Rewind three years, to early 2012: Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down as President of Yemen after 22 years in power, due to mass-protests from within his country coinciding with similar protests across the Middle East – commonly known as the Arab Spring. The next three years witnessed Saleh’s successor – the former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – struggle to maintain control over Yemen’s complicated & fractious political landscape.
Fast-forward to March 2015, and Houthi forces, with followers only amounting to a few thousand, have ousted Hadi, dissolved parliament (and forced the prime minister and his cabinet to resign), and have taken control of the country’s capital, Sana’a. Hadi tendered his resignation, rescinded it a month later when he escaped to his home city of Aden (and in the process denounced this new regime as a coup d’état). He has subsequently fled to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Fighting has spread throughout the country between those loyal to Saleh (the former president of 22 years), Hadi (the now-deposed president since 2012), and the aforementioned Houthi forces, supporters of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was an insurgent killed by Yemeni forces in 2004 as a result of his launched insurgency in June of that year. Chuck in a couple of militant Al-Qaeda groups (who of course, thrive off political chaos) and a smattering of other Middle-Eastern nations dropping the occasional bomb in the country, and you have an extremely complex civil war in grave danger of becoming a regional one.
Oh, almost forgot. The self-styled ‘world police’, the USA, have also got involved with intelligence services. How long before the US gives into temptation, and we see western troops in Yemen?
Now, prepare yourselves for a white-knuckle ride involving the complexities of Middle-Eastern politics, religion (predictably) and how Yemen got into this right-royal mess.
The 2011 protests leading up to Saleh’s resignation were no-doubt exacerbated by the fact that Yemen in the poorest country in the Middle-East, with a high unemployment rate nearly two-fifths of its population living below the poverty line. Indeed, the transfer of power from Saleh to Hadi was relatively peaceful, with a mediated agreement between the government and Yemen’s numerous opposition groups ensuring that the transition of power was a smooth(ish) process. Despite this relatively smooth transition (in which Hedi won 99.8% of the vote in an election for which he was the only candidate), an interview with the Washington Post in September 2012 by Saleh’s former deputy revealed that there were fears that Yemen could dissolve into a disastrous civil war, alongside asserting that the country was fighting three wars – with the ever-present Al-Qaeda, pirates off the coast of Aden (Yemen’s major costal city) and Houthi forces.
Hadi’s assertion that Yemen was fighting three wars perhaps sums up the level of chaos in Yemen today. Of course, that interview was in 2012, and since then we have witnessed the development of Houthi forces and the outbreak of forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Saleh, as well as the continued presence of Al-Qaeda in the country.
On top of this, of course, is the fact that Yemen’s crisis isn’t merely a domestic one, but rather developing into a regional one. Commentators and local politicians have made the connection between militant Houthi forces and Iran (who recently celebrated the development of a nuclear deal with the US) due to adherence to Shi’a Islam. The overwhelming majority of the Arabian peninsula is Sunni, so it therefore follows that Iran has an overwhelming interest in sponsoring any group which it views as promoting the Shi’a denomination within the region. We must remember that both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims have come into conflict with each other in the past, most notably in the recent Syrian civil war. Therefore, the religious aspect of this whole catastrophe cannot be understated.
When Iran intervenes, Saudi Arabia follows, but in the opposite direction. The notable divide between the two countries is this: Saudi Arabia is 90% Sunni. Iran is nearly 90% Shi’a. The large religious divisions have obviously put a strain between the two countries. The presence of some Shi’a Houthi forces, who Hadi believes are backed by Iran, in Saudi Arabia has compelled the nation to act. Air-strikes followed by a predicted ground offensive from a coalition of Middle-Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia, has only further increased the gravity of the crisis in Yemen. It has also exacerbated the longstanding rivalry between the two relative Middle-Eastern superpowers of Iran and Iraq, even though Saudi Arabia’s stated aims are limited to driving Houthi forces out of its territory and returning Hadi to power.
Just to chuck another dimension into the mix: the presence of Al-Qaeda in the region is a worry for all involved – only recently did the US defence secretary acknowledge the fact that the Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda (whose members were responsible for the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks) has gained considerable territory in its capitalisation of political disorder within Yemen. And just to top it all off, ISIL are now claiming to be part of the conflict, having taken responsibility for a recent attack on two mosques in Houthi-controlled Sana’a, which killed 137 people.
I told you it would be intense.
Essentially, Yemen currently is bordering on anarchy, with loyalties divided between two former presidents, Al-Qaeda, and a militant group who currently have control of the state itself. Couple this with price inflation in an already-poor country and you have the beginnings of a humanitarian crisis. What is clear however, is that this whole saga stems from the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. Despite the relatively seamless transition of power, there was always an undercurrent of dissent from the many groups within Yemen, and this dissent has culminated in the civil war we are currently witnessing. Whilst the intentions of this wave of revolutionary protest may seem noble, as Yemen has proved, even four years on, the transition from absolute rule to ‘democracy’ has not been and will not be easy – the tribal and fragmented nature of the region means that a lot of diplomatic effort has to be put into Yemen to resolve this conflict.
Unless, of course, the US et al can’t resist the temptation not to intervene militarily.