The ongoing conflict in Yemen and the role of Saudi Arabia

The ongoing conflict in Yemen and the role of Saudi Arabia

On January 17, 2022, three fuel tanker trucks exploded in the industrial Musaffah region near the new Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), following a drone attack by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

One Pakistani national and two Indian nationals lost their lives. Besides, six other people were injured in the attack. Houthi is an Islamist political armed movement, backed by Iran, to fight a coalition of Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia.

“Initial investigations found parts of a small plane that could be a drone at both sites that could have caused the explosion and the fire,” the police said in a statement.

On January 21, 2022, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition retaliated by conducting an airstrike on a detention centre in Saada in Yemen. Reportedly, about 100 people were killed and wounded in the Houthi stronghold.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) chief Ahmed Mahat informed, “There are many bodies still at the scene of the airstrike, many missing people. It is impossible to know how many people have been killed. It seems to have been a horrific act of violence.”

Another airstrike was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition on a telecommunications facility in Hudaydah, which led to the death of 3 children. The incident led to a nationwide internet outage in Yemen.

The modern State of Yemen came into existence in 1990 through the unification of the Yemeni Arab Republic (backed by the US and Saudi Arabia) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (supported by the USSR).

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the Yemeni Arab Republic in the North since 1978 became the leader of the unified nation. His autocratic tenure was marred by allegations of corruption.

The Houthi movement (also called Ansar Allah), an Islamist movement comprising Zaydi Shiites from the Houthi tribe, began its political activism against Saleh in 2003 for supporting the US Invasion of Iraq.

The Background of the Yemen conflict

The Houthis were concentrated mainly in northern Yemen and had remained a force of cultural/religious revivalism since the 1980s.

Interestingly, Houthis were against Saleh during his tenure as Yemen’s President. They carried out armed rebellion against him on 6 occasions between 2004 to 2010.

After the Arab Spring of 2011 (anti-government uprising and armed rebellion) in Yemen, Saleh had to resign and cede power to his Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

He then joined hands with the same Islamist outfit he fought as President of Yemen. The decision was well-calculated since Saleh wanted to make inroads into the power corridors.

Territorial control and influence as of February 2021 in Yemen via the Council of Foreign Relations

The political transition to the new ruler of Yemen was distraught with challenges including corruption, unemployment, and food security.

Houthis took advantage of Hadi’s weakness and made inroads into the city of Sanaa in September 2014 and seized complete control by January 2015.

Saleh had the support of members of Yemen’s security forces, the political establishment, and tribal networks, which made it easier for Houthis to gain access to power.

Ordinary Yemenis also supported the Islamists after being ‘disillusioned’ by the political transition process from Saleh to Hadi.

The intervention by Saudi Arabia -led coalition

Houthis then attempted to take control over the entire country and forced President Hadi to flee in March 2015. The Houthi movement had the backing of Iran, a Shia-majority country and the arch-rival of Saudi Arabia.

Must read:  Meet TJ Joseph: Kerala Professor whose hand was chopped off by Islamists for 'blasphemy'

Iran has been accused of providing military support to Houthis and using them as its proxy for shared geopolitical interests.

It implied an increasing threat to Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on its southern border.

Yemen holds strategic importance as the Arab nation is situated on a strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. As such, it serves as the world’s pass for oil and gas shipments.

The Kingdom thus formed a multinational coalition, comprising 8 Sunni-majority Arab nations including Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to put an end to the political impasse and restore Hadi’s government.

It must be mentioned that Hadi had written a letter to the United States, seeking permission to allow coalition forces to avert Houthi aggression.

“(Authorise) willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression,” read the letter by Hadi to UN Security Council.

The then-Yemen President also wrote to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League, seeking intervention.

The Saudi-led coalition received intelligence and logistical support from European powers such as the UK, France and also the United States.

In 2018, the coalition was expanded to include Pakistan and Eritrea. Saleh, who had supported the Houthis after his ouster as president, was killed by the same Islamist outfit for switching his support to the Saudi coalition in 2017.

In July 2018, President Hadi told the BBC that he did not regret seeking help from the Saudi-led coalition. He said, “I do not regret this decision at all. Otherwise, we would not have liberated parts of the country from Aden to [the eastern province of] Al-Mahra. Without the support of the coalition, these areas would still be under the control of the Houthis.”

He further added, “If Decisive Storm (name of the military operation) had not happened, it would have been the beginning of a major civil war lasting even longer than the conflict in Somalia [that began in 1991 and remains ongoing].”

The aftermath of Saudi intervention

Interestingly, the radical Islamist Houthi movement was designated as a terrorist group by Donald Trump before leaving the Oval office. The decision was, however, reversed after Joe Biden became the US President.

Following the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition, it was expected that the political crisis would be resolved within a few weeks. But, the ‘military stalemate’ has lasted for over 7 years now.

The coalition helped free much of South Yemen in August 2015 but failed to regain territories of Saana and north-western Yemen. In 2018, major airstrikes were conducted to capture the city of Hudaydah.

The forces were joined by the loyalist of former President Saleh. A ceasefire was declared by the warring sides after 6 months of intense fighting.

In 2021, the Houthis carried out attacks in the Northern Marib, which is an oil-rich province under government control.

During the 7 years, Houthis targeted civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles and drones.

The ongoing crisis has provided a fertile ground for Islamist terror outfits such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State group (IS), who occasionally carry out attacks to further destabilise the region.

This article was first published in Opindia on January 25, 2022.

Here is what you need to know about the ongoing Saudi-Yemen conflict