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Sam Hamad

Poverty-stricken Yemen pounded as region begins to unravel

Absolute poverty blights a large portion of the country [AFP]

Date of publication: 26 March, 2015

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Analysis: With Riyadh's jets bombing the Arab world's poorest country, sectarian forces appear to be tearing the Middle East apart.
As Saudi bombs fall on Houthi positions around Yemen, mainly targeting the capital city of Sanaa, the region seems yet again to be on the brink of what has been a long-brewing, larger regional conflict.

For many, it was in Syria where the frontlines of the Saudi and Iranian proxy war was located, but Saudi aid to the Syrian opposition was always limited and always contingent on other factors - be it the rise of militant anti-Saudi jihadist forces such as the Islamic State group, or the Saudis keeping in line with the United States by keeping aid to the rebel forces to a minimum.

Even taking into account the sheer scale of the Iranian regime's intervention on behalf of Assad, not to mention its intervention in Iraq - both situations widely perceived as representing the expansion of Iranian interests in the Arab world, with US consent and support - the situation in Yemen represented something altogether more sinister from a Saudi perspective. 

Here you have a nominally Shia Islamist force overthrowing the Saudi-supported government of President Abd Rabbo Monsour Hadi right on their doorstep.

Add to this the fact that the Houthis have been violently intransigent regarding attempts to settle their differences with the Hadi government through negotiation.  

While Saudi forces have been mobilising along the border for weeks, the tipping point must have been the Houthis' seizure of military bases in Hadi's stronghold of Aden, forcing the president into hiding and thus edging the country closer than ever to all-out civil war.

So, intertwined with all of this is the fact that the Houthis have grown closer to Iran over the years. 

The last time there was a conflagration between the Saudis and the Houthis, it was reported that Iran's "Quds Force", the elite division of its Revolutionary Guard Corps used for operations in the Arab world, was involved in aiding and training the Houthis. 

It has also been established that the Houthis have played a part in the Iranian regime's coordinated sectarian counter-revolutionary "jihad" against the Syrian opposition. 

While the exact dimensions of the relationship between the Houthis and Iran is difficult to establish, Iranian officials have referred to the Houthis in the same terms as the Iranian-funded and ideologically allied Hezbollah. 
     Riyadh, as ever, fears some kind of mass insurgency among the mainly Shia residents of its oil-rich Eastern Province.

Riyadh, as ever, fears some kind of mass insurgency among the mainly Shia residents of its oil-rich Eastern Province and, with the Houthis controlling Yemen, this would be a potential launch pad for potential "foreign interference" in the kingdom.

While it may be obvious that the Houthis and Iran would strive for mutual cooperation, it's a mistake to imagine that the militant group is a mere proxy of Tehran.  

The conflict within Yemen might seem, on one level, as something akin to a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, but the actual fault lines in the internal struggle have been shaped primarily by local factors. 

The transitional government has failed to truly unite the country and repress the elite interests that dominated society under the regime of overthrown tyrant Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

Indeed, the Saudi and GCC-brokered deal after the Yemeni revolution mostly endeavoured to preserve the status quo of the Saleh government in terms of protecting interests, while giving Saleh immunity from prosecution.

The resulting transition was a mess. 

The "Yemen solution", as the US has called it - as though it was some kind of model for post-revolution success - simply equated to the US and its regional allies prioritising "counter-terrorism" over the democratic self-determination of those Yemenis who had taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, Sunni and Zaydi alike, to overthrow tyranny and call for genuine economic and democratic change. 

However, as with other Arab revolutions, the main opposition bloc to the Saleh regime was the Muslim Brotherhood, in the shape of the Al-Islah party, which, as with all Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, is largely a proponent of Islamic democracy.

The "Yemen solution" had to take Al-Islah's genuine support on the ground into account; however, given Saudi Arabia's antagonism to the Brotherhood in general, as seen with its massive material support for Sisi's military coupin Egypt, it was keen to ensure that members of the Saleh regime were kept in place in order to limit Al-Islah's influence in the post-revolutionary Yemeni government. 

It was even thought by some that the Saudi government preferred the rule of the Houthis to the alternative of Al-Islah coming to power, with Riyadh even blacklisting the party in 2014, as part of its wider regional campaign against the Brotherhood.

It should not be forgotten that we're talking about the Arab world's poorest country, with absolute poverty blighting a large portion of the country's tribal populace, with a small minority of urban elite feeding off of the county's resources, shielded for years by the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, in the name of maintaining "counter-terrorism" against an Al-Qaeda-led insurgency, itself feeding off the crippling poverty, despair and resultant disorder that has gripped Yemen over the decades.
     It should not be forgotten that we're talking about the Arab world's poorest country,

The problem is that amid this whirlwind of competing local interests and regional antagonisms, the interests of the poor and dispossessed, who had overthrown Saleh, have been largely ignored by the transitional process following the revolution. 

It is in this context that the Houthis have been able to capitalise on the instability caused by rightful protests by the poor against Yemen's stalled transition, and deliberate attempts by other counter-revolutionary forces to destabilise the country, including forces that remain loyal to Saleh, who, to complicate matters even further, has backed the Houthis.

There are those who will celebrate this intervention by Saudi Arabia and its allies as if it is somehow a strike against Iran's growing dominance in the region - but such a perspective misses the fact that while the Houthis are no friends of democracy and do have a relationship with Iran, the Saudis are merely intervening to protect a status quo that was quite clearly failing the people of Yemen, but that best maintains Riyadh's interests. 

The Saudi airstrikes, with unprecedented support from its allies, certainly demonstrate to Iran that it is able to defend and pursue its interests with military violence, but they may also lead to the Houthis coming to the negotiating table with the Hadi government. 

However such outcomes are rarely delivered quickly and without much human cost.

The Saudi military action could very easily also have the effect of further radicalising the already militant Houthis and, most ironically, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and have the effect of further drawing Iran into the fray in Yemen - thus providing further instability to a region that seems to be teetering on the edge of all-out sectarian war. 

Whatever the outcome, the actual agents of change, those masses of people who filled Yemen's squares to demand change, will no longer be active, but will be passively taking shelter, merely hoping to survive amid this unravelling chaos. 

Sam Hamad is a Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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