $848 million in 2012 as opposed to $780 million in 2011,” he noted.

The war in Yemen has cost so far an average of $6 billion per month or $200 million per day. If such resources were spent towards reconstruction Yemen’s future would be secured.

The Yemen War: capitalism and the rise of a Black economy

Yemen has become yet another domino to fall in a well-organised terrorist system in which human misery is a tradable commodity. Take a look at the broader region, particularly those countries which have suffered at the hands of  radicals, and we see a disturbing pattern emerging: Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen, all these countries have seen vulnerable communities targeted by sex traffickers and their children sold into a system which profits and draws satisfaction from child abuse and dehumanisation.

Systemic sexual abuse is conducted by terrorist militants for three purposes: to strike fear into the heart of communities, for self-gratification, and for financial gain.  Behind every abuse and every abuser has towered a system which has strived for, benefited from and leaned on sexual enslavement to assert its dominance.

As world powers continue to argue Yemen’s future – often by speaking over Yemenis, rather than to them – a great tragedy has unfolded, unspoken and unchallenged.

For a country which has already lost too many of its sons and daughters to war, seeing its children and young people stolen by the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS is one abomination too many.

So far, and due to the nature of these crimes, communities have been reluctant to come forward. Stigma, fear of social exclusion, fear of repercussions, shame, and distrust of the media, have driven many families to keep silent.  Still, a few brave souls have now decided to break this unspoken code of silence, albeit under the cover of anonymity, so that abusers can be outed and victims rescued.

Hundreds of children – mainly young girls aged 6 to 15 – have been kidnapped across Yemen, to be sold as sex slaves by al-Qaeda’s trafficking network.

Tribal sources in Abyan – a former stronghold of al-Qaeda, which also happens to be President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s home province – have confirmed that children have been trafficked out of south Yemen through Mukalla and the seaport of Aden by militants affiliated to Al Qaeda.

Yemen’s run-in with human trafficking has run parallel to the rise of terrorism.

In 2014 the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report read:

“Yemen is a country of origin and, to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour, and women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Some Yemeni children, mostly boys, migrate to the Yemeni cities of Aden and Sana’a, or travel across the northern border to Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, to Oman, where they are subjected to forced labour in domestic service, small shops, or as beggars. Some of these children are forced into prostitution by traffickers, border patrols, other security officials, and their employers once they arrive in Saudi Arabia; some children are forced to smuggle drugs into Saudi Arabia.”

With the collusion of its patrons, Al Qaeda has built up an entire shadow economy generating millions of dollars through the exploitation of children.

As Yemen remains entrenched in a protracted and multi-fronted military conflict, socio-political dynamics as well as economic realities have evolved, and shifted to reflect needs – more often than not, to the detriment of civilian populations.

If war in Yemen has brought a litany of suffering, it has also opened-up financial “opportunities”; de facto allowing for the rise of a Black Economy.

While it has often been assumed that only the Houthis  have dabbled in less than holistic activities to sustain their war efforts, whereas all factions, on both sides of the fence, have had a hand in the looting of Yemen’s sovereign economy, in clear violation of the law – national and international.

Since war broke out, the Houthi-Saleh/GPC alliance [General People’s Congress, former ruling party) has transformed and evolved into a state-like construct whereby the two forces: comprised both of a para-military and political branches, joined together into an organic third entity, which purpose has been to survive the military onslaught by ensuring financial survival.

It is also worth noting that a certain fluidity has been observed between self-proclaimed warring factions as far as financial interests are concerned. Where very clear lines might have existed in the early stages of the conflict, in that individuals, tribal entities, political factions and coalition groups sat on very distinct shores, needs, and an imperious desire to generate money to overpower the opposition, have often led opposite sides to negotiate ‘access’.

For example: weapon dealers based in South Yemen – in those areas under tacit Saudi control – have smuggled weapons and ammunition to North Yemen via old tribal trading routes, as well as diesel, and other supplies. While such activities betray immediate military interests, it appears war has created too much of a lucrative space for any one party to ignore – safe maybe from those invested in peace.

Yemen’s descent into socio-economic, political, and to a greater extent: sovereign instability, since territoriality and national identity have been put under great stress as a result of a new rising narrative of war: sectarianism, tribalism and regionalism, has empowered radical elements within Yemen. The likes of Al Qaeda have been handed an ever-expanding space to thrive. Out of every vacuum this war has created, it is al-Qaeda and ultimately its patrons which have risen stronger still.

Yemen’s war has become too much of a liability to regional stability for parties to still entertain the notion that a further military entrenchment will generate positive results. War at this stage is a blessing for Al Qaeda and those parties benefiting from the annihilation of Yemen’s national sovereignty. Such an eroding of Yemen’s nation-state could have terrible repercussions, since it could allow for the rise of another socio-political system – that of the Islamic Caliphate.

Beyond all blame and culpability Yemen’s biggest threat remains Terror.

 

 

 

 

Yemen’s Timeline – An Overview

The unrest in Yemen is not a single conflict but is instead a mosaic of multifaceted regional, local, and international power struggles that are the legacy of recent and long-past events. The following timeline offers readers a summarised overview of Yemen’s many struggles and ills.

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1918 – Yemen’s modern political history realistically began with its independence from the Ottoman Empire, following which North Yemen came to be ruled by Imam Yahya.

While Imam Yahya safeguarded North Yemen’s territorial integrity, tensions among several of tribes, and various factions’ pursuit of power, prevented the nation from truly developing meaningful state institutions, at least in a manner which would have offered political continuity and stability.

To a great extent old tribal upsets have plagued North Yemen, forever preventing the acceptance of an overarching political entity – that of the state. 

1948 – Ahmad ibn Yahya inherits the reins of power from his father amid growing calls for an end to the feudal rule.

1962 – Following Ahmad’s death, high ranking military officials break ranks to establish the Yemen Arab Republic – largely under the influence of pan-Arabism. This begins North Yemen’s civil war which sees Saudi Arabia (royalist) and Egypt (republican) battle for influence.

1970 – North Yemen’s republican forces win a long war of attrition against the royalists, putting the newly formed Republic on a crash course with its theocratic neighbour: Saudi Arabia. From then on, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will look at Yemen with much unease and concern.

1972 – As North Yemen’s various factions battle for political power, skirmishes at the border with South Yemen – then under control Communist rule, reach new heights.

1978 – Ali Abdullah Saleh becomes President of North Yemen. He will remain in power for three decades.

1986 – Following a mini civil war, Haidar Abu Bakr Al Attas, then Prime Minister of the People Democratic of Yemen (South Yemen), begins negotiating the reunification of Yemen with President Saleh.

1990 – North and South Yemen unite under the presidency of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, marking the end of the communist era in the Arabian Peninsula. Before it fell to the control of the communist party South Yemen was under British rule (1969).

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1994 May-July – Yemen sees a violent but short-lived attempt by southerners to secede, under the leadership of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) from the newly formed Republic of Yemen. Backed by Saudi Arabia, Ali Abdullah Saleh breaks the southern secessionist movement. This victory will allow the Saleh clan to consolidate its hold over Yemen’s state institutions and economy.

The short civil war left the YSP in political shambles, thus allowing control to fall within the hands of the General People’s Congress (Saleh’s political faction) and Al Islah (a loose coalition of Islamists and tribes loyal to Al Ahmar clan).

Over the next few years, the effort to reorganize politics and to strengthen the voice of the south in Yemen’s political life was hampered in part by the inability of the YSP to resuscitate itself; at the same time, strained relations within the GPC (Saleh’s General People’s Congress) / adn Al Iṣlaḥ coalition led to increasing dominance by the GPC and to an oppositional stance on Al Iṣlaḥ’s part. The political conflict and unrest that accompanied and followed the civil war marked by a thinning of political freedom and subsequent religious radicalisation under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood whose members found protection under Al Islah’s political umbrella.

This tension between Yemen’s political and tribal factions has plagued Yemen’s political discourse and prevented many efforts towards national reconciliation. 

For three decades, Yemen now saw the reelection of Ali Abdullah Saleh at the presidency. Saleh’s rule, like that of many of his contemporaries,  was to be marked by nepotism, corruption and political manipulation.

While President Saleh maintained relatively close ties to Saudi Arabia – often benefiting from Al Saud financial largesse, his decision during the 1st Gulf War to support then-President Saddam Hussain (Iraq) marked a sharp turnaround in Riyadh-Sana’a relations.

Arguably Saudi Arabia will never completely forgive Saleh’s ‘betrayal’ and would learn to look at Yemen with much suspicion indeed. 

Thus began a long game of cat and mouse between Saleh and Al Saud for control over Yemen’s politics and economic future.

2004 – The Houthis emerged out of Yemen’s mountainous far north from ‘Believing Youth,’ a revivalist Zaidi movement fuelled by local fears of encroachment by Sunni ideologies. Under threat of ‘absorption’ by the Muslim Brotherhood, several Zaidi tribal leaders decided to come together and fight. 

While initial fighting was largely limited to the Houthi strongholds of Sa’ada,  it soon spread to the province of Amran and al-Jawf, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

Though kept in check under Saleh’s presidency, the Houthis grew both in strength and ambition, and continued to do so in 2012 as President Hadi (a member of the GPC and successor to Saleh)  looked to consolidate his rule through a series of alliances aimed to counter Al Islah’s political ambitions.

January 27, 2011 – On the back of Egyptians’ call for regime change protesters in Sanaa decide to mobilise against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, asking for his resignation and new elections after three decades in power.

September 12, 2011 – Saleh signs a document giving Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi special power to negotiate a transition of power under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Joint Meeting Parties – Yemen’s political opposition parties.

December 2011 – Saleh announces that he handed power over to his designated Vice President, Hadi, under the terms of the GCC-brokered transition of power initiative (see here for the full text).

January 2012 – Saleh and several of his close allies and family members are given full immunity by parliament.

February 21, 2012 – Hadi is confirmed president of Yemen in a one-man “election”. His term is set for two years, during which he will oversee Yemen’s institutional and political transition in keeping with the National Dialogue Conference resolutions.

January 2014 – Members of the NDC (National Dialogue Conference) reach a tentative agreement in the capital Sana’a. The terms of a draft constitution are finally ironed out so that Yemen can finalize its transition of power.

September 2014 – The Houthis reach Sana’a following a blazing campaign against Al Islah in the highlands. Abdel Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement, calls on Hadi to commit to the implementation of all NDC resolutions, per the January 2014 agreement. A deal is signed in Sana’a and a new coalition government is formed.

January 2015 –  Following months of political wrangling and rising tensions Hadi announces his resignation. His entire cabinet resigns. Hadi and several ministers are immediately put under house arrest by the Houthis as Jamal Benomar, then-UN Special Envoy to Yemen, attempts to return all parties to the negotiating table.

February 2015 – Hadi flees Sana’a for Aden (former capital of South Yemen), where he announces Aden as the new capital of Yemen, essentially splitting Yemen in two. Sana’a becomes a diplomatic ghost town as all foreign embassies withdraw their diplomats from the city.

March 2015 – The United States of America announces the evacuation of its troops from Al Anad airbase near Aden.

March 25, 2015 -Saudi Arabia unilaterally launched an attack on Yemen with the backing of eight Arab countries — Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — and the support of the United States and European Union under UN Resolution 2216.

 

 

 

Including women could offer Yemen a way out of violence

For the greater part of its republican history (the Yemen Arab Republic was established in 1962) Yemen has been plagued by recurrent and emerging armed conflicts, terrorism, radicalisation, record levels of mass displacement of population, famine and disease. 

While Yemen’s crisis is dire, it is symptomatic of a wide-spread malaise. Our 21st century has been defined in terms of violence and political instability, and as data shows, standard peace-making methods have proven ineffective at addressing such trends –  nearly half of the conflict-resolution agreements forged during the 1990s have failed within five years of their signing.

Recidivism rates for civil wars are alarmingly high, with 90 percent of civil wars in the 2,000’s occurring in countries that had already experienced civil war during the previous thirty years. It is this reality all actors engaged in brokering Yemen’s peace must grapple with and overcome. For Yemen to attain peace and security, new thinking is needed.

Perhaps Yemen’s solution may lie with the one demographic that has been systematically overlooked: women. 

Back in 2016 the World Bank estimated Yemen’s female population as 49.8 percent of Yemen’s total population. Today the balance is believed to have tipped in favour of women to just over 51 percent.

Ignored, unrepresented, and abandoned, the women of Yemen, as the song goes, have remained ‘unspoken’, and yet it is women who have born the brunt of the conflict. 

As of 2018 the United Nations claims that 76 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are women and children, and an estimated 3 million women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence. While only a year has passed since the publication of these numbers, women’ suffering and vulnerability have skyrocketed – spurred on by an escalation in violence as militias have pushed the boundaries of the tolerable to reinvent themselves in the unspeakable cruelty of radicalism.

While many will dismiss the thought of women’s socio-political engagement by arguing the need to prioritise issues of national security, Yemen’s dismissal of women as powerful actors for change, stability and growth is what led Yemen to unravel so completely under the thumbs of armed religious ideologues.

A growing body of research suggests that women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution advances security interests. One study found that substantial inclusion of women and civil society groups in a peace negotiation makes the resulting agreement 64 percent less likely to fail and, according to another study, 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years. Higher levels of gender equality are associated with a lower propensity for conflict, both between and within states. Despite growing international recognition of women’s role in security, their representation in peace and security processes has lagged.

Strengthening women’s participation in a country such as Yemen, which suffers from a litany of overlapping and interrelated issues, could allow for strides to be made towards stability as well as cementing much needed socio-economic advancement – in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which formally acknowledges the benefits of women’s participation.

Women can offer unique, substantive, and measurable contributions to securing and keeping peace. And although traditional efforts by governments and nongovernmental organisations to combat radicalisation typically focus on reaching out to political or religious leaders – who are predominantly male  – recent research shows that antiterrorism messages are effectively disseminated through families and communities by women, who are well placed to challenge extremist narratives in homes, schools, and social environments, and have particular influence among the young.

The 2016 joint U.S. State Department / U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) strategy to counter violent extremism around the world explicitly recognized that women’s groups can help to identify and address the drivers of violent extremism within their families, communities, and societies.  Yemen could greatly gain by including and empowering women – to the benefit of all, including regional actors. 

High levels of women’s participation have proven to overwhelmingly strengthen state institutions while boosting financial growth all the while reducing levels of poverty, Yemen absolutely ought to aggressively bridge its gender deficit – if anything is to guarantee that peace will hold once it is brokered.

But minds would need reforming. Yemen’s tribal and patriarchal social norms are key factors contributing to women’s exclusion from both the political arena and the work-force.

Female access to paid employment has been challenged by a widely-held belief that women’s primary role is domestic, rather than academic or entrepreneurial.  Such thinking has kept women in a state of social and political infancy, putting Yemen at a severe disadvantage in comparison to other countries. Yemen has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world, and yet it is signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

According to an ILO labor force survey conducted in 2013-2014, only 6 percent of women participated in the labour force prior to the conflict, while just 7 percent of jobs were held by women. Since 2015 women have been further pushed to the edge of society – their plight heightened by radicals’ cries for absolute gender segregation.

Yemen’s future will depend on how its officials shape Yemen’s peace. War cannot last forever. That said, to end a war does not equate with stability, and ultimately it is stability that Yemen most craves if it is to rebuild and thrive.

And until decision-makers come to terms with the fact that Yemen’s future will be most likely written by its women, this impoverished nation will forever chase its tail.

 

 

 

 

 

Building a Lasting Peace in Yemen by Getting Ahead of the Generational Gap

While Yemen remains locked in a grand political dispute, its people bound by the competing ambitions of various factions and militias, it is likely that peace will require more than a coming together of those warring parties … Peace will call for an institutional rethink of the proverbial ‘generation gap’.

Waves of protest are currently engulfing not only the region (Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq) but the world (Chile, Hong Kong and Barcelona). And while each country faces its own socio-political problems, all have a common denominator: a disenfranchised and disillusioned youth.

And though Yemen’s peace will undoubtedly be brokered when all actors – whether local or regional, find enough common ground to formulate a political solution to their respective upsets, no resolution will be worth more the ink with which it’s written if Yemen’s generation gap remains unaddressed.

Though statesmen can formulate a nation’s future, it is the people who ultimately determine how such a future actually turns out. Today Yemen needs a vision which will allow its youth to look into the future with confidence, strong in the knowledge that tangible actions are being taken to address their most immediate needs.

Interestingly enough Yemen offers a perfect demographic mirror to what is fast becoming a global challenge – there are more young people than ever (41% of the world population) and almost all share a common fear of a future scarred and marred by economic inequalities, social grievances, and a lack of true political representation.

Yemen has the youngest population in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, with three-quarters of its population under the age of 30, and so Yemen is today the most vulnerable state of them all.

Give the effect that war exacerbated poverty, a complete meltdown of all civil institutions, and the pressure internal population displacement has had on cities such as Sanaa and Aden, it appears evident that Yemen’s political future and its very viability as a nation-state hinges on its political elite’s ability to meet pressing socio-economic demands.

Over 20% of Yemen‟s population is aged between 15 and 24 and, according to UN estimates, by 2025 that will have increased by 69% – the second fastest growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Yemen also has high rates of illiteracy and together with Egypt and Iraq, holds three-quarters of the 10 million illiterate youth in the region – two-thirds of whom are girls.

Yemen’s pre-existing social deficit, the profound lack of basic services such as housing, education, healthcare, sanitation and jobs, has been compounded by political volatility, religious radicalisation, armed conflicts, shortages of food and water and dwindling natural resources as a consequence of mismanagement and corruption. And though those issues are currently swamped by the politics of war, at least as far as the media are concerned, those realities will ultimately determine the true face of post-war Yemen.

A strong causality exists in between poverty and radicalisation – whether political or religious, even more so among the youth, and more still among the uneducated youth.

In the face of such challenges Yemen truly sits in the eye of a dangerous storm … Needless to say it does not sit there alone. Whatever upheavals Yemen faces in the coming months and years will dramatically impact the Gulf region.

Yemen’s saving grace may lie in the state’s ability to apply itself to long-term development goals – preferably in keeping with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Priority should be given to increasing and strengthening educational and economic development opportunities for the young, with a focus on improving female participation.

Funds should be devoted to ensuring increased educational access for girls, and employment opportunities should be centered on manufacturing industry, services and other new, expanding sectors, rather than on agriculture and the civil service.

Concrete steps must be taken to redress former failures. After all, there will be little left to argue over if Yemen ceases to exist as a sovereign state, notwithstanding the nightmare policing a failed state would turn out to be for Yemen’s immediate neighbours.

This article was first published in New Eastern Outlook

Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood Remains the Biggest Obstacle Towards Peace

The elephant in the room that no one wishes to directly address Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, also known as Al Islah party has become the single biggest impediment to peace. Unlike many of its political counterparts who remain willing to compromise to see an end to the violence and bloodshed, the Brotherhood has adopted a contrarian attitude, choosing instead to pursue socio-political hegemony by actively foiling peace negotiations, promoting divisions and sectarianism while carrying out acts of senseless violence against civilians to better play into the anti-Saudi narrative within Yemen proper.

And though no one is under any impression that Yemen’s war has not been the scene of atrocious abuses by all warring factions – each caught in the rationale of their own respective ‘legitimacy’, Al Islah has inflicted pain on Yemen … all in the name of political survival and a heightened sense of entitlement.

Very much the poisoned well many came to drink to in view of leveraging their position, Al Islah has plotted so that its men could eventually rise to the very height of power and claim the very seat which for decades has eluded them – the presidency it needs to be said is Al Islah’s end-game. Or rather the platform which its ‘practitioners’ intend to use to mould Yemen to their image: one of radicalism.

A remnant of the former government’s political, social, and religious hierarchy, Al Islah has already proven it is willing to sacrifice however many men, women and children is required to manifest its ambitions. In Taiz such rationale has resulted in Al Islah’s unholy alliance with Al Qaeda and many of its offshoots, all the while utilising its contacts to both Ansarallah and President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s supporters to prevent the formulation of any resolution to the overdrawn military stand-off.

A former stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood the city of Taiz has long become centrestage to a destructive power struggle between the many factions which laid claim to Yemen. As war has ravaged the impoverished nation the southern city of Taiz has become a perfect representation of the complexity of Yemen’s war. At the heart of it all is Al Islah – a dangerous power-broker with links to Terror and a well-documented propensity to play out those connections to better arm wrestle officials into complying with their wishes.

Let us not forget that Sheikh Abdel Majeed Al Zindani, who, since 2004 has been listed by the United States as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”, is still numbered among Al Islah’s most senior leaders.

Made strong by the chaos which war created, Al Islah has oftentimes, since late March 2015, flaunted its ties to Al Qaeda, mainly on social media, but somehow few ever clued up to the ramifications of such an admission of collusion in narrative and politics … not even Hadi felt he ought to create distance.

For a lack of support within Yemen, Hadi has often turned and leaned on Al Islah to prop up his fading base and thus hold onto the title he well knows is as hollow as his claim of return to the presidential helm.

The Muslim Brotherhood first emerged in Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s, when UN-sanctioned Abdel Majeed al-Zindani – the founder of the Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen – led a group of clerics to establish a religious schooling system in northern Yemen. When Yemen was united in 1990 the group then decided to reinvent itself as a coalition by opening its ranks to like-minded individuals, all seated in different places within the spectrum of religious radicalism. Saudi Arabia designated Al Islah as a terrorist organization in 2014.

The risk today is that the Brotherhood through its medium: Al Islah will attempt a re-enactment of the 1980s Jihadist movement which eventually led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the subsequent rise of the Taliban.

By limiting our analyses to the actions of Saudi Arabia’s war coalition, Ansarallah and to some extent the Southern Transition Council we are truly closing our eyes to a serpent which patiently awaits to strike.

Despite the chasm that still stands between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis both parties remain committed to brokering an acceptable peace. The same cannot be said of the Muslim Brotherhood since the faction’s very existence is articulated around the formulation of an enemy and the need to wage war against that enemy.

Today the Brotherhood is playing the populist card, hiding itself behind a convenient narrative of false morality, nationalism, and calls for reparation in the face of disturbingly rampant human rights violations.

Tawakkul Karman, a long-time member and poster child of the Brotherhood has often used her fame to argue against any and all rapprochement between warring factions on the basis, she claims, their will is not that of the ‘people’.

A well-oiled dogmatic machine the Brotherhood should not be discounted … as often in times of great unrest it is those who can best hold onto order and efficiency who will ultimately seize power.

Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood exists today in political suspension as it waits to see what fate will strike its opponents. To look away now would be to condemn Yemen to the fate which befell Afghanistan … hopefully this time around we will learn from History and not allow another pocket of radicalism to claim territories to its name.

This article was first published in the New Eastern Outlook 

The Houthis’ grand military complex – A movement defined in battles

If the Houthis movement was initially structured as a conduit for positive social advancement in the Highlands as well as a mean to reaffirm Yemen’s very own religious idiosyncrasy: Zaidism, the past two decades have transformed this once aspirational outfit into a veritable military apparatus, one capable of wielding the most deadly of weapons and acquire high grade military technology.

In less than two decades the Houthis managed to rise themselves a military power capable of challenging not one army but a coalition of armies made up of several superpowers – beyond that, and because the movement is not constrained by those diplomatic and political ties which force nations to play according to well-established rules, its leadership has been freed to act out guerilla-type operations against its designated enemies. 

2018 marked a decisive change in direction as the Houthis moved away from a typical resistance set-up, confined within the borders of Yemen nation-state, to redefine their war efforts in direct retaliation. Rather than push against Saudi Arabia’s military coalition, the Houthis chose to bring on their homeground, war was brought to the Kingdom by way of drone attacks and ballistic missiles. 

And though many of the attacks have been choppy and ill-directed, the Houthis are honing their skills, making them terrifying enemies indeed, if anything by virtue of their learning curve.

  • On January 5, 2018, Saudi state-owned media confirmed the kingdom’s defence forces intercepted a Houthi missile over the Najran province, on the southern border with Yemen, before it could hit its intended target. Keen to advertise their new reach the Houthis took to Twitter, saying its military arm had a “successful launch of a short range ballistic missile at a military target in Saudi Arabia”.
  • On March 31, 2018, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired by the Houthis targeting the southern city of Najran.
  • On June 24, 2018, Saudi Arabia confirmed its air defence forces intercepted and destroyed two Houthi ballistic missiles over Riyadh.
  • On July 25, 2018, The Houthis  attacked a Saudi oil tanker in the Red Sea, causing slight damage, according to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition.
  • On August 9, 2018, Saudi Arabia intercepted two missiles fired by the Houthis at its southern Jizan province, the official Saudi Press Agency quoted a military spokesman as saying. Al Masirah TV reported that the Houthis had fired a number of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, targeting the border provinces of Jizan and Asir.
  • On April 3, 2019, the Saudi Arabia war coalition said it intercepted two drones launched by the Houthis towards the city of Khamis Mushait. Spokesman Colonel Turki Al Maliki said debris caused by the interception of the two drones wounded five civilians in the city.
  • On May 14, 2019, Saudi Arabia confirmed armed drones struck two of its oil-pumping stations west of Riyadh. The Aramco East-West pipeline, stretching across the country to the port and oil terminal at Yanbu, was damaged in two places.
  • On May 20, 2019, the Saudi military said it shot down two ballistic missiles reportedly heading towards the cities of Jeddah and Mecca. The Houthis denied their missiles were targeting Mecca, a pilgrimage site some 70km (43.5 miles) from Jeddah and 50km (31 miles) from Taif. 
  • On June 12, 2019, the Houthis fired a missile at Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia, wounding 26 civilians in the building’s arrivals hall, according to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition. The coalition says a projectile hit the arrivals hall at Abha airport, causing material damage. Three women and two children were among the wounded, it adds, noting that they were of Saudi, Yemeni and Indian nationalities.
  • On June 17, 2019, the Houthis launched a drone attack targeting Abha airport, the group’s Al Masirah TV says. There is no immediate Saudi confirmation of the attack.
  • On June 20, 2019,  the Houthis hit a power station in Jizan province with a cruise missile Al Masirah TV said. The coalition confirmed shortly after that a desalination plant in al-Shuqaiq city had suffered an attack but that no damage had been recorded.
  • On July 2, 2019, a new Houthi attack on Abha airport wounded nine civilians.
  • On August 1, 2019, the Houthis fired a long-range missile at the port city of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of kilometres away from Yemen.
  • On August 5, 2019, the Houthis launched several drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Airbase and Abha and Najran airports.
  • On August 17, 2019, a drone attack claimed by the Houthis sparked a fire in a remote oil and gas field in eastern Saudi Arabia. A Houthi military spokesman noted at the time that the group targeted the Shaybah oilfield with 10 drones, calling it the “biggest attack in the depths” of the kingdom. Saudi Aramco said the attack caused no casualties or disruption to production.
  • On August 25, 2019, the Houthis said they fired 10 Badr-1 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport, killing and wounding dozens. The coalition said it intercepted and destroyed at least six ballistic missiles fired by the group targeting civilians in Jizan, in the southwest of the kingdom. It gives no details about casualties or damage.
  • On August 26, 2019, Houthi militants claimed to have attacked a military target in Riyadh. According to a spokesman for the rebels, the attack was carried out with an armed drone. Saudi Arabia denies there was an attack by the Houthis.
  • On September 10, 2019, the coalition forces intercepted a drone over Yemen’s Saada province, Saudi Press Agency reports.
  • On September 14, 2019, drone attacks claimed by the Houthis caused fires at two major oil facilities run by Saudi Aramco. Citing a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, the official Saudi Press Agency said the blazes at the facilities in Abqaiq – home to the company’s largest oil processing plant – and Khurais were under control.

For all intents and purposes the Houthis, outside of their self-declared political mandate in Yemen have long outgrown the title of ‘rebel force’ or ‘militia’ we continue to assign them … by virtue of its reach and the weaponry the group has acquired since it first defined its agenda in armed struggle (2004) Ansarallah has become a de facto potent military power.

In a report published in the Washington Institute on September 2018, Michael Knight noted: “The Houthi rebels 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, including many of Iranian origin. 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 Iran’s support.”

If we consider the Houthis’ growth span and the speed with which the group has manifested its power over North Yemen – often it needs to be said for a lack of clear opposition and/or resistance, it is evident that the Ansarallah movement has become an unparalleled contender in this race for absolute power over Yemen’s institutions.

Marieke Brandt summarised the Houthis’ key to success best when she writes in 2013: “The Houthis rebellion works through carefully developed plans and brilliant moves on the chessboard. They rely on alliances, both secret and openly visible … The Houthis strategy is based on a precise knowledge of the local tribes and on widespread social presence in their areas; they set up a tight network of checkpoints and patrol in the hamlets in operations that local sources describe as Houthis operations to feel the tribe’s pulse.”

If the Gulf coalition imagined it would have quickly dislodged the Houthis and thus restore Yemen’s First Republic, it greatly underestimated its adversary’s ability to adapt, transform, and absorb state resources to sustain its advances. Since becoming a state-level actor with powerful international allies for example, the Houthis have been effective in recruiting, motivating, and training forces to fight in its military. As for the remaining resources of northern Yementaxes, printing of currency, and manipulation of fuel market – they have been poured into sustaining Ansarallah’s military and political efforts.

Beyond that, the Houthis have sustained support to their ‘cause’ through indoctrination, often targeting the young and those made most vulnerable to both replenish and reinforce the movement’s base. According to Amnesty International, Ansarallah imposes recruiting quotas in the areas it controls and will discipline clans who default. 

A formidable machine the Houthis have become all what North Yemen know and operate under.

The Ansarallah movement – A Political Genesis

The emergence of the Houthis/Ansarallah movement in Yemen’s Highlands is a complex process which cannot be reduced to its sectarian component, but also features political and social aspects. 

In the Sa’ada area, the elite transformations which were triggered by the 1962 revolution led to the empowerment of certain tribal leaders at the expense of the sayyids (title for the descendants of the Prophet), the religious and administrative elite of the former Shia Zaidi Imamate. This new tribal elite was subsequently reinforced and cemented through the politics of patronage exerted by the central republican government, often at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

In the Sa’ada area, the political and economic patronage of certain shaykhs and the development ostracism of large parts of the average population resulted in economic imbalances and a vastly unjust distribution of economic resources, mainly because a small group of people began to control a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power.

Social unrest was further aggravated by the spread of radical Islam. Zaidis and Salafis have increasingly crossed swords over the decades – even more so when Salafis took in the habit of inciting local communities to rise against the prominence of the ‘sayyids’ and other centuries-old Zaidi traditions their clergy deemed un-Islamic and thus nefarious.

As confrontations became more and more intense in their violence (beginning of the 1980s) the state took a predominantly Sunni-friendly position, a move which surprised many since President Saleh and most of his family members hailed from Zaidi Islam themselves. 

It is against the backdrop of such a sectarian discourse that the Houthis defined themselves in opposition of the central government and by extension the Republic – at least as formulated under President Saleh. 

It is important to note here that since the onset of the Ḥouthis conflict (2004), multiple attempts at de-escalation and conflict mediation have taken place to defuse the crisis and to restore peace and stability in Yemen. The appointment of mediators and mediation teams is not surprising, as mediation is the socially and politically preferred way of conflict management in Yemen. The Yemeni tribes, in particular, have well-established and effective mechanisms for channelling crises into negotiation.

For well over a decade the Houthis conflict has witnessed every possible kind of mediation and mediators: official and unofficial mediations, ‘insider-partial’ and ‘outsider-neutral’ mediators, mediation by persons, tribes, states, and international organizations, local emergency mediation, meditation of sub-conflicts and attempts at comprehensive conflict settlement. Yet after years of negotiations with the Ḥouthis, no sustainable solution and no golden formula for achieving mediation success have yet been found. Despite at times intensive efforts the conflict could at best only be temporarily stopped, and no sustainable results have emerged from mediation.

The Houthis dossier as it were, requires a complete rethink, and beyond that a fresh innovative approach to conflict resolution.

To better grasp the breadth of Yemen’s unrest – both its scope and its history, one needs to come to terms with the failures of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in that he allowed for much of the Highlands to become economically and socio-politically marginalised. The unjust distribution of economic resources and political participation, coupled with the unfettered spread of radical Islam in the Zaidi heartland ultimately led to the emergence of a complex Zaidi countermovement. One could argue that it is Sana’a attempt to use brutal force over integration which gave both credence and clout to the budding Zaidi reactionary ideology. Needless to say that years spent in perpetual military confrontation hardened all Houthi militants to the harsh demands of war.

From 2004 onwards, the most influential wing of this movement, the Houthis, waged six wars (the so-called Sa’ada Wars) against the Yemeni government. These wars escalated from round to round due to tribal involvement, but ended in 2010 in a draw. 

Since 2004, the Houthis have been exclusively led by members of the eponymous Al Houthi family, sayyids from the Marran Mountains southwest of Sa’ada city. Since 2006, their leader has been Abdel Malek Al Houthi, a younger half-brother of Hussain, the first leader of the rebellion, who was killed in 2004. 

In between 2004 and 2006, Badreddin Al Houthi, father to both Hussain and Abdel-Malek briefly held the mantle of power. A well-known politician and religious scholar of Zaidi Islam he was one of the founders of the Party of Truth in Yemen and the spiritual leader of Ansarallah movement.

Much of the Houthis’ success lies in its leadership ability to combine Zaidi revivalism with sharp political criticism of both local and international actors, thus  crafting a historically rooted discourse of justice and empowerment that has resonated throughout the region.

Hussain Al Houthi was able to create a strong network of devoted followers in Yemen’s north, where Zaidism remained strong despite the overthrow of Yemen’s Zaidi Imamate in 1962, in part due to the political liberalisation that accompanied the unification of Yemen in 1990 as well as the crisis within Zaidism precipitated by the growth of Salafist influence in the region. 

Al Houthi’s growing influence in the late 1990s was accompanied by increasingly contentious behavior on the part of his followers, which in turn prompted the government, acting partly in response to shifting international dynamics, to overreact.  The manhunt that eventually killed Al Houthi unleashed a spiral of violence beginning in 2004 that became known as the six ‘Sa’ada Wars’.  

The group then transformed from a grassroots Zaidi revivalist network under Hussain Al Houthi’s leadership to a strong insurgent fighting force under the leadership of Hussain’s younger half-brother, Abdel Malek. By the sixth war in 2009, an aura of invincibility surrounded Houthi fighters as they pushed the fighting beyond Yemen’s borders. In November 2009, the Saudi Arabian military intervened to support the Yemeni government in its fight with the Houthis. 

Three months later, the Houthis accepted a Qatari-negotiated cease-fire that teetered along during the following year.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Houthis managed to dramatically expand their territories, putting the movement on a crash course with Sana’a central government and evidently President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The rest as they say is history …

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.