After nearly seven weeks of airstrikes launched by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab allies, a fragile temporary ceasefire appears to have taken hold over most of Yemen. The bombing campaign was launched in late March with the goal of reinstalling ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now exiled in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It also aims to thwart the advance of the Houthi rebels, who control the capital and large swathes of territory, and are now the country’s dominant political force.
The military strikes have had a calamitous effect on the already desperate humanitarian situation facing the country, resulting in more than 1,500 civilian deaths, including scores of children. The Saudi-led coalition has blockaded ports and bombed runways, preventing the delivery of food shipments, aid and humanitarian supplies, which have exacerbated the severe shortages in a country that imports more than 90 percent of its food and water supplies. A lack of fuel and medicines has compounded the suffering of civilians, many of whom face malnourishment and dire poverty.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, must now cope with tens of thousands of internally displaced civilians who have been made refugees by the Saudi offensive, a seemingly impossible task for a country under siege and without an effect leadership. The Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm,” launched just two months into the reign of King Salman ibn Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, marks a shift away from a foreign policy that heavily leveraged the use of proxies and toward a far more assertive interventionist posture.
The international community’s acquiescence to Arab coalition’s offensive in Yemen – apart from Russia, China and Iran – is disturbing, considering the hastily announced and ill-defined nature of the intervention, which has completely derailed the existing negotiated approach to conflict resolution. Jamal Benomar, the former UN envoy who mediated those negotiations, resigned after the Saudi-led offensive began, telling the Wall Street Journal, that Yemen was “close to a deal that would institute power-sharing with all sides, including the Houthis” before the bombing campaign took place.
Washington and other western powers have strongly backed Riyadh, providing critical logistical and intelligence support through direct coordination with the US military, which has begun daily aerial-refueling tanker flights to support the offensive. The Pentagon has also expedited the delivery of advanced US-made weaponry and guidance systems. Moreover, evidence has emerged indicating that the Saudi-led coalition have used banned cluster munition bombs supplied by the United States, which are internationally prohibited due to their capacity to harm civilians.
The Question of Hadi’s Legitimacy
Despite the exertion of huge military force, the coalition’s objective of restoring Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s presidency or altering the balance of power in his favor has not succeeded. Earlier this month, a Saudi military spokesman admitted that the nominal goal of the operation had changed from restoring the exiled Yemeni president to defending Saudi regions that lay on the southern border, which have come under fire from retaliatory Houthi shelling in recent days. Some have argued that the offensive in Yemen is legal under international law because Hadi himself called on the Saudi-led coalition to intervene. It is therefore necessary to examine the issue of the deposed president’s claims to legitimacy.
Hadi served as the vice-president of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 in the midst of Arab Spring-inspired protests, clearing the way for Hadi to claim the presidency. Many Yemenis viewed Hadi during his tenure as being a placeholder during a drawn-out period of transition. Hadi lacks a power base in the capital Sana’a and is distrusted by politically influential tribes in the country’s northern regions because he comes from the secessionist-minded south. Likewise, those in the south distrust him because he sided with the north in the 1994 civil war and is widely regarded as a traitor.
Hadi ran unopposed in elections held in 2012 in which his name was the only one on the ballot, while his term legally expired in February 2014, though he continued to hold office. He officially resigned in January 2015 after Houthis seized Sana’a and occupied the presidential palace, but retracted his resignation one month later and attempted to reestablish his government in the southern city of Aden prior to fleeing to Saudi Arabia and ordering international intervention to reinstall his government.
Despite being internationally recognized, Hadi’s claims to legal legitimacy are highly tenuous, especially in the context of Ukraine in 2014. When former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych – who was democratically elected in multi-party polls – fled to Russia following protests in Kiev, Washington and western powers argued that his fleeing from the country nullified his legal and moral legitimacy. As a similar situation unfolds in Yemen, the Obama administration has entirely failed to apply the same standards to Hadi.
Moreover, the notion that Saudi Arabia and a coalition comprised of mostly unelected monarchies are fighting to protect a government they claim represents some form of ‘democratic legitimacy’ is farcical. Not only was Hadi’s government ineffectual and routinely opposed by popular protests, but existing support for his regime is being eroded by his calls for Riyadh to bomb and blockade the country to the detriment of the civilian population. In the eyes of many Yemenis, Hadi’s calls for airstrikes against his own country represent a nail in his political coffin.
The Question of Iranian Involvement
Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies has gone to great lengths to portray their intervention in Yemen as a necessary response to Iranian meddling, emphasizing the rhetoric of sectarian determinism by labeling the Houthi rebels as Iran’s “stooges”. Seeing the conflict in Sunni-versus-Shia terms or through the lens of overarching claims about Iran’s capacity to influence events in Yemen not only serves to stoke the divisive sectarianism already engulfing the region, but it ignores the complexities of the country’s internal political struggles and local socio-economic factors, which are crucial to understanding the situation.
The Houthis are widely viewed as Shiites due to their adherence to the Zaydi sect of Islam – an offshoot of mainstream Twelver Shiism, the predominant religion in Iran – of which some 40 percent of Yemen’s population belongs. Yemen was under the control of a Zaydi imamate for hundreds of years, until republican forces toppled their regime in a 1962 civil war that similarly drew regional powers into the fold. For the past several decades, the country’s Zaydi minority has been rigorously persecuted through socio-economic marginalization and military crackdowns.
The Houthis, once on the fringes of Yemen’s political scene, played a key role in ending the 34-year rule of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 protests, largely by harnessing socio-economic grievances and political oppression faced by many Yemenis. The Houthis gained credibility as a political opposition and paramilitary force, having fought the Saleh government to a standstill in six wars since 2004. Following the resignation of Saleh, the Houthis were sidelined from the Gulf-led political process that brought then-vice president Hadi to power.
Furthermore, the Houthis have garnered domestic credibility that transcends sectarian divisions due to their positions on several issues. They have consistently opposed US intervention and the use of drone warfare in their country, which resonates with a great many Yemenis. The Houthis expanded the territory under their control through forming alliances with influential Sunni tribes and clans that also sought to reverse the systemic political and socio-economic marginalization of their communities. Most credibility, the Houthis have proved to be the force most capable of thwarting the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen and fighting jihadist terrorism.
The Houthi movement has methodically expanded its power base, becoming the de-facto government both because of the group’s prowess in guerilla warfare and its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of Yemen’s political establishment. Furthermore, it has proven to be shrewdly pragmatic force, as evidenced by the Houthi’s alliance with armed forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is again angling for a political comeback. The dynamics of the Saleh-Houthi relationship remain murky, as are the details of any possible power-sharing arrangements the former adversaries may have brokered behind the scenes.
Given the internal dynamics of the Houthi’s rise and its ability to navigate the complex domestic political landscape, the role of Iran has been vastly overstated, precisely because it allows Saudi Arabia and its allies to use Tehran as a scapegoat to execute aggressive policies designed to maintain regional hegemony and delegitimize political opposition movements that seek participatory politics. If Iran had lent any support to the Houthis, it would have been quite modest since no party to the conflict has yet produced any convincing evidence of direct Iranian material, financial or logistical intervention in Yemen.
The Question of King Salman’s Reign
There is no denying, however, that a Houthi-led Yemen represents a major shift toward Iran’s sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia shares a 1,800-km long border with Yemen and is determined to suppress the emergence of a government that represents political opposition to the House of Saud, especially considering Riyadh’s own discontented Shia minorities who populate key oil-producing regions, such as Najran, which border areas of Yemen under Houthi control. The Kingdom is primarily concerned with a Houthi rebellion spilling over its borders.
Rather than supporting a plan that would have checked the Houthis’ hold on power through the formation of a governing coalition representing different power blocs, Riyadh’s interference in Yemen’s internal affairs represents a strategic blunder that will fail to yield a decisive victory for the Saudis, putting the country on an entirely weaker footing. The Kingdom’s military offensive against Yemen comes at a time when the newly inaugurated King Salman is hastily overhauling the foreign and domestic policies of his predecessor, King Abdullah, who died in January.
The House of Saud, an institution known for decision-making by consensus and conservative incrementalism, has seen more personnel changes in the first months of 79-year old Salman’s reign than at any previous time, offering unprecedented changes in the Saudi line of succession. He boldly removed the sitting crown prince and promoted his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to the kingdom’s second highest post, also promoting his 29-year old son, Mohammed bin Salman, now third from the crown and responsible for directing the Yemen offensive through his role as defense minister, among other major roles.
These abrupt personnel changes may be a sign of a major split within the Saudi ruling family over how best to secure the kingdom’s strategic interests, though there are yet to be any outward signs of a power struggle between different royal factions. The 55-year old Prince Nayef is known for his role in counterterrorism activities that thwarted the kingdom’s domestic al-Qaeda presence. The ascent of the ruthlessly ambitious Mohammed bin Salman has set the stage for the young prince to become the first grandson of Ibn Saud Abdul-Aziz, the kingdom’s modern founder, to take the reigns.
Salman’s advanced age has likely influenced his comparatively abrupt decision-making style, though his intentions are fairly transparent: projecting a leadership position on the world stage as the defender of the region’s Sunnis while establishing a reputation for his untested son, who will likely emerge as the leader of the next generation of Saudis, of whom more than two-thirds are currently under the age of 30. Riyadh’s touting of the so-called Iran threat should be viewed in the context of a new leadership keen to change the norms and appear as decisive and capable of securing the kingdom’s future.
Yet by aggressively intervening in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia has put itself in an awkward position as it becomes increasingly obvious that an undisputed victory for the kingdom is out of reach, opening the door for a prolonged military engagement. The danger is that the Saudis may perceive any stalemate or negotiated settlement with the Houthis as an unacceptable loss of face, prompting Riyadh to continue the devastating military campaign. As a result of developments thus far, Yemen is devastated, far less capable of fighting terrorism and a positive outcome seems truly out of reach.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst based in Malaysia who has written for a number of publications, his expertise lies in a number of areas, with a particular focus on Asian politics and geopolitics, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.