Conflict arising from the crumbling Yemen

Conflict arising from the crumbling Yemen

The entry of Saudi Arabian ground and air forces into Yemen’s tribal war has projected this local conflict onto both the regional and international levels. Saudi war planes and artillery became engaged on Nov 4 after Yemeni rebels killed a Saudi soldier near the border between the two countries. The Saudis have also imposed a naval blockade on ports along northern Yemen’s Red Sea coast to prevent arms smuggling to Shia clansmen fighting the secular Sanaa government. Yemeni and Saudi authorities accuse Iran of arming the rebels, known as ‘Believing Youth’, or ‘Houthis’ due to the name of the clan leading the revolt. The US, an ally of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and antagonist of Iran, just concluded an agreement to provide military training and intelligence to the Yemeni armed forces.

This is not the first time Yemeni tribal warfare has drawn in powerful outsiders. During the civil war of 1962-70, the Arab nationalist government, backed by Russia’s ally Egypt, fought northern Shia monarchists supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, stalwarts of the US camp. External powers feel they cannot afford to stay out of Yemen’s conflicts because of the country’s strategic location on the trade routes linking the Indian sub-continent, West Asia and East Africa.
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The Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi heterodox Shia sect, took up arms in 2004 against the government, claiming discrimination and marginalisation. The government responded by accusing the Houthis of trying to re-establish Zaidi rule in the strategic Saada province. In addition to a 1,000 km border with Saudi Arabia, Saada lies directly across the Red Sea from troublesome Eretrea and failed state Somalia. Ships carrying oil exports from the Gulf to the world sail along these treacherous shores.
Yemen’s mountainous terrain prevents the central government from exercising control over the country while Yemen’s location on the smuggling routes between Africa and Arabia makes it impossible to interdict weapons supplies of Yemeni dissidents.
Houthis now contend that President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a Zaidi, has allowed the strict Saudi Sunni brand of Islam to enter Yemen and has employed ‘al-Qaeda mercenaries’ in the offensive. This is unlikely since Sanaa is also battling Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda, and southern secessionists. The extent of Iran’s involvement is exaggerated by the government and the Saudis. It is not clear if the Houthis do receive arms from Iran. But since the Houthis have apparently adopted Iran’s mainstream form of Shiism, they have Tehran’s moral and spiritual support. Some rebels may have had training in Iran from the Revolutionary Guards.
Yemen has been a troubled country since the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. The north emerged in 1918 as an independent Zaidi monarchy. Secular Arab nationalist military officers overthrew the ruler in 1962 and battled his rebellious followers for another eight years. The south, occupied by Britain since 1839, remained a colonial protectorate until 1967. North and south formed an uneasy union in 1990. Since then Yemen has been at war with itself.

The main cause of Yemen’s unrest is poverty. The country is the poorest in the Arab world.  Yemen’s  3.6 per cent birth rate is among the highest on earth. The number of Yemenis increased by 400 per cent to 24 million over the past 50 years and is expected to rise to 60 million by 2060. Most Yemenis live in deprived rural areas.

More than half of Yemeni children are stunted by malnourishment. Yemen’s oil exports, its chief source of income, are falling and are expected to end by 2017. Scarce local resources have come under growing pressure from 1,75,000 northerners displaced by the Houthi rebellion and thousands of refugees who fled to Yemen from conflicts and privation in the Horn of Africa. The global economic crisis has shrunk remittances from family members working abroad.

Drought, exacerbated by climate change, is killing off the country’s food crops while more than half of available water is used to grow qat, a plant yielding mildly narcotic leaves chewed on a daily basis by most Yemeni men. Qat drains the energy of those who use it and induces somnolence during the middle of the day, the traditional time for chewing the leaf. Instead of trying to stamp out qat cultivation, distribution and sale, the government subsidises it at every stage. Qat growing is expanding rather than shrinking and a powerful ‘qat mafia’ has taken control of the trade.

President Saleh has repeatedly warned that a ‘regional solution’ has to be found for Yemen before it is transformed into a ‘failed state’ like neighbouring Somalia.