The conflict in Yemen is unheard of by many, perhaps due to its complexity.
To summarise; it could be said that the Yemeni Government forces are pitted against an Islamist tribe known as the Houthis. This is roughly correct but overly simplified.
The Ancient Romans referred to Yemen as ‘Arabia Felix’ – fortunate. Applied today, this is simply inappropriate.
Yemen, as a single country, is a relatively new notion. The North of Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, but the South, under British rule since 1839, didn’t gain independence until 1967. Since then, internal conflicts have been common. North and South did unify in 1990, but unsurprisingly, this new-found unity didn’t last long.
Tensions between the Government and the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia Islamist tribe named after the popular religious leader Hussein al-Houthi from the north, have been bubbling away for years. In mid-2004 the then President Saleh, disliking the popular figure in the north, sent government forces to arrest Hussein. Hussein responded by launching an anti-government insurgency, but he was killed in September 2004. Though a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2010, this was a victory for the Houthis – they now dominated the north of the country, showing their might, and the ineptness of the government.
The uprisings against the Yemeni government escalated in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. When uprisings in the likes of Egypt saw relative success, it gave the Houthis an opportunity. The protests grew more aggressive and eventually, a peace deal was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council although this subsequently collapsed. President Saleh reneged on his agreements and the Houthis felt that the deal put them at a disadvantage. With no deal and violent protests on his hands, Saleh fled the country after handing power to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2012.
Installing Hadi as President didn’t help. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (supporters of God) continued the uprising. The conflict raged on and, after a remarkable turn of events, the situation turned even worse for the government: Saleh returned and joined forces with the Houthis; perhaps the Houthis realized they didn’t possess the know-how to run a country, or perhaps Saleh simply wanted power again. This development allowed the Houthis to storm Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in mid-September 2014, and within weeks this relatively small and unorganized rebel group controlled the capital. Hadi fled to Aden in the south, now the de-facto government base. This had become a North-South conflict once more.
On top of this, there’s another faction: Al-Qaeda, in this region now known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The fact that the Houthis are Shia has given Al-Qaeda all the impetus they need to get involved. Al-Qaeda, a Sunni Islamic extremist group, strictly apply takfiri thought; they see Shia Muslims as apostates and act accordingly, not wanting to see the Shia controlling Yemen.
As is common in the Arabian Peninsula, religious predilections play an important role in foreign affairs; this conflict is no different. We know that Iran has provided the Houthis with arms and funding in an attempt to topple the government and perhaps install a Shia ruler in Yemen. From Iran’s point of view, this could see Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni state, sandwiched between Iran to the north-east across the Persian Gulf, and a Shia Iran-friendly Yemen to the south. This is a proxy war for influence in the Arabian Peninsula, too.
Saudi Arabia has a history of conflict with the Houthis across their southern border; Salafi thought and Zaidi Shi’a Islam don’t mix. This, coupled with the threat of Iran, has encouraged the Saudi government (in a coalition of other states including the US) to get increasingly militarily involved to try to prevent the Houthis gaining full north-south control. The Houthis slogan of: ‘God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam’ sets the backdrop for US involvement.
It’s not only the land border with Saudi Arabia that’s important. More important, globally, is the Bab-el-Mandeb strait – gateway to the Suez Canal, linking the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This strait, and the access to the Suez Canal, is vital to world trade; in 2006, an estimated 3.3 million barrels of oil passed through per day. Whoever is in control of Southern Yemen, potentially controls the strait. Across the strait is Somalia, another country beleaguered by Islamic militant groups.
Along with the land border to Saudi Arabia and the Beb-el-Mendeb strait, there’s another feature of Yemen’s geography that complicates the conflict: the lack of water. Yemen has no permanent rivers, and poor policy pertaining to water usage has made matters worse. The lack of water, and of arable land makes agricultural enterprises exceptionally difficult. Much of Yemen struggles to feed itself and is on the brink of famine. The absence of clean water also heightens the risk of disease. The cholera epidemic in Yemen is the world’s worst; an estimated 5,000 people are infected per day. Yemen’s lack of water will prove to be a significant factor in how this conflict plays out.
The humanitarian situation is dire. The local Yemenis’ allegiances aren’t necessarily based on moral or even religious motives, but on which faction provides food, water, or healthcare. This makes an intervention from outside powers difficult and lends itself to pockets of disparate factions throughout Yemen. This is fertile ground for extremist groups who seek to recruit the vulnerable, we have seen AQAP take advantage of this, and now ISIS has ramped up their efforts in recent weeks after several years of relative inactivity in the region. With no solution in sight, this desperation only grows and AQAP or ISIS offers a way out. This should concern all of us.