In a month, the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen will be a year old.
Strategic gains have been few. The fractured chessboard of Yemeni politics is as complex today as it was on the day the Saudis began to bomb – 26 March 2015.
Why did the Saudis and their allies start to bomb Yemen? There was no clear casus belli. The transition agreement of 2011 had frayed – President Mansour Hadi’s mandate ended a year before he resigned in February 2015.
Various groups jockeyed for position towards a new agreement, which was not on the horizon. The seizure of Sanaa was not inevitable, but it was not surprising either. The Saudi bombs followed.
Who took Sanaa? Two rival political formations – the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress – came together against Hadi’s government to take the capital. Saleh had prosecuted a war against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010. Nonetheless, they allied for this thrust.
Having taken Sanaa, fractures opened up between the two allies, with clashes in the Raymat al-Humayd military camp north of Sanaa showing their internal weakness. Given time, it is likely that these allies would have escalated their own divisions.
But before this could happen, the Saudis and their allies began the bombardment, which cemented the unity between Saleh and the Houthis and gave the latter access to highly skilled military personnel – who could fire Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia, for instance.
It is this alliance that has been able to hold off the Saudi assault, although at the cost of the destruction of Yemen.
One of the great tragedies of the Yemen war has been that the domestic politics of Yemen – which are considerably complex – now swirl around in the regional geopolitical tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran used to have minimal relations with the Houthis and Saleh. Their so-called common Shia ties are also weak, given that the Zaydi Shia of Yemen disagree with the Iranian Twelvers on various matters of succession and doctrine.
Saudi Arabia’s paranoia of Iranian influence plays a major role here. Eclipsed are the other fissures in Yemen: questions of federalism and secession, North vs South, republican secularism vs Islamic rule. Saudi Arabia’s insertion into the conflict has complicated matters and made peace an impossible idea.
If the Saudis wished to weaken the Houthis and Saleh, it is surely the case that Saudi intelligence would have picked up the signs of internal problems between these two camps.
The most sensible approach would have been to try and pry them apart. What the bombing from 26 March did was to bring them together. Could it be that the Saudis were not thinking strategically and were merely motivated by hatred of Iran?
Or could it be that domestic concerns in Saudi Arabia propelled the war? After all, just prior to the war, King Salman took the throne and appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman as defence minister.
Mohammed bin Salman – known locally as MbS – appeared on Saudi television the day after the bombing began; he was in the military operations centre, on the phone, talking to pilots, looking at maps. The Yemen war might have been MbS’ opportunity to show that he was really in charge.
Now it is an albatross around his neck. Saudi Arabia cannot be seen to withdraw unless it has won. The legitimacy of the monarchy is vested in that outcome. Yemen is sacrificed to such motivations.
A new report from the International Crisis Group – Yemen: Is Peace Possible? (9 February) – asks the pertinent question of peace and then offers a deeply negative assessment.
“Domestic and regional dynamics bode poorly for peace,” write the authors. As Riyadh-Tehran relations deteriorate, so do chances of settling the regional problems here. Within the country trust between the various parties has broken. Fissiparous sentiment is now dominant.
The unification of Yemen in 1990 is in danger of tearing apart. The two forces are content to sit near the old borderline, with the city of Taiz straddled by both. Militias of the Houthis and the Southern Resistance have now become as important as the splintered Yemeni army.
“Sectarianism, historically not a conflict driver or mobilising frame for violence, is now widespread,” writes the Conflict Group. “Revenge issues, ever-present in the past, have increased exponentially. Tribally based vendettas will outlast the conflict.”
The United Nations has been sidelined. Its problems here are equal to its problems in Syria. Geopolitical tensions and the dominance of the gun on the ground make it unlikely that the parties will sit at a UN table. What the Crisis Group minimises in its report is the role of the West, which has been considerable.
It has continued to rearm the Saudis throughout the conflict, putting itself, as it were, as party to the conflict and not as neutral observer. A forthcoming book edited by Sheila Carapico – Arabia Incognita. Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf (Just World Books, May 2016) – details the Western role here. Its implication strengthens the Saudi ambition and weakens the US.
Meanwhile, two horses of the apocalypse stalk Yemen.
On the one side is Famine – with the UN agencies in constant distress about the deterioration of living standards for the population. The World Food Programme said, a month ago, that Yemen was one step away from half the population being in famine conditions.
More than 14 million of the 23 million Yemenis are “food insecure”. Julien Harneis, UNICEF representative in Yemen, laid out some of the data that the agency has collected. More than a million children have been displaced from their homes, more than a million children under five risk acute malnutrition and acute respiratory tract infections.
Two million children cannot go to school. “The longer-term consequences of all this for Yemen – which was already the Middle East’s poorest nation even before the conflict – can only be guessed at,” said Harneis.
The other horse of the apocalypse is Extremism. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group, says the Crisis Group, “are arguably the war’s principal beneficiaries”.
AQAP not only now holds some towns of the Hadramout region, such as Mukalla, but has been active in this war alongside the Southern Resistance in Taiz and elsewhere. It has found the Saudi air cover salutary and has made major gains as a consequence.
Meanwhile, a breakaway group from AQAP has fashioned itself as a new IS franchise. On 20 March 2015, it announced its existence with a massive attack that killed more than 140 people who were in or near Zaydi mosques in Sanaa.
“In the Middle East’s convulsions,” the Crisis Group notes, “the Yemen war is relatively unnoticed, but over 2,800 civilians have been killed, the majority from airstrikes, and the country is suffering an acute humanitarian crisis that could trigger catastrophic famine and refugee flows that would further destabilize the region”.
This is a fair assessment. Will it awaken any concern? Not necessarily.
The United Arab Emirates, an ally of Saudi Arabia in this campaign, has recently appointed Ohood al-Roumi as the UAE’s first Minister of Happiness. There is something unsettling about such a post coming amid such unhappiness in Yemen, a regional neighbour.
Perhaps the new minister might want to make some gestures toward the spread of happiness not only in the malls of Dubai and Sharjah, but also in the hovels of Sanaa and Taiz, where young children huddle in fear of the next bombing raid.
Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback). Follow him on Twitter: @VijayPrashad