What's Your Story Yemen

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 Politics

A closer look at the challenges faced by Yemen

For the last couple of months, we have been bombarded with news of Saudi attacks on Yemen (Houthis’ forces) and vice versa. Most that venture to opinionate here end up choosing sides and ultimately label it a Shia-Sunni conflict.
My purpose in bringing out this piece is so that the lay person can get an unbiased picture of what’s really unfurling in this cacophony that should never have been allowed to turn into a conflict.

In the early 1900’s, Yemen was under the dominion of two major powers. While the Ottomans dominated the north, the south however was under the authority of the British. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the north was taken over by Imam Yahya - a follower of Zaidi Islam (an old branch of Shia Muslims). Wanting a unified Yemen under his rule, he attacked the south focusing his attention on Aden – the biggest trade center in the 1940’s after New York and a breeding ground for unions seeped in Communism. Not only that, it was also a choke point for all trade in the Red Sea. However, this attack crumbled under the combined might of the British Air Force and the Saudi king – Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. In 1962, the Imam died and his son took over. However, his shortcomings were immediately evident. The people of the north, finally dissatisfied with the monarchy, demanded change. The British and the Saudis wanted a royalist – Hamidaddin - to rule the north while Egypt wanted republicans. Eventually, the Imam’s son was dethroned by Sallal - a republican leader who had the backing of the Egyptian President –Nasser- as well as that of the USSR. This resulted in a civil war in the north which saw Egypt pitted against the Yemeni Royalist Forces (Shia). The fight dragged on until the republicans finally won the war in 1968. About this time, the British withdrew from the then South Arabia and renamed it South Yemen. This new state was then given over to be governed by a rather radical Marxist wing of the National Liberation Front, the same having helped it attain independence from Britain. For some time after this, the northern and southern states maintained cordial relations with each other but the peace was short-lived. When war broke out again, it witnessed the arrival of a new player- the Arab League- who kept pushing for a unified Yemen with Sallal as the President. Thereafter, ties with the Saudis turned out to be a love hate relationship. In 1999, Sallal was elected as the first president of Yemen.

Though now a united nation under an elected president, the people of the north and south eventually demanded autonomy to their respective states. This was vehemently opposed by Sallal and it inevitably resulted in skirmishes. In the north it was mainly the Houthis (a Zaidi group) that rebelled against the government. The Houthis felt that the minorities were being ignored by the government and the government felt that the Houthis wanted to overthrow them. The fights that ensued would not have assumed the horrendous proportions that they did reach had it not been for the unfortunate death of a Houthi leader. His death transformed what should have been a battle for autonomy into a personal fight of families which soon spilled over to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used their Air Force to bomb Houthi hideouts. The Houthi tribe, being from the Shia sect, was soon backed up by the Iranian government. The Shia- Sunni conflict had finally taken centre stage.

Another factor that contributed to the already prevailing instability was the Arab spring of 2011 which over threw Sallal and made the then Vice President – Hadi – the new president of Yemen. Four years after his ascension, in January 2015, the Houthis began a series of conquests which saw city after city fall into their hands and which caused alarm bells to go off in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis sought US intervention as America was close by and in hot pursuit of Al Qaeda. But the United States had no intention of getting scorched in the Middle East again. Their refusal prompted Saudi Arabia to form a coalition of Arab states in order to help bring Hadi, who had flown to Riyadh asking for help, back to power.

For now, the Saudi government hopes that air attacks can help bring the Houthi rebels to the negotiation table since it knows that putting boots into the ground would only result in an all-out war with no exit strategy.

As a keen observer of the Middle East, I believe that, if anything, the last two decades have taught us that war boots on the ground can never bring lasting peace in the region. Case in point - Iraq and Afghanistan.