By Janhavi Apte
In recent weeks, the United Arab Emirates has made tactical troop changes in Yemen. Coverage of the UAE’s decision has largely been analysed in terms of its impact on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict and regional tensions with Iran. This is in line with the general framing of the Yemeni conflict, and recent public comments by the former foreign minister of Yemen, Khaled Alyemany, underscore this fact, as he referred to the civil war as a fight for freedom against Iran.
Current hostilities aside, Yemen has long been a country with unstable social, political, and economic environments. Though briefly hailed as a success story during the Arab Spring, the country quickly slipped into chaos as the new leadership failed to consolidate its power and implement necessary changes – the recurring nature of which has haunted Yemen for over six decades.
Today, there are at least four interconnected but separate zones of ongoing conflict in Yemen: the war in the north between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition; the struggle for succession in the South; the southeastern conflict against scattered militant Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and the battles for Taiz and the port of Hodeidah. Each arena of conflict has its own adversaries, strategies, and goals, highlighting that the experience and challenges of the war are not homogenous, and that going forward, the solutions will not be uniform either.
Though Yemenis have come together on several occasions to navigate these challenges – whether in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative in 2011, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013, or the most recent Stockholm agreement of 2018 – the lack of political will and institutional capacity to effectively implement plans has led to the systemic collapse of the Yemeni economy and state infrastructure, resulting in a dangerous cycle of unending violence and political upheaval.
The troubling persistence of the binary narrative of the conflict perpetuates ineffective approaches. Strategic positioning fixated on Iran as the only “bad actor” in the conflict only serves to undermine the complex dynamics of the crisis, but also shifts the responsibility of the conflict away from the Yemeni leadership.
The goals of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen are in line with United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, which calls on the support of Arab countries “by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention” and notes the “authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen” against aggression by Houthi insurgents.
The Saudis also represent the alliance against Iranian influence in the region, who fear the rise of the Houthis as they gain control over Yemeni territory.
Saudi Arabia has not shied away from expressing concerns about the rise of its biggest rival in its own backyard. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently condemned Iran and its surrogates for unprovoked attacks on American and allied interests, referring to the recent attack by the Houthis at Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia.
He has vigorously pursued building a global coalition comprising Saudi Arabia, the US, UAE, and Asian and European allies to counter Iran, including a recent push in the Middle East. Violence in Yemen has escalated since then. If tensions continue to rise, these quid pro quo attacks could continue to produce disastrous ripple effects both in Yemen and in the broader region, particularly given the escalating standoff between Iran and the US. Should the narrative persist and the Yemeni government follow suit, the likelihood of Saudi Arabia stepping down and ceasing hostilities seems unlikely.
This will only trigger increased violence and regional instability, and produce the exact opposite of its intended result: a more influential Iran. The war in Yemen is a low-cost high dividend scenario for Iran; a simple way to make its biggest rival uneasy.
Furthermore, continued foreign intervention by all actors will leave no room for Yemenis to make peace among themselves.
An additional risk is that of conflating Houthi and Iranian interests, which is problematic given the limited influence of Iran on Houthi tactics. Iran has provided overt military and technical support to the group.
Both groups follow separate branches of Shia Islam, and cooperation is apparently largely based on political ambition than religious beliefs. It is important to consider these facts in any diplomatic engagement to build confidence among the Houthis that their interests and concerns are not being overlooked.
You can read the full analysis at Khaleej Times here.