What started out as a civil war between a Westernised democracy and Islamic separatists in Yemen has become a proxy war between regional heavy weights Iran and Saudi Arabia. The story has been over-shadowed by greater instability in the Middle-East, but nonetheless it is shaping the regional dynamics. This conflict has a myriad of foundations such as religious rivalries, anti-Westernisation sentiments and the spread of radical Islam.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Sixty-five percent unemployment rate and an over-dependence on oil and gas reserves have opened a poverty trap where political, religious and social divides have flourished. The government is weak and the tribal nature of Yemen has meant that the government has never controlled land outside of large cities leaving governing to tribal chiefs or worse terrorist groups and militias. This fragmented society has a history of being plagued by civil war with Yemen only being declared a country in 1990.
Let’s begin with the domestic uprising faced by the Yemeni government. The civil war in this failed state arose between the Shia Houthi and the Sunni population. The Houthis accuse the government of being propped up by America and Israel. They have strong links to Hezbollah in Lebanon and are strong supporters of the Assad regime in Syria. Hence, they reject the idea of a westernised and American funded Yemeni government. Drone strikes targeting Al Qaeda have been carried out by the CIA since 2002 arguably fuelling the anti-American sentiment. Also, there is another separatist movement in the South of the country who want to escape what they see as an oppressive state and the government’s inability to stem Al-Qaeda expansion in the South. This has given rise to militias run by tribes’ popular committees.
How did this civil war become an international proxy war? The divides in this conflict are deeply religious and cultural. They not only reflect the lack of cohesion between tribes of the same religion, but also between the other religions in the region. Yemen’s majority Muslim population is split between mainly Sunni and Zaidi Shia Muslims. It is a bitter religious divide. Saudi Arabia, a key player in air strikes, is a majority Sunni Muslim country and borders on Yemen. Although, Yemen is vital to Saudi Arabia’s exports of oil to Asia across the Red Sea. To add the complicated situation Iran, who back the Houthis separatists, is a majority Shia Muslim state and is one of the most stable and powerful states in the region. A Shia Houthi and Iranian controlled Yemen would be a great threat to their main export market and the strategic Red Sea coastline. Saudi Arabia fears growing Shia influence making Yemen an important battle ground. Furthermore, Western tensions with Iran and perhaps interest in the large natural gas reserves in Yemen have tied Western nations in particular the USA and the UK into backing Saudi led air strikes. The Saudi led coalition air strikes began in March 2015. Why did The West get involved? The USA and the UK have an invested interested in military action in Saudi Arabia as it is one of their largest arms export markets. The USA also regards Yemen as needing to maintain a secular democracy rather than Islamic control. The main force of destruction are air strikes and heavy weaponry clashes. This has resulted in war crimes committed by both Coalition and separatist forces.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, just like its war, is also complicated and seemingly without end. Yemen has been declared a level three emergency by the UN. This is seen as the highest level of severity. There are over 1.5 million internally displaced Yemeni people which is five times the recorded number in 2004. Intense Saudi border controls have left 78% of the population in urgent need of food, water and medical supplies. Aid ships are allowed into the country, but they are insufficient to supply a country that imports 90% of its goods though bulk commercial shipping which is blocked. Yemen is a transit country of mixed migration flows, including asylum-seekers and migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia. Refugee camps have been common place in Yemen for decades. Now with the addition of Yemeni people to the UN refugee camps aid is being pushed to the limit.
So month’s down the line who is winning? No one. As Houthis are being battered in their northern power house terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda have filled the vacuum. Sunni based IS have already targeted Shia mosques with suicide bomb attacks murdering more people in a country already torn from violence. Long term peace in Yemen is looking slim. It seems America’s Great Middle East Experiment has failed.
By Vicki Lincoln