March 26 Saudi Arabia launched a series of air-strikes on Yemen, opening a new chapter in the history of this rather troubled Arab country.
In the previous episodes.
South-western tip of the Arabic Peninsula, Yemen was divided into North and South until May 22, 1990. On this day, Yemen was unified and the Northern President Ali Abdullah Saleh became the leader of the newly constituted Nation. Twenty one years later, the Arab world faces the waves of the so-called Arab Spring that in barely ten months subvert the order in the Middle East. January, Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali, President of Tunisia, resigns. February, Egyptian Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak falls. June, Saleh rushes to Saudi Arabia. October, after months of war Muammar Qaddhafi is killed.
Zoom in on Yemen.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – notoriously dominated by Saudi Arabia – backed by the US ally and the UN, devise a plan for power transition from Saleh to his bland deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. From then on, the country – which is chronically unstable – has struggled with a civil war that recently burst out, gaining global front-pages, with the Houthi reaching Aden. President Hadi, besieged, has left to find shelter in Saudi Arabia and ask for their intervention.
Now, explaining Yemen’s society is hard and complicated by the fact that pinpointing factions and alliances along sectarian lines is misleading. When trying to get a sense of who the Houthi are, it’s much better to avoid simplistic narratives describing them generically as a Zaydi offspring of Shi’a and see them through the secular lens as one of the many groups in Yemen competing for power and one of the populist groupings appealing to the frustration of a population haunted by poverty and corruption thanks to decades of nepotist and violent regime. En-passant, as evidence of what previously stated about the fluidity of alliances, it’s interesting to note that Houthi’s progress has been somehow facilitated by the complicity of soldiers on Saleh’s payroll. Strikingly, Saleh had the leader of the movement (Hussein Badr al-Din al Houthi, patronymic) arrested in 2004 and declared war on the entire group.
Back to the Saudi intervention.
We should not forget that Yemen, as the other countries of the Gulf, is part of the Saudi ‘courtyard’. It’s always been a rather turbulent land, constantly troubling the al-Saud because of a porous border almost 2,000 kilometres long. According to many journalists and analysts, Yemen is yet another piece in the middle eastern power game. The phrases used to describe the situation range from atrocious ‘Third World War’ to ‘Cold War’ to ‘proxy-war’, each and every one referring to an alleged struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The analytical framework of geopolitics is supported by history: from the fall of the Ottoman Empire, various actors have competed for predominance in the region, triggering literal and figurative skirmishes and competing both in soft and hard power. Candidates for hegemony varied as the decades passed. For example, Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s Egypt long cultivated the dream of panarabism – short-lived offspring the United Arab Republic (UAR) with Syria – and confronted Saudi Arabia precisely in Yemen during the 1960s. Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported opposing parties: republicans and royalists, respectively. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s revolutionary Iran called for the downtrodden peoples of the region to get rid of their regimes. Again, Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq fought Iran for eight long years between 1980 and 1988 and invaded Kuwait barely two years later, causing panic in neighbouring Saudi Arabia that called the US to help out fearing a domino effect crowning Saddam as middle eastern king. All this without mentioning various Sykes and Picot, US Presidents and USSR Secretaries, who made their moves on the Middle East chessboard.
Today, we are told, the main contenders are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both refrain from open fighting and play their game supporting opposing factions, openly or else. It’s the case of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The phrases mentioned above become self-explanatory.
What is less convincing is the habit – particularly common among decision-makers – to cut the Middle East into two halves: Shi’a and Sunni. This opposition, is said, explains every turbulence in the region. Firstly, it’s plainly wrong to portray Shi’a and Sunni Islam as monolithic blocs: as one commentator noted
In Yemen, as well, the Zaydi Shiites, about a third of the population, bear no resemblance to Iran’s Twelvers. It is like assuming that Scottish Presbyterians will always support Southern Baptists because both are forms of Protestantism.
Inter alia, Iranians deny their involvement in Yemen. Anyway, if it’s true that both contenders do play the card of sectarianism to gather support, it’s at least simplistic to paint the middle eastern landscape as the eternal struggle between Islam’s two poles. Of course, the ethnic opposition Arabs v. Persians is even less palatable.
Maybe, it’s a little more convincing another idea. Proxy-wars might be Iranian and Saudi attempts at hijacking their people’s attention from internal issues and channel discontent towards outer enemies. Let’s just imagine an oppressive, authoritarian regime that needs suppress dissent and hide troubles at home. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both cases in point. Diverting attention outside is surely a smart way of avoiding treating the malaise. What else could have urged the Saudi to get involved in Bahrain in 2011 if not the fear of infection? Perhaps, it’s no wonder the muscle prowess is showing barely two months after the crowing of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Does he want to show since inception his temperament?
Clearly, the factors that contribute to explaining the arm wrestling in the Middle East and, in this latest case, Yemen are multiple. Just as clearly the situation in the region is a bundle that simply gets more and more tangled up as it’s dealt with. However, a couple of notes are worth taking in light of the evolving situation in Yemen: first, the constitution of a coalition between the Gulf countries, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, special guest Pakistan, for the Yemeni enterprise; second, the extraordinary Egyptian-Saudi condominium that says a lot about the shifting alliances within the Arab world. Add to this a rather important detail: the very recent rapprochement between Iran and the US. This very detail troubles the al-Saud to the point of panicking and makes a newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu throwing a tantrum. What is coming next it’s incredibly hard to predict. One thing, though, remains sadly true: peace is still far away.