The civil war in Yemen is more than a multi-polar conflict; it is a political quagmire wrapped around internal divisions, ill-contrived domestic and regional strategies, and external actors that have done all but improve the security situation. There is no shortage of articles chastising the role of non-state actors in Yemen, botched interventions, politically-charged arms agreements, and a disregard for human rights. There are dire Saudi-linked implications of a protracted war on human rights, economic activity, and other facets in Yemen. More than 24 million people currently require humanitarian assistance in the country which includes more than 12 million children.
Before one assesses the ever-changing relationships and alliances in the region, one must take a step back and ask the question: how did we get here? I provide a summary covering a few key events; while this list is far from comprehensive, the major events provide a guide to changing relationships and key events that have occasioned the present. These can form an effective backdrop for a better analysis of what occurs in the region.
- The poorest country in the Arab world undergoes a failed political transition after a long-time president is forced out.
- Corruption, food insecurity, and unemployment soar.
- Iran-backed Houthi rebels begin their assault on the capital city of Saana.
- Sunnis gravitate towards Houthi rebels after a failed attempt to transition.
- Mr. Hadi flees in March 2015 after the Houthi rebels.
- Saudi government and the governments of the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, and Senegal vow to restore peace and order.
- Airstrike kills 42 at school, outcry deepens as Western allies are morally blighted.
- The Stockholm Agreement required forces to be redeployed from Al-Hudaydah, a prisoner exchange mechanism, and to address the situation in Taiz.
- In July 2019, the UAE withdraws its troops from Yemen as it balances strategic and regional objectives with domestic political realities.
The Twists and Turns Are Staggeringly Dull, but There Are Several Routes
Iran has remained away from the firing line, even as it provides both military and logistical support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Meanwhile, a tacitly frail Saudi Arabia amidst noticeable air and ground strike capacity made significant gains in Yemen in 2018, but it now sets to exit Yemen. Iran is currently locked under some of the most stringent U.S. sanctions, spanning oil embargoes and sanctions on its central banks; all this has weakened Iran significantly.
Yemen in War: A Hotbed of Chaos, Great Power Competition, and Dire Outcomes
Amidst COVID-19, Yemen remains what it has come to characterize over the last decade: a hotbed for great power competition, displays of ideological rifts, quests for regional influence, and a stage for direct conflict at the expense of human rights. However, it is now likely that a geopolitical objective can be achieved; seizing the southern part of the country, with the allied powers setting their sights on Houthi-controlled Sanaa, one can expect them to significantly reduce, if not disrupt, Houthi activity. The Russian position is linked to its role in the region as a dominant superpower, which is supporting the Houthi rebels at the behest of Iran in an attempt to irk U.S. policy in the region that seeks an end to hostilities.
Admittedly, the Houthi rebels have benefitted from Iranian support, but Russia’s ability to reinforce support that was previously provided by Iran is perhaps limited. While it can provide logistical training, it is unlikely to support any Houthi offensive. Although the international community did not impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia after it had jailed journalists and murdered Jammal Khashoggi, the world did turn its back on the Kingdom. Global oil stability is contingent on Saudi Arabia’s ability to synchronously convince 13 member countries including Russia to reduce oil production. The U.S. has been wary of an oil price war that increased the exposure of some of the companies in its crude sector. As such, the strategic economic relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia appears to be trickling into Yemen, as Russia has agreed to support dialogue amongst all parties as part of its diplomatic policy in the region.
Geopolitical Rifts Worsening the War in Yemen
Yemen remains plagued by the same warring sides that have occasioned, more often than not, a morally reprehensible and ideologically driven political web, leaving the people of Yemen starved, deprived, and desperate. Iran is currently being punished for its geo-strategic ambitions in the region, but it is increasingly challenging to decry Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, whilst ignoring the human rights abuses and dire humanitarian outcomes that have come to characterize the proxy wars fought intending to protect the rights of the Yemeni people, if at all.
More worrying is the COVID-19 that has further disrupted economic activity and increased the risk of an unprecedented loss of life, risks of displacement, and record rates of reinfection. While Egypt and the Saudi offensive suggests upside risks for allied powers, the costs of humanitarian costs will equally mount. Unfortunately, Yemen is the most recent example of how global politics and regional divergence can ravage a country.
Regional Stability Not Possible Without Negotiations by Iran and Saudi Arabia
In a previous paper, I argued that regional stability cannot be internalized by external actors. Egypt’s intervention can provide greater legitimacy to Saudi Arabia’s approach, but it cannot serve as a long-lasting buffer against an outcry from the international community. In all this, Yemen, due to the ongoing war, is poised to remain scathed economically, socially, and environmentally. The balance of risks suggests that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels will recess from their strongholds, but Iran’s ability to navigate sanctions suggests caution about the long-lasting nature of such a view.
With over 100,000 people and a dismal infrastructure left trailing a war, Saudi Arabia agreed to a two-week cessation of hostilities to alleviate the suffering brought by COVID-19. It is not clear whether hospitals subjected to countless bombs, will suffice in addressing the dire health outcomes wrought by the virus, but this might just occasion prospects for dialogue between warring sides.
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