Yemen: a whole country under seige?

By Harry Hagopian
January 6, 2016

A friend of mine, James Abbott, from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, often pokes fun at my eccentric approach to Twitter. He is right, of course, if one understands that I am not interested in amassing thousands of followers on social media or impressing them with my knowledge or wit. I am happy at having a small number of men and women who constitute my benchmarks on those issues that are pertinent to me – from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to the GCC, and then also from Armenian realities to ecumenical topics.

One such person I follow is a retired university professor from the UAE whose contributions about the Gulf region are immensely helpful and learnedly positive. However, he also stalwartly defends the Saudi-led intervention – Decisive Storm – in Yemen against the Houthis, a Zaidi Shi’a-led rebel group, as well as against the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

I am not too sure I hold such absolute truths with utter conviction, and so here are my own thoughts.

For those who have ever visited Yemen, you would know that it is a truly scenic country. Most Europeans would probably not know much about its hospitable people, traditions, architecture or rugged mountains, although they might have heard of the qat that is a faintly hallucinogenic equivalent of chewing gum, and a tool for surviving meetings. But Yemen has also been in the midst of a civil war since 19 March 2015 – one that has led to a humanitarian crisis of over one million people displaced from their homes. According to MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), the need for food, water, shelter, sanitation and medical care is growing daily. This unrest in Yemen is a mosaic of multi-faceted, local and international power struggles emanating from both recent and long-past events.

Until its unification in 1990 (and despite a botched attempt at secession in 1994), Yemen was divided into the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) as a reflection of a division of spheres of influence by the Ottoman and British powers. In fact, the northern part of the country had historically been theocratic, whilst the strategic [southern] Aden was run as a British colony and constituted the Federation of South Arabia and its adjoining protectorates. I worked with both parts of the country – Sana’a and Aden in fact – as an intellectual property lawyer in the late 1980’s and it was clear to me that Sana’a was religiously conservative, while Aden was a Marxist state. I used to have vivid discussions about Trotsky and the Menshevik Internationalists with the affable manager of the office for patents and trademarks in Aden.

Today, and conscious of the gallant oversimplification in my statement, I would suggest that the south of the country is now largely controlled by the tribes loyal to the president Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whereas the central and northern provinces still have a strong Houthi presence in them – places like Ma’rib, Amran, Al-Bayda, Al-Jawf, the capital Sana’a (that was captured by the Houthis on 21 September 2014) and of course Sa’dah that has traditionally been a Houthi stronghold.

But the Saudi-led coalition has been waging a war ostensibly to restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government to power over the whole country. In so doing, it has been fighting the Houthis as well as with the followers of Ali Abdullah Saleh who was removed (not deposed) from office in 2012 after 22 long years as president of the whole country (or even after 34 years if one counts the years between 1978 and 1990 when he was also president of the YAR in Sana’a prior to unification).

In some sense, the present conflict started ab initio when the Houthis felt threatened by the spread of Sunni ideologies (such as those manifested by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islah party) in traditionally Zaidi areas. So they burst out of their northern mountainous areas and headed south to Ibb and then west to Al-Hudaydah. In this, they were aided and abetted by an ex-president who was cross at having ‘lost’ power in the country and whose wily manoeuvres remind me of the political equivalent of a veiled chameleon (a species of chameleon native to the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen).

So in a region tense with Sunni-Shia ructions and deep distrust, all of this unnerved Saudi Arabia and its allies and the counter-offensive began against them. Parallel to this confrontation, the Southern Movement (established in 2007) also seized this crisis as an opportunity for autonomy in the South.

Let me therfore posit a few suppositions – viewed separately or together – as to why the coalition went to war against the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. After all, here is another war that has already wrought havoc - and cost millions at a time of cheap oil – upon the residents of this country.

* Yemen has an 1800-kilometre border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthi insurrection unsettled Saudi Arabia and its allies because it exposed the kingdom to a neighbour who was not only anti-Saudi monarchy but was perceived to be supported by Iran.

* If one adds that the Gulf of Aden – an extension of the Indian Ocean – flows into the Red Sea through the Bab el Mandeb (Strait) and is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, readers could perhaps understand, though not necessarily accept, the latent fears amongst the Saudi rulers and those of their allies.

* Terrorism is also a problem. After all, it was here in 2000 that the USS Cole was involved in a suicide bombing attack while at harbour in the port of Aden. Such terrorism manifests itself most pointedly in the form of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that is one of the Al-Qaeda franchises and is reportedly based in different parts of the country not least in the port of Al-Mukalla. Add to it that other affiliates such as Ansar Al-Sharia are also based in Yemen, and one can perhaps begin to appreciate the reason why the West also seems to be mutely supportive of Saudi efforts.

* The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran apart, and matters of terrorism to one side, what also evoked the fears of the Arab neighbours is the rapid extent of Houthi encroachment upon the various provinces in Yemen. For a movement that was largely located in the very mountainous north of the country, one look at the map of Yemen would show the extent to which it, along with its supporters, suddenly walked over most of the country.

So what is the solution?

A year ago, I was genuinely optimistic that the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (Al-hiwar al-watani) had reached an agreement in February 2014 that would finally lead to a federal division of the country. I remember being interviewed by Marcus Jones on Premier Christian Radio about the outcome of this dialogue and I described it as "a ray of hope" that might well spare the country further destruction and sectarianism.

Granted, this Committee was admittedly ambitious in paving the way for the drafting of a new constitution. In fact, the proposal was accepted by the majority of the political players with the exception of the Houthis who expressed reservations about the divisions of the country. It also received some weak-kneed remonstrations from the Southern Movement who were opposed to the split of the former PDRY into two federal regions only.

However, the National Dialogue had on paper split Yemen into six federal regions: Hadramawt, Aden, Al-Janad, Saba, Tihama and Azal. And it is sad that the various parties were unable to agree to compromise a little more in order to amend this document sufficiently for the sake of averting a war. Instead, this hard-won document became sacrosanct for some parties but unacceptable for others.

And so the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, spares no effort to knock heads together. Ceasefires come and go with Swiss-clock regularity, yet mutual recriminations are plentiful and the war machinery on all sides continues to decimate one of the poorest countries in the MENA region. Both sides perceive this war as existential, but I would suggest that both sides have climbed up their respective political trees so high that they are now unable to come down with aplomb let alone dignity – or to put it more culturally, in a way that would save them face with their constituencies. But come down they must since – not unlike the rubble that are parts of Syria today – the coalition will not succeed in breaking down the will of the Houthis completely. Nor will the rebels be allowed a victory. In fact, I wonder whether the execution of the Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr a few days ago will exacerbate tensions further by encouraging Iran to get involved more directly in this conflict.

The UAE academic I follow on Twitter explains in his tweets that the resolve of the Arab coalition will not wither away and that Yemen is a red line against Iranian regional hegemony. Whereas another colleague whom I also follow on Twitter recently described this war as "wasteful". So is it a case of never the twain shall meet, or is there a way to reconcile two political antonyms that speak in terms of inevitability versus wastefulness – while ordinary human beings in their millions pay the heavy price?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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