18 September 2021

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YEMEN: CALM AMIDST STORM

When can we expect the end of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Author:

15.11.2019

Saudi Arabia once again opened its embassy in Yemen after negotiations with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which controls the second capital of Yemen, Aden. At the same time, it also helped to put an end to clashes between STC and the government forces supported by the Saudi coalition. After the unification of the South and the end of schisms between the major drivers of the coalition—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—a new "crusade" against the Shiites is likely.

 

One country—two peoples

The civil war in Yemen, triggered by the Arab Spring, began five years ago. But the roots of internal contradictions between various tribal and confessional groups are so deep that go beyond social demands and armed unrest.

In fact, Yemen is a relatively young country, which appeared in 1990. Prior to this, the north and south of the country were divided historically, politically and religiously.

Whereas a theocratic Shiite state, an imamat, had existed in North Yemen for centuries, the South Yemen had been a British colony not concerned with social problems. When the colonialists left, the weak sultanates of the South were liquidated, and a socialist republic was declared. Despite the secular, democratic, and centralised character of both the North and South Yemen, tribal unions have traditionally been an impressive force. Therefore, after the unification of the country in 1990, the rich southern tribes actually began to control the main cash flows, while the Zeidites of the North remained on the periphery of economic relations.

The situation of social discontent reached its peak in 2011. Shiites of the north complained that the central government was imposing Sunni Islam and did not invest enough in the development of the northern provinces. The southerners were not happy with the unification either: anti-government sentiments eventually led Al Qaeda militants to settle in the south (today they control several cities and regions). The boiling point was reached with the start of the Arab Spring and the shooting of peaceful protesters by the former President Ali Abdullah Salah. Shiite tribes, Houthis, united by the religious ideology of the Al-Houthi clan, declared a military campaign and soon captured Sana'a, the capital of the country, expelling the new president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The capture of Sana'a made the Houthis the actual leaders of the country. However, the Sunni tribes of the South were unhappy with this state of affairs and, not being able to oppose the 100,000 group of northerners, gave the green light for a foreign invasion. The intervention of the Arab states led by Saudi Arabia (150,000 soldiers) did not stop the civil war but prevented the capture of the entire country by the Houthis supported by Iran.

 

Inflation of death

Many experts believe that the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A long-standing debate over the influence of two regional giants occasionally turns into bloody conflicts. Since the Saudis failed to do anything against Iran in Syria and Lebanon, they decided to act on their own and showed the power of the kingdom’s armed forces in Yemen.

Since March 26, 2015, the aviation of the Arab states has been making regular air raids in Sana'a and other cities controlled by the Houthis. In total, during the Operation Decisive Storm, the coalition forces have made 2,500 air raids. According to some reports, only a tenth of launched missiles hit military targets, largely destroying industrial and commercial enterprises, social institutions, health and education facilities, mosques, stadiums, and power plants instead. Even the Old City of Sana'a, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was bombed.

The toll of casualties during the air raids are approximate, since nobody knows the exact number of the suffered civilians: about 6.5 thousand dead and 30 thousand wounded.

The scale of atrocities made the UN add the Saudi coalition to the black list of illegal groups. However, a week later, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, under pressure from the United States, cancelled the decision.

But the statements and decisions of international organisations do not change anything in the life of ordinary Yemenis. The blockade of Yemeni ports by the coalition navy and the cessation of civilian flights led to a total shortage of food and medicine in the country. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 20 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation. An epidemic of dangerous viruses such as typhoid and cholera is rampant in the country. The concept of death in Yemen has reached incredible inflation and no one is fighting for the lives of sick people anymore. Attempts by WHO and the International Red Cross to rectify the situation are only a drop in the ocean and are not able to stop the tragedy of the Yemeni people.

 

Attacks on oil-rich resources

Advantageous geopolitical location of Yemen also adds to the misfortune of its people. Control over the country gives control over the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, one of the main routes of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to European countries. This fact alone is enough to compensate for the country's remoteness from the traditional centres of the Arab world. It is the control over the uninterrupted supply of oil products to the Suez Canal and further into the Mediterranean Sea that compelled the highly heterogeneous Gulf Cooperation Council adopt a unanimous decision to engage in the civil war in Yemen.

Among other things, considerable oil reserves have been explored in mainland Yemen. In 2002, the US Geological Survey estimated the reserves of Yemeni oil at 9.9 billion barrels. After ten years, this figure increased ten-fold. Still, the Arabian plateau is one of the most active zones on the planet and therefore no one is surprised at the new oil discoveries there.

According to Wikileaks, satellite images and analyses confirm huge oil reserves on the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. However, in order to gain access to hydrocarbons, it will be necessary to put an end to the war with Houthis, since the oil-bearing areas are located in the northern province of Sa'ada, which is one of the strongholds of the Houthis.

Houthis also understand the power of oil. They are not at all stupid radicals as presented in mass media around the world and do understand that the stakes are too high. That's why Houthis declared their commitment to war to the bitter end. The best forces of the Houthis are fighting in the north of the country, which is the shortest route to Riyadh. After shelling the border cities and villages of Saudi Arabia, the Houthis launched a whole campaign of drone attacks. Saudi Arabia airports were the first targets of the Houthi drones. But, as it later turned out, it was only a manoeuvre to distract the attention of the kingdom's air defence forces focused on defending the airports.

On September 14, a group of drones hit the largest oil refinery in the world in Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia and the Khurais oil refinery. It was the largest attack on oil centres since World War II. Attacks on state-owned enterprises of Saudi Aramco halved the production of Saudi oil and seriously hit prices of oil futures. It's easy to understand the aftershock of the accident in the business community because until that time no one could have imagined that the seriously guarded oil infrastructure could be destroyed so easily.

Another effect of drone attacks was the gradual withdrawal of the Gulf countries from the Saudi coalition. Thus, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar have already announced the end of war in Yemen.

 

Two simultaneous civil wars

One of the interesting features of the Yemeni conflict is periodic civil wars. Torn by internal contradictions, the opponents are fighting for power, money, or even supporters. In 2017, the former president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, who previously supported the Houthis, announced a change in his stance. His loyal units of the National Army of Yemen turned weapons against the Houthis. The rebellion was quickly suppressed, and Saleh was killed in revenge for betrayal. However, the coalition troops took advantage of the feud and could considerably approach the capital of the country.

In 2018, the disagreements arouse among the members of the anti-Houthi coalition. President al-Hadi ran to Saudi Arabia and announced the resignation of several governors of the southern provinces. In response, separatist sentiments intensified in the South leading to the creation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which set a goal to restore the sovereignty of South Yemen. Southerners supported the United Arab Emirates, thus splitting off not only the Yemenis but also the coalition. Military confrontation, which began in coastal southern cities far from the frontline with the Houthis, could turn into a full-scale war. By that time, STC has almost completely taken control of the capital of South Yemen, Aden. The Houthis then stated that they were not against the secession of South Yemen.

Thus, only Saudi Arabia remained the only power fighting for the unity of the state artificially created back in the early 1990s.

After some time, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud announced the conclusion of peace with the STC separatists but this is unlikely to lead to a peaceful resolution of the Yemeni conflict.

Saudi Arabia's desire to control all of Yemen and bring stability to the country runs counter to the plans of those who like to control chaos.

Only the creation of a more or less balanced system that satisfies the demands of all religious and tribal groups can end the senseless, like all wars, conflict in Yemen and stop the monstrous social stratification. Unless the reasons and consequences of a series of cataclysms known in modern history as the Arab Spring are identified and eliminated, instability will remain not only Yemen but also other Arab countries.



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