The over four-year-old war that has devastated Yemen and triggered a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries, saw a dramatic new turn over the weekend after a spectacular aerial attack took out two major oil production facilities deep inside Saudi Arabia and sent global crude prices soaring.
The War in Yemen
In February 2012, the Arab Spring’s Yemeni Revolution of Dignity ended President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 34-year rule. The transfer of power to longtime Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was followed by massive internal strife, jihadist attacks, unemployment, and food insecurity.
A two-decade old insurgency of the Shia Zaidis — called Houthis after their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, whom Saleh’s army had killed in 2004 — flared up, and Yemen’s northern Saada province and adjacent areas passed into Houthi control.
The capital, Sanaa, fell in the beginning of 2015 — and as the Houthis, backed by Saleh and Yemeni forces loyal to him pressed on, Hadi fled first to Aden and, in March that year, to Saudi Arabia.
With the establishment of the Houthi government in Sanaa, Riyadh and its Sunni Arab allies waded into the war. Saudi Arabia’s intense bombing campaign against the Houthis and the loyalists of Saleh was provided logistic and intelligence support by the United States, United Kingdom, and France.
Saudi Arabia vs Iran
As in many military and non-military conflicts in the region, Saudi was provoked by its intense insecurity about the Sunni kingdom’s great rival, Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia and the US consider the Houthis to be a proxy of Iran, armed and funded by the regime in Tehran. Yemen’s coastline along the Gulf of Aden and its unique location on the mouth of the Red Sea, the gateway to the Suez, gives it enormous strategic value.
The US and Saudi have an old and deep relationship; indeed, the Americans started to associate themselves with the military action before Trump became President. The Trump administration, which now faces some pressure in Congress to end America’s involvement in the war, sees Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assault on Yemen as part of the continuing larger effort by the two allies to beat and bleed Iran.
What happens now
American officials have cited intelligence assessments and satellite pictures in support of claims that the attacks that penetrated Saudi air defences were carried out using sophisticated drones and cruise missiles that could not have originated from Yemen. But the Houthis have claimed responsibility while Iran has denied involvement — and the US “evidence” does not provide conclusive proof to the contrary.
Tensions in the Gulf are already high, and the crisis suggests Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran could backfire in unforeseen ways. For all his talk of being “locked and loaded”, it is unclear if the President has the stomach to actually strike at Iran — the war is not very popular in the US, and the relentless Saudi bombing of Yemeni civilian areas is seen worldwide as being both pointless and morally indefensible.
Yemen is in the middle of what has been called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. International groups believe some 70,000 people have been killed since January 2016, and that about 80% of Yemenis — about 24 million people — desperately need humanitarian aid.