The Yemen crisis has become one of the most complex crises in our modern era. It is a crisis in which various circumstances and causes combine in a highly contradictory way. To elaborate, the Yemen crisis is a civil war due to internal fighting caused by the Houthi rebellion against the state and is fuelled by societal division on several levels. Accompanying this local crisis is an absence of any true and authentic political affiliation or political engagement despite the existence of a legal basis that allows political participation and freedom in Yemen.
Concurrently, there is also a fully-fledged regional conflict due to several factors, the most obvious being the foreign military intervention by countries that do not have any legal sovereignty over Yemeni lands. Those countries claim that their intervention aims to defeat an existential threat to their national security, or to aid the oppressed. Undeclared goals, such as control over strategic sites in Yemen such as islands and coasts overlooking seas and straits that have recently gained attention for their role in global security, may also explain these foreign interventions. The presence of international geopolitical competition within Yemen combined with local rebellious and fanatic tendencies based on religious ideology is a key factor that has led to a huge amount of complexity in the Yemen crisis.
This article attempts to describe both local and international factors shaping the conflict, elaborate on the actors involved and their motives, explain the disastrous effects of the crisis, and put forward several possible scenarios for the future.
Local factors creating a fertile environment for a crisis
Yemen’s harsh geography has been a key factor in the deterioration of the economic situation in the country. The mountainous terrain makes connectivity and the provision of basic services required for proper economic development difficult. In addition, semi-primitive tribal groups still exist in Yemen today, who are both isolated from each other and from urban centres. Posing a logistical challenge to the state is the fact that most Yemenis do in fact live in these isolated, rugged areas, and not in urban centres, which has created a situation where society is unable to form a real political identity and sense of belonging.
In addition, the members of society that live in such areas are already preoccupied with improving their economic conditions. This preoccupation of the Yemeni citizen with obtaining daily sustenance in turn created a distorted and stereotypical understanding about democratic participation and practice that became ingrained in the collective consciousness of Yemeni society.
On the other hand, this political unconsciousness may also be a result of society being a mere victim of state mismanagement, resulting in the dominance of traditional tribal and religious centres of power over the state. In light of weak political literacy that is reflected in poor political participation, the traditional forces, whether tribal or religious, took advantage of the scene to impose their control and drive a wedge between themselves and any public awareness that would put Yemen on the path to proper democracy.
Furthermore, when faced with a crisis, Yemeni political parties and traditional tribal and religious forces tend to immediately appeal to their regional supporters to request support, thus absolving themselves of any responsibility to address the problems society is facing. For the majority of Yemeni people, these political parties and traditional forces have become nothing less than forces that care about their personal interests at the expense of their national responsibility. Consequently, Yemeni society is disintegrating, suffering from political forces who avoid responsibility, the existence of corruption, the prevalence of incompetence, and absence of professionalism. Meanwhile the average Yemeni is simply preoccupied with daily economic struggles to earn a living.
But the project of reaching a democratic polity - despite being one of the most important goals of the revolutions - remains unfulfilled due to the absence of political professionalism and the lack of independence in political action and practice in Yemen.
It is worth noting that the Yemeni revolutions (26 September 1962 and 14 October 1963), which Yemenis have always considered among the most important national achievements in their modern history, failed to create democratic political identities that individuals or parties can implement without interference from either the state itself or any tribal structures. Naturally, one cannot easily call the revolutions a failure because they eventually paved the way for Yemen's independence from the wrath of the Mutawakkilite Imamate and British colonialism. But the project of reaching a democratic polity - despite being one of the most important goals of the revolutions - remains unfulfilled due to the absence of political professionalism and the lack of independence in political action and practice in Yemen.
External factors exploiting local conditions in Yemen
External factors that contributed to the current crisis in Yemen are no less important than the internal situation of the country. The strategic geographical location of Yemen, including the coastal parts overlooking the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Bab al-Mandab Strait as well as the strategic Yemeni islands and the island of Socotra, have always been subject to foreign ambitions.
In different periods of Yemen's history, external powers contented themselves with controlling the coasts and some islands in order to benefit from having influence over the Arabian Sea and its vital shipping route. Yet the rest of the country was deemed useless for these foreign powers and thus was left hostage to the rugged internal Yemeni landscape and the conflicting local forces, thereby leaving internal Yemen isolated from interfering in or being influenced by regional dynamics.
In recent times, the Houthi attacks deep inside the Arabian peninsula have added another dimension to Yemen's strategic importance making regional geopolitical security one of the most important pillars which analysts use to argue for the necessity of addressing the conflict. However, Yemen’s geographically strategic location and regional security have become two mainstream but oversimplified reasons to justify external intervention.
To better understand foreign ambitions in Yemen, one must have a broader view of regional competition in the Middle East. The features of this competition, or arguably a conflict, began to take shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran on the one hand, and the flourishing of hardline Salafist movements on the other hand, Yemen has been caught in the middle of these two regional ideologies.
Throughout history, many Yemeni actors who resorted to support from external powers lost their political identity and credibility.
Both ideologies justify their existence, continuous territorial expansion and the dissemination of extremist ideas under the pretext of liberating and enlightening those who stray away from "truth". The struggle of the Twelver Shia ideology, (led politically, religiously, and militarily by Iran), against the Sunni ideology, (under the leadership of Saudi Arabia with the support of numerous Arab states with often Salafi or Wahhabi elements), has become the prevailing religious competition during the last three decades in the Middle East. And yet, there is no absence of concurrent geopolitical rivalries, such as the Gulf crisis or the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Any war that features a religious ideology, regardless of its orientation or supporters, will only prolong the conflict by feeding its causes and charging it with continuity for the longest possible period of time. The result of this prolonging is deep social division at all levels, as can be observed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Furthermore, the willingness of the Yemeni political community, i.e., the parties to the conflict in Yemen, to satisfy their external supporters and sometimes even go beyond what the regional players expect, has intensified the conflict in Yemen. Throughout history, many Yemeni actors who resorted to support from external powers lost their political identity and credibility. Numerous examples include:
- In the early sixties, the Socialist Party in South Yemen was the sole ruling party, and adopted the Marxist-Leninist ideology while adding some Stalinist characteristics to legitimise its rule. The Soviet Union was the main supporter of ideas, weapons and the economy in South Yemen. The Yemeni Socialist Party thereby adopted the same ideology and practices as the Soviet Union in all its facets.
- The Yemeni Islah Party adopted the literature, principles and policies of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt almost entirely, except for some methods and practices that differed in recent years. But for the most part, the party’s loyalty towards and adoption of the Brotherhood’s methods and ideas was clear.
- Tribal power centres, mostly in northern Yemen, act in the service of Saudi Arabia. Many Sheikhs and tribal figures receive monthly stipends from Saudi Arabia in return for serving Saudi political goals in Yemen. Most of these tribal heads are not particularly erudite, yet the Yemeni authorities also give them the lion’s share of the annual Yemeni state budget, alongside their Saudi-originated income, essentially bribing them to not resist the state. These power centres, therefore, constitute a major obstacle to the emergence of the role of the state by serving foreign interests.
- The leaders of the southern components, including the Southern Transitional Council, owe their loyalty, reverence, and political role to the United Arab Emirates. The STC’s relations with the UAE have slowly become one in which the STC is a subordinate of the UAE, devoid of mutual and equal partnership as claimed by the STC.
- In northern Yemen, the Houthi movement carries a political project engulfed with an extreme ideological thought. The principles of this political project are based on the Zaydi school of thought, yet so modified and distorted that it is closer to the Iranian model than Zaydism. Eventually, the Houthi project became an identical copy of the Iranian project in the region due to the use of the same discourse, media rhetoric and intellectual foundations.
Local and regional parties and their agendas
Almost all local parties in the conflict aim to be the main ruling force in Yemen. The Houthis seek to establish an Islamic system of government and to be the ones who determine the political and economic future of Yemen. The legitimate government seeks to reclaim the power that the Houthis took from them, yet it adheres to principles and foundations that it itself failed to implement.
Various groups and forces that emerged during the 2011 youth revolution share the same goal of the government. These forces, whether Islamist or partisan, however, seek to have the broadest share of power, dominating other parties. Thus, despite being on the same side with the government, they constitute an obstacle to the government's goal of restoring the state.
Iran also seeks to have control over the coastal straits around Yemen as part of its plan to have a wider influence in the region. Thus, Yemen is a strategic target for Iran that will pay strategic dividends if it succeeds in controlling Yemen.
In the south, the project of secession restoring South Yemen enjoys acceptable local support as well some external support, but it clashes with the project to preserve the unity of Yemen supported by most forces in the country. The vision of realising a separate state in the South, despite being a valid cause, remains a victim of disagreement over the method, final vision, lack of national will, and absence of a strong international desire to divide Yemen.
As for regional powers in Yemen, Iran's strategy in the Middle East aims to build what it calls “the Islamic Middle East”. Hence, Iran has described the Arab Spring revolutions as the “Islamic Awakenings”. Besides ideology, Iran also seeks to have control over the coastal straits around Yemen as part of its plan to have a wider influence in the region. Thus, Yemen is a strategic target for Iran that will pay strategic dividends if it succeeds in controlling Yemen.
On the other hand, Riyadh opposes Tehran, albeit with a faltering strategy despite its desire to play a dominant role in the region and to prevent any other external forces from having a strong influence in Yemen. Yemen is a key factor in Saudi national security thinking due to it sharing a very long border with Yemen. Saudi Arabia also has an ambition to obtain an outlet to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for export without worrying about turbulent Iran’s constant threats to control the Strait of Hormuz. As a matter of fact, Riyadh is now working to establish an oil port in Al-Mahra district in the east of Yemen on the coast of the Arabian Sea, not far from the border with Oman.
The UAE has also emerged as an ambitious force working to ensure its influence inside Yemen. The current foreign policy pursued by Abu Dhabi combines overlapping military and commercial objectives with a mixture of security and economic gains. The Emirati intervention in Yemen, in an absolute manner, enhances its political, economic and military ambition and its regional aspirations. The role of the Emirates is distinguished from others in that there are no religious or ideological tendencies driving it.
Rather, it features an incline towards hegemony, the predominance of confrontation, military decisiveness and the control of the land in order to remove certain political forces from power and replace them with others. The influence of the UAE is concentrated geographically in southern Yemen where it found a fertile environment to launch its growing geopolitical influence in the region.
Effects of local and external factors on the prospect for solutions in Yemen
Many scholars’ understanding of Yemen has changed in recent years. This happened because some political forces have disappeared, others have withdrawn from the scene, and others have moved along with the status quo. A discussion about the political situation in Yemen now requires a lot of caution to describe a new fait accompli imposed by forces that were previously at the margins. These forces, the Houthis, have imposed their values and vision, refusing to interact with the crisis in a pragmatic manner. Rather, they proceed on an ideologically mobilised basis that often refuses to even discuss outside the framework of such mobilisation.
Militarily, Yemen has entered a very difficult stage dominated by a terrible power imbalance. In light of the lack of military progress for any side, the future of the conflict remains unclear.
On the social level, there has been a major imbalance in society due to tribal forces disappearing who had contributed to the maintenance of the social system. Both the volunteer departure and the forced displacement of anti-Houthi tribal leaders caused a terrible social shock, as new social forces emerged with a new culture and loyalties that redrew the social system to be obedient to the new de facto authority of the Houthis. The remaining traditional tribal forces that did not support the Houthis and did not leave the country are being manipulated by the Houthis in a way that serves their interests. Thus, all the necessary elements were in place for the emergence of a new form of society that is loyal to the Houthis and that echoes foreign slogans.
Militarily, Yemen has entered a very difficult stage dominated by a terrible power imbalance. In light of the lack of military progress for any side, the future of the conflict remains unclear. This situation has created thousands of victims and has destroyed infrastructure, threatening the existence of Yemen as an entity and a state. Today, the military map is still complex because of international support and external interference.
Possible scenarios in the Yemen crisis
The conflicting political and ideological projects in Yemen coupled with the absence of a local vision to resolve the conflict are factors that will determine the course of the war and the path towards which the Yemen crisis will be heading. Based on the aforementioned local and external factors, certain scenarios for the Yemen crisis can be expected:
First Scenario: The continuation of war amid temporary solutions
The first scenario represents a state of continuation of the status quo with limited and ineffective changes, represented by waves of fragile truces that will act as temporary solutions. The continuation of the war and the production of temporary solutions seems to be the most likely scenario in the short and medium terms. The basis of this scenario is that the core aspect of a political solution has not yet been formed with the peacemaking process still being elusive and immature. Furthermore, there are many contradictory local and international projects in Yemen that have not yet played out fully.
The problem with this scenario is that the production of temporary solutions may lead to the outbreak of a larger war in the future. The continuation of the conflict in such a way serves Iran's interests directly and could backfire on Saudi Arabia, further aggravating the situation in Yemen. It might also provide the UAE with more room to achieve its interests at the expense of Yemen's national interests.
Second Scenario: Ceasing hostilities via an international agreement or pressure.
This scenario will materialise if the conflict spirals out of control, especially in hot areas such as Hodeidah, Taiz or Marib. Accordingly, an international decision to stop the war will be imposed, perhaps under American pressure depending on the will of the Biden administration. Stopping the war could happen via either the withdrawal of the coalition, or by carrying out a decisive military operation against the Houthi movement. International actors will likely be motivated to intervene based on the impact of the war on maritime trade and the worsening of the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
Third Scenario: The continuation of the war towards division and fragmentation
Partition is a scenario that could materialise in the longer term. Slowly but surely, the role of new local actors on the ground in Yemen is growing. The state’s absence vis-a-vis the growth of Houthis and the STC puts Yemen on a path that could end with division for the first time since 1990. It is also likely that the lines of such a division would be based on the 1990 borders given the current spheres of influence of the STC and the Houthis.
Once the partition takes place, it would be impossible for the central state to return. In addition to the partition of Yemen into two states, there would also be a possibility of further divisions across both the North and the South as not all political and military forces in both regions are in complete harmony with the Houthis and the STC.
Although this scenario is not ideal, it presents itself strongly in light of the inability to reach solutions that meet the requirements and conditions of all parties involved in Yemen. It is impossible for Saudi Arabia to accept a state controlled by the Houthis on its borders, just as Abu Dhabi will refuse to give up extending its influence in southern Yemen.
The same is the case with Iran, which considers its alliance with its proxy in Yemen, its support for them and their victory a foregone conclusion, and an integral part of its strategy in the region. If the partition is achieved, geopolitical and partisan considerations will intertwine and the partition itself may take longer to materialise. This is because international actors will not leave any situation without making sure their interests are addressed.
The contradictory factors and parties in the Yemeni crisis have baffled analysts and peace envoys alike. The totality of internal and external factors as well as the parties affecting the political and social scene have created a recipe for disaster for Yemen. The internal factors in the Yemen crisis, although having internal causes, are directly linked to external parties. The internal parties have relied heavily on external parties to achieve their goals, with the external parties often exploiting the opportunity to achieve their ambitions in Yemen.
The current war is not only a war in Yemen, but a war against Yemen and from Yemen. Reasonable solutions to the chaotic situation are difficult to imagine due to the amount of social and political devastation left by the war, and as the crisis progresses it will become more difficult to address it. It seems that the continuation of war and the absence of public safety is the most likely scenario to occur in the short term. This will no doubt lead to more political and societal division in the future.
To end on a positive note, however, it is important to remind ourselves that the fate and future of Yemen lies in the hands of its own young people. Therefore, there is no choice but to invest in them and to urge them to develop themselves economically, socially and also politically.
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source: Noman Ahmed Ashraf is a researcher and writer from Yemen and Pakistan. Currently based in the United States, he has experience working with think-tanks and human rights groups, as well as on a freelance basis. His work involves peacebuilding, Track II diplomacy, humanitarianism, and advocacy. This article was co-written by Monif Aldarwish.
photo: A Yemeni military policeman stands atop the rubble of a former school in the Hairan district of Yemen. January 21, 2019. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
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