The ongoing war on Yemen (since March 2015), led by the forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been waged with the active support of the United States and the United Kingdom. The aerial and ground assault on Yemen has resulted in a human-induced catastrophe, causing famine, malnutrition and horrendous loss of life, especially among Yemeni children.
Over the month of August, Saudi air strikes have killed Yemeni schoolchildren, and all the consequent trauma that these attacks engendered will take years for the survivors and their families to overcome.
Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, rightly points out that it is US bombs that are killing Yemeni children, and the corporate media maintains a deafening silence on the issue. US defence contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, have built and sold the bombs and weapons used by the Saudi-UAE forces to kill Yemenis.
This war has gone largely under-reported, and so is shrouded in a number of myths. Let us address these misconceptions, and in this way, untangle the complexities of the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen. The New York Times, in an article in June this year, examined the humanitarian catastrophe that is enveloping the people of Yemen. This photo-essay is very moving and heart-rending, and contains a helpful map of Yemen delineating the territories controlled by the various parties.
However, this NY Times digital essay recycles a number of convenient misconceptions that whitewash the active complicity of the United States (and Britain) in this conflict. These myths are regurgitated by the corporate media when they (rarely) discuss the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen. What are these myths?
Firstly, that the Houthis are a Yemeni version of Hezbollah……..not the case. Secondly, that the primary reason for this conflict is the Shia-Sunni split in Islam, making the Yemeni war another stage in a prolonged religious dispute. Thirdly, the conflict in Yemen can be understood as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Let’s untangle these falsehoods, and relate the relevant historical and political background.
The Yemen war is political in origin, not religious
Firstly, let us dispense with the often-recycled myth that this war is a proxy one between Iran and Saudi Arabia – this is pure nonsense. Professor Sheila Carapico, an expert in political science at the University of Richmond, explains that misrepresenting the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war is not only a product of outdated Cold-War thinking, but also diverts responsibility for the criminal nature of the Saudi-UAE war onto multiple parties. The Saudi-Emirati assault on Yemen is an unprovoked act of aggression, and the New York Times published an editorial slamming the Saudi and Emirati forces for committing war crimes.
The Houthis, or more correctly, the Ansar Allah (Helpers of God) are a grassroots political-religious militia that has waged successive rebellions and uprisings against the corruption and injustice of the Yemeni government, formerly led by the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis staged a series of armed risings against the government, maintaining that Saudi influence was increasing in the country.
In the 1990s, the Saudis began to make investments and inroads into the newly reunified nation of Yemen. (I realise that is a lot of background to take in, but please bear with me). The Houthis viewed this as an attempt by the Saudi regime to exert undue influence in the economic and political life of the country. Yemen reunited in 1990, under the President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who maintained his grip on power for 33 years – first as the President of the North Yemen and from 1990 the leader of the reunified nation.
The Houthis are Shia, but they are more correctly Zaydi Shia – which is a entirely different denomination to the main Shia religion practiced in Iran. President Saleh was himself a Zaydi Shia. The main body of Shia belong to the Twelver Shia denomination – and this branch rules in Iran.
The Zaydi Shia, are a distinctive sect with their own theological and religious beliefs. For a Zaydi Shia to convert to the main Twelver Shia in Iran would have the same impact as say a Russian Orthodox Christian converting to Catholicism. The weight of historical schism and the threat of family ostracism would bear heavily on such a move.
The Houthis have their own religious and political genealogy, distinctive from Iran, and the Hezbollah militia. While Iran has expressed support for the Houthis, their assistance has been limited and sporadic. This stands in stark contrast to the unstinting support for the Saudi-Emirati offensive supplied by the United States and Britain.
The Saudi-Emirati goal in Yemen
The Saudis and Emiratis, by invading Yemen, want to prop up their preferred political candidate, the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The former Vice President until 2012, Hadi was Saleh’s deputy until the latter was removed in the wake of the 2011 Yemeni protests.
Saudi Arabia, ever watchful of the political changes taking places in the nation to their south, organised a transition process which saw Saleh removed. The Houthis claimed that this change was simply cosmetic, and did nothing to resolve the longstanding issues of poverty, corruption and unemployment plaguing the country.
In the 2000s, former President Saleh tried to suppress the Houthi rebel militia with the backing of Saudi Arabia. The latter failed numerous times – and the Houthis acquired experience in battle. The Saudis, along with their Emirati counterparts, have a long history of influencing the developments in Yemen, and from the early 1990s invested in that country.
Interestingly, while the Saudis and the UAE have been cooperating militarily in their offensive in Yemen, both have been pursuing rival economic objectives. The Emiratis have also invested heavily in Yemen, in particular in Southern Yemen – that portion of the country controlled by the socialist-oriented Southern Transitional Council. South Yemen was until 1990 a Marxist republic until its reunification with the north. The Emiratis have made a strong move into southern Yemen, hoping to turn Yemen into an economic reservoir of their own.
The Emiratis have largely taken the lead on the ground in Yemen, and have employed foreign mercenaries as well to beef up their military commitment. Interestingly, the chief of the Emirati Presidential Guard, an elite fighting force, is an Australian, Mike Hindmarsh. The Emiratis have also grabbed the island of Socotra, an ecologically-rich Unesco-protected island off the coast of Yemen.
A subset of the war on terror – now allying with Al Qaeda
The Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh joined with the United States, from 2001, the global war on terror. Saleh allowed the United States to launch drone strikes against purported Al Qaeda targets in the country. The Houthis, an overtly nationalistic militia, strongly opposed the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and Yemen’s approval of that invasion. There are current reports that the Saudi-Emirati forces have been quietly arranging secret deals with Al Qaeda fighters, employing them to join the battle against the nationalist Houthi militia.
As Al Jazeera reported:
In one conflict, the US is working with its Arab allies – particularly the UAE – with the aim of eliminating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the larger mission is to win the civil war against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
And in that fight, al-Qaeda fighters are effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition and, by extension, the US.
“Elements of the US military are clearly aware that much of what the US is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP and there is much angst about that,” said Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
Shifting and fluid alliances are nothing new in Yemen. Saleh, a wily politician whose career was marked by knowing when to change sides, tacitly supported the 2014-15 Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Saleh turned against his former Houthi allies in late 2017, stating his willingness cooperate with Saudi Arabia. That proved to be his last opportunistic betrayal – in December 2017, Saleh was assassinated by the Houthi movement.
The pipeline of arms
The Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen would not be possible without the uninterrupted pipeline of armaments, military, logistical and intelligence support from the United States and Britain. The insatiable drive for corporate profits is resulting in the deaths of Yemeni people, famine and malnutrition in that nation, and ongoing war crimes.
The United States and the UK are not bystanders, but rather active participants in this war. The carnage in Yemen is not the result of ancient tribal feuds, or historic religious schisms, but the product of current political and economic priorities. It is time to change these priorities to relieve the suffering inflicted by a socioeconomic system that puts corporate profits ahead of people’s lives.