Yemen: A Pawn in the Game of Middle Eastern Checkers?

On December 31, 22 people were killed and 50 others injured in an attack at the Aden airport in South Yemen. The attack was directed at the Saudi-backed cabinet of the new Unity Government which had landed in the same airport at that time. A second explosion was reported from Aden's Maasheq presidential palace which housed the cabinet members including the Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik and the Saudi ambassador to Yemen. The Yemeni government had been sworn in on December 26, 2020, days prior to the incident, comprising 24 ministers representing the major political powers of the nation including the Southern Transitional Council. The government placed the responsibility of the attack upon the Houthis. This even should not be interpreted in isolation but in the context of a diplomatic and military crisis that goes back years into the past.

Yemen's Civil War

The roots of the long-drawn conflict can be traced back to the multi-sided war between the Abrabbuh Mansur Hadi led Yemeni government in the South and the Houthi rebels who have seized control of Northern Yemen including the capital city of Sana'a, adjoining the Saudi border. The civil war started in 2014 and is largely attributed to the religious angle. The Zaidis, a sect of Shias, faced discrimination during the rule of Muhammad al-Shawkani, who propounded Sunnification as the means to consolidate a unified Yemen. This was in defiance to Zaidi Shi'ism. The Houthis trace their ancestry from a Zaidi group located at the Sa'dah governorate on the Northern borders of Yemen.  

The first of the Houthi rebellion was seen in 2004, when Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a former member of the Yemeni Parliament was killed by government military forces following his protests against governmental regulations. The political situation escalated following the 2011 Yemeni Revolution of Dignity, an offshoot of the broader Arab Spring revolution. Abdul- Malik al-Houthi supported the rebel organisations' demand for the resignation of the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and its siege of the Salafi village of Dammaj in Northern Yemen, boycotting the 2012 single-candidate elections aimed at making Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi the President of Yemen (a post which he still holds).

By 2014, the Sunni-Houthi conflict engulfed the rest of Yemen including the Sana'a Governorate by August 2014. The civil war was marked by several military milestones including the Battle of Taiz, at Yemen's third-largest city. The Houthis employed a Tochka missile (ballistic) against the Saudi-led coalition. At the battle of Aden in 2015, Hadi escaped to Riyadh, seeking assistance from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the Saudi heir apparent. The war no longer remained confined within Yemeni borders and was immediately internationalised. A Saudi-led coalition including UAE attempted at restoring the previous Yemeni Government. Sudanese and Egyptian troops had also cooperated against the Houthi advances. Amidst a geopolitical crisis, the ISIS too had been actively involved, conducting a series of suicide bombings that resulted in the death of 15 soldiers affiliated with the Saudi coalition. They, however, didn't side with the Houthi rebels either - exhorting their followers to kill the Zaidis as well. 

In 2018, the Saudi led coalition launched a major offensive mission to regain control of the city of Hudaydah, adjoining the Red Sea, in spite of warnings by the UN that the port's destruction would serve as a “crossing of Rubicon” moment. Basically, it was a point of no return as it would be impossible to avert massive loss of life due to the famine conditions that would ensue due to the disastrous effects on the shipping of food supplies. 

 In August 2019, there was a rift in Southern Yemen between the government forces backed by the Saudi government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which enjoyed UAE support. Following the failure of the Kuwait initiative seeking a political solution, the 2019 Riyadh agreement was brokered as a power-sharing deal between the Yemeni government and the Southern separatists aimed at transcending this difference between the friends turned foes. However, the conflict resumed on January 7, 2020, when the Houthi rebels shot down a Saudi coalition drone at Jawf. 

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, an air raid ceasefire had been declared while 10,000 people had been displaced, and 13 million civilians denied access to clean and safe drinking water. Yemen had previously faced a cholera epidemic in 2017 affecting 20 out of the 22 Yemeni provinces. As of July 2020, the UNHCR estimated that 3.6 million people had been displaced and 24 million await urgent aid.

Geopolitical ramifications 

The civil war has been at the heart of a much larger international political equation. Despite the fact that United States spokesperson Bernadette Meehan has openly stated: “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”, many have viewed this as a larger Iranian proxy war. Iran and Yemen are composed of Shia Islamist, albeit with minor differences - the Iranians are followers of the Twelve Imam Shias while the Houthis are Zaidi Shias. This is in contrast to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that largely comprises Sunni-majority nations. Ali Khamenei has even explicitly stated that he shall provide “spiritual support" to the movement of the Houthis in 2019. Eritrea too has been accused of providing Iranian ammunition to the Houthis. 

The Yemeni government on the other hand has received military as well as financial aid from the United States, which conducted drone strikes in Sana’a aiming to neutralise Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Reports published by Amnesty International in 2019 also indicate logistical assistance from the UK in the form of laser-guided bombs and other weaponry. Interestingly, the US Arms Export Control Act was believed to have been violated by the United States Department while ratifying arms sales to the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in August 2020. 

The launch of the ballistic missile by Houthis aimed at Saudi Arabia in 2017 led to a further strengthening of the Yemen blockade by the Saudi coalition under the pretext of preventing weapon smuggling by Iranian rebels, an accusation Tehran vehemently denies. In hindsight, this led to a hike in the price of food and fuel, adding a food security dimension to the military conflict. 

The way forward

Yemen continues to suffer from the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The crisis is not only a concern to the Middle Eastern neighbours of Yemen but fuels the threat perception pertaining to that of the West's War on Terror against terrorism at large, particularly Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Yemen enjoys superior strategic significance, located as it is geographically on the strait linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden which constitutes the zone from which most of the world's oil cargo travels. Many had blamed Saudi Arabia for its lack of security provisions on the day of the Aden airport blast, yet this might be considered as the tip of the iceberg of a deep-seated problem concerning the 'unity government.' What needs to be understood is that in more ways than one, Yemen has become a pawn in the clutches of the broader strategic dynamics of the Arab world and Uncle Sam’s War on Terror.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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