Saudi Arabia informed the Obama Administration in the fourth week of March 2015 of their intention to commence a ‘military operation’ against neighbouring Yemen. The situation in Yemen, from the Saudi perspective, was grave: the Saudi supported elected government of Abou Rabbou Mansour al Hadi had been defeated in an armed insurrection by Yemen’s opposition Shi’ite Houthi tribesmen, President Abou had fled to the main southern port of Aden from the capital Sana’a and Aden itself was under threat of falling to the Houthi tribesmen.
The Saudi air attack, functioning under the aegis of an Arab coalition, comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, in addition to Saudi Arabia), Turkey and Egypt, followed on the early hours of March 26. Pakistan, eager to be associated with the causes of the mainline Sunni States of the Gulf and the Middle East, also made the cosmetic gesture of offering to join the bandwagon against the Houthis.
…seemed the air campaign was aimed at “persuading” the Houthis to enter into political negotiations with the government, something the Houthis are not keen to do…
Islamabad’s actual participation in the action, by way of contributing fighting ships, aircraft or troops is, however, doubtful. This was proven in the second week if April 2015, when the Pakistani Parliament voted against the participation of Pakistani armed forces in the Yemen imbroglio, despite the requests for such participation from the Saudis. This move drew sharp criticism from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a day later.
The initial stage of the campaign comprises air attacks by the Saudi Air Force on Houthi targets in Yemen, aimed at lessening the latter’s pressure on the southern port city of Aden. This city had been surrounded by Shi’ite tribesmen, the international airport had fallen to the Houthis and the air attack was launched after President Abdou had been extricated to ‘a safe location’, Riyadh. It appeared the air campaign had been launched exclusively by the Saudis, the coalition notwithstanding, after keeping the Americans fully informed of their intentions and relying heavily on US technical resources for securing advance intelligence and targeting information, a fact that has been confirmed by both the Americans and Arab Gulf sources.
Confirmation was lacking on whether this air attack would be followed by ground action, though Saudi troops had moved to the border with Yemen and Egyptian warships were reportedly moving down the Red Sea. It however seemed unlikely that Arab troops of the coalition would engage in ground action in the hostile desert terrain of Yemen in a sustained campaign. While Arab and US officials would not speculate on how long the action would last, it seemed the air campaign was aimed at “persuading” the Houthis to enter into political negotiations with the government, something the Houthis are not keen to do following their military successes over the past year.
Ground action by the Arab coalition in Yemen’s forbidding desert and barren mountainous terrain is at present both unlikely and unanticipated: Arab sources, speaking on conditions of anonymity, felt that ground action would be limited to ensuring the physical security of President Hadi and his government, in the eventuality they could be successfully reinstalled in Aden. The remaining members of the coalition were expected to join the air campaign at a later stage, aimed at degrading the capability of the Houthis, which the latter had acquired by seizing sophisticated weapons and aircraft by overrunning Yemen government facilities in and around Sana’a.
With the current predominance of the Shia militia in the insurrection in Yemen, it is inevitable that on the side lines of the insurrection, the Shia Houthis and the Sunni AQAP are settling their own scores in a protracted internecine war.
The actual reason for the considerable Saudi disquietude over the situation in Yemen is obvious. Apart from the fact that the Saudi supported government in neighbouring Yemen had been defeated in an armed insurrection, the most galling aspect of the situation for the Saudis was that the rebels were Houthi rebels, Shias belonging to the Zaidi, or Fiver, sect. The Houthis have been fighting the Yemen Government intermittently since 2004, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a long-time US ally and disliked by the Yeminis for his autocratic ways, was in power. After the American invasion of Iraq, the Yemini Houthi leader, Hussein al Houthi, capitalised on Arab anger to start a revolt against Saleh, Al Houthi was killed in 2004, but his followers, mainly in the northern region of Yemen, continued fighting government forces till a ceasefire in 2010. The Saudis have carried out unilateral military operations against the Houthis, earlier in in 2009.
Saleh was dislodged after a protracted struggle during Yemen’s Arab Spring protests, in 2012, with protracted persuasion by the GCC countries. His successor, President Abou Rabbou Mansour al Hadi, could not withstand continued pressure from the Houthis led by 33-year old Abdul Malik al Houthi on the one hand and a resurgent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on the other. With the current predominance of the Shia militia in the insurrection in Yemen, it is inevitable that on the side lines of the insurrection, the Shia Houthis and the Sunni AQAP are settling their own scores in a protracted internecine war.
The Houthis are closely supported in their efforts by the Iranians, with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) backing the military arm of the Houthis with financing and equipment. The Iranians deny such backing, but the Yemen Government claims to have seized a few shiploads of Iranian weapons destined for the Houthis. There is also no denying that the current air campaign of mainly the Saudis against the Houthis, the advantage would accrue to the blatantly extremist organisation, the AQAP.
The Houthis have north western Yemen as their main base. This area adjoins the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), which is the second largest sand desert in the world. The Empty Quarter encompasses most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, covering an area of about 650,000 sq. kms, including parts of Oman, the UAE and Yemen, in addition to the major area falling within Saudi Arabia.
The on-going conflict in Yemen is a fallout of an age old schism that has existed in the Islamic world, the increasingly bitter conflict between the Sunni (represented by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies as also Turkey) and the Shia sects (the predominant countries being Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq).
Geologically, the Empty Quarter is the most oil-rich sit in the world. Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field, at the north eastern edge of the Rub’ al Khali is Saudi Arabia’s major oilfield, with estimated reserves of 14 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. Saudi Arabia is at loathe to have tensions in this sensitive area, especially keeping in mind that other major oil producing areas of the country Dammam and Dhahran in the East of the country are also areas with an appreciable Shia population, which has been restive when Shia Sunni tensions have arisen in nearby Bahrain. Saudi Arabia would favour the entire region free of sectarian tensions and is therefore been following a proactive policy to ensure absence of such tensions in the region.
The on-going conflict in Yemen is a fallout of an age old schism that has existed in the Islamic world, the increasingly bitter conflict between the Sunni (represented by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies as also Turkey) and the Shia sects (the predominant countries being Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq). The two sides have been involved in a bitter struggle for the leadership of the Islamic world: Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. Moreover, the Saudi Monarch, having assumed the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (since he time of Fahd bin Abdul Aziz in 1986), feels that Saudi Arabia, as the most significant country in Islam, has a rightful claim to leadership and stewardship of the Islamic movement and world. This claim is resolutely contested by the Iranians who, ever since Ayatollah Khamenei’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, have made the export of the Islamic Revolution a cornerstone of their foreign policy.
It is estimated that roughly 80 per cent of the more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are of the Sunni faith, the remaining being Shia and belonging to smaller denominations of Islam, considered blasphemous by the Sunnis. At stake between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a theological dispute hinging not on which country’s faith is more genuine but on which version of Islam constitutes the true faith. Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the competition between the two countries for the leadership of the Islamic world has become increasingly virulent. Ayatollah Khomeini had denounced the Saudi monarchy in his will and the Saudis promptly reciprocated by issuing fatwas declaring the Shias as heathen. The sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis has become increasingly bitter and has led to extended wars taking place between the two sects in Syria, Iraq and even in Pakistan, where thousands of people have died in the resultant internecine conflict.
The Saudis are intent on settling their own scores with the Houthis, since they are a Shia militia and the Americans are unwilling to back the Houthis…
Trouble in Yemen began in 2011, during the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East. The protests in Yemen were initially against abysmal economic conditions, persistent unemployment and widespread corruption as well as against the government’s proposal to modify Yemen’s constitution which, inter alia, would have made then incumbent President Ali Abdullah Saleh to remain in office as President “for life”. Protests took on an increasingly anti-incumbency tone, the government used strong arm methods to quell the riots and Saleh refused to step down. Repeated efforts made by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to mediate defuse the crises failed and the trouble in Yemen took on tribal overtones, with the fractious tribes of Yemen opposing the activities of pillage and plunder by the AQAP.
Paradoxically, the sole tribal unit that is capable of mounting a challenge to the activities of the AQAP is the Shia Houthi militia, but the latter are not favoured by either the Saudis or the Americans. The Saudis are intent on settling their own scores with the Houthis, since they are a Shia militia and the Americans are unwilling to back the Houthis since the latter are trained, equipped and financed by the Al Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), It appears that the current Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthi militia will only serve to degrade the ability of the latter to oppose the more serious threat faced by the region from the Al Qaeda.