Yemen and the Forgotten Chapter of the Arab Spring

BY ITAMAR WAKSMAN U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi before a bilateral meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 7, 2015. (U.S. Department of State/ Public Domain)

On April 10 both sides in the Yemeni Civil War enacted a ceasefire that had been brokered earlier this year by Saudi Arabia and the U.N. The conflict has lasted over a year, causing 6,000 casualties and displacing over 2.5 million Yemenis. But even as the casualties have continued to grow and the humanitarian crisis deepens, the international media has turned a blind eye, causing the atrocities occurring in Yemen to evade international discussion.

In 2011, popular protests in Yemen led to the stepping down of the nation’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the beginning of a process that aimed to bring free and fair elections to the nation. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh’s former vice-president, ran and was elected in a single candidate election with the promise of remaining in power for only two years to oversee the nation’s process towards democratization. The Houthis, a group of Shia rebels located in the northwestern who had supported the pro-democracy movement and had previously fought Saleh’s government in an insurrection, boycotted the election. After Hadi refused to bequeath power in 2014, the Houthis increased their conflict with various Sunni factions in the northwest of the country and in September, after weeks of anti-Hadi protests in capital Sana’a, took the capital and forced Hadi’s resignation. Later that year, Hadi escaped to Aden, a port city in the South and Yemen’s economic center, rescinding his resignation and calling for war against the Houthi rebels. Fighting broke out throughout the country, with the Houthis conquering large swathes of territory. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, also used the instability to begin taking over lands in the middle of the country. By March of 2015, the rebels were at the steps of Aden and the Hadi government’s defeat seemed imminent.

On March 26, a coalition of various Gulf and Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and supported by U.S. logistics and weapons, intervened at the request of the Hadi government. The coalition cited that even though the legitimacy of the Hadi government was internally contested, it was internationally recognized and therefore legal for the coalition to intervene in what the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. would call “a military campaign to restore stability to Yemen.” The tide of the conflict began to change as overwhelming airstrikes, mostly from Saudi forces, coupled with limited Saudi ground forces were able to halt the powerful Houthi advance. The siege of Aden was lifted, and forces loyal to the Hadi government began to retake territory that they had previously lost. However, these gains by the Hadi government did not come without great cost to Yemeni society. The intervention led to an escalation in the conflict and its toll. Saudi-led airstrikes were often aimed at civilian targets. Coalition forces have bombed numerous markets and important centers throughout the Houthi controlled areas of the country, even using indiscriminate cluster bombs to enact great damage on these civilian areas. During June of 2015, the Saudi coalition designated all of the Saada governate, a Houthi stronghold in the northwestern part of the country, a military target, leading to the bombings of many villages in the area. In September of 2015 a U.N. report found that almost two-thirds of the civilian deaths that have occurred since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention have been due to coalition airstrikes.

Even with this staggering death toll, arguably the most pressing aspect of the intervention has been the blockade of the country. As the intervention began, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners enacted a blockade against the entirety of Yemen, only allowing for certain shipments of aid to enter the country. Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the Arab world, having the lowest GDP of any country within the Arabian Peninsula, and has an economy that is reliant on shipping. With the enactment of the blockade, the economic situation in the country has rapidly deteriorated, causing a sharp drop in GDP and exacerbating the economic pressures already felt by the majority of the country. A recent U.N. report has estimated that 78 percent of Yemenis, or about 20 million people, are now reliant on food and medical aid. However, the aid mission to the country remains inconsistent, and millions of Yemenis remain trapped in warring regions with little access to international aid.

The question that remains is why did Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies intervene in Yemen, and the answer lies in the greater geopolitical struggle occurring within the Middle East. Saudi Arabia finds itself today in a polarized struggle with Iran for dominance in the region. Both are the largest and wealthiest nations in the region and see themselves as the natural hegemon. The House of Saud has positioned itself as the protector of Mecca and Medinah, the holiest cities in Islam, as well as the sponsors of Sunni Islam and especially Wahabism, a conservative form of Sunni Islam which is used by the Saudi state to extend its legitimacy throughout the deeply Muslim region. Iran has positioned itself on the other end of the spectrum, sponsoring various Shia groups throughout Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon with the aim of expanding its regional power. The civil war in Syria and the instability in Iraq have become manifestations of a deep proxy war between these two powers, and Yemen is no different. The Houthis are a Shia group with no connection to Saudi Arabia, and have been periodically fighting Saudi-backed regimes for 15 years. Even though their connection to Iran is weak at best, Saudi Arabia sees them as a potential threat and Iranian client, an unacceptable status for a nation on Saudi Arabia’s border. Intervention has also allowed the Saudi’s to test their military forces in a foreign land, an important task for a nation that has increased its annual defense spending in the last decade to $67 billion, or 9 percent of its GDP.

Yemen represents a show of force for Saudi Arabia. It is a justification for the nation’s bloated defense spending, even in the face of falling oil revenue. It has become another portion in the soft-power war bleeding throughout the Middle East. The arguably greater threat to the coalition forces, the overt presence of large Al Qaeda and even ISIS forces has gone largely ignored. In the face of the grave humanitarian disaster overlooking the country, the Saudi-led intervention is one with little legitimacy on the Saudi part and even less for its Western backers. 

Intervention in the Middle East for the last 15 years has only shown how difficult it is to measure blowback and the amplification of violence. If the international community is to become serious about building a more stable region, it will have to begin with realizing that faltering economic conditions beget instability and that military intervention only furthers political imbalance. A new approach will be needed to begin solving the problems of the Middle East -- the longer the world waits, the more difficult it will be.