In January 2015, armed rebel groups associated with the Shia Houthi movement in Yemen, seized government buildings, dissolved the parliament, and forced the previous President, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to resign. This takeover was the completion of a long drawn-out process that began in September 2014, when the Houthi militia, the strongest and most organised opposition movement in Yemen, effectively took control of the country’s capital, Sanaa.
Yemen is located at the southwestern end of the Arabian peninsula, overlooking the outlet from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Pacific Ocean. While it has huge oil reserves of its own, Yemen is also strategically important for its location as a maritime gateway for shipping and commercial traffic through the Red Sea. Yemen has been an important link for US imperialism, serving as a base of operations for the US military, the latter working closely with the Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his successor Hadi. But Yemen also became known around the world as a target of consistent and lethal drone strikes by the United States, and the casualties from these drone warfare only resulted in creating vehement opposition to the United States. This situation enabled opposition groups, like the Houthi insurgents, to recruit and organise.
Impact of drone strikes
The Yemeni regime received billions of dollars in aid, both military and financial, in order to wage its own campaign against the domestic opposition. The regime of Saleh, allowing the drone warfare to proceed, became an object of hatred and anti-American resentment. The Yemeni solution was upheld by US President Obama as a successful model of counterinsurgency, driven by specific intelligence-gathering and precise targeting of militants, so the administration said. In 2011, when a popular uprising forced the resignation of Saleh, the cosmetic political changes orchestrated in Sanaa were hailed by Obama as a successful example of a managed and orderly transition. The top figurehead of the regime was removed, but the political and military apparatus of the state remained in place.
The implosion of Yemeni society, impoverished as it is, is a complete defeat for US imperialism in the region. The most successful opposition grouping, the Houthis, are politically aligned with Iran. They exploited the widespread hostility to US drone strikes in order to win popular support for their Shia-based insurgency.
Ibrahim Mothana, a young Yemeni writer, wrote a powerful article explaining the counterproductive and horrifying impact of US drone strikes. The article, relayed by Glenn Greenwald and published in the online magazine Common Dreams back in 2013. Mothana examines how the drone strikes are anything but the surgically precise attacks as they are portrayed in the corporate media. Mothana provided testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights that the drone strikes are not only unethical, but are only adding to the misery of the ordinary people in Yemen. He stated that:
We are the poorest country in the Middle East with over 50 percent of our people living on less than 2 dollars a day. We are running out of water and out of oil, our major source of foreign revenue. Our nation has been troubled by decades of conflicts and an irresponsible, corrupt governments. A lot of my childhood friends are unemployed and live a daily struggle to maintain their basic human needs. In 2011, millions of Yemenis who lived decades under one autocratic ruler rose up in a largely peaceful revolution calling for democracy, accountability and justice, the very values cherished in American democracy.
Many young people like me grew up looking to America and its people for inspiration. Among many other things my teenage years were enriched by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches, Mark Twain’s sarcasm and American TV shows. The promise of equality and freedom seemed fulfilled when America elected its first black president. With an upsurge of happiness, many Yemenis celebrated the inauguration day and, at that point, President Obama was more popular among my friends than any other Yemeni figure. I was inspired by President Obama’s promise of “a new era of leadership that will bring back America’s credibility on human rights Issues and reject prioritizing safety to ideals.”
But happiness and inspiration gave way to misery. My admiration for the American dream and Obama’s promises has become overshadowed by the reality of the American drones strike nightmare in Yemen.
This long quote is necessary to provide insight into the mindset of Mothana, and for millions of Yemenis who were hoping for a better future, but have become bogged down in a nightmarish scenario.
Mothana went on to describe the horrifying violence rained down from the skies by the American drone warfare, and the collusion of the Saleh administration with that kind of incendiary warfare:
We Yemenis got our first experience with targeted killings under the Obama administration on December 17, 2009, with a cruise missile strike in al-Majala, a hamlet in a remote area of southern Yemen. This attack killed 44 people including 21 women and 14 children, according to Yemeni and international rights groups including Amnesty International. The lethal impact of that strike on innocents lasted long after it took place. On August 9, 2010, two locals were killed and 15 were injured from an explosion of one remaining cluster bomb from that strike.
After that tragic event in 2009, both Yemeni and US officials continued a policy of denial that ultimately damaged the credibility and legitimacy of the Yemeni government. According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, in a meeting on January 2, 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi joked about how he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni parliament the bombs in the al-Majala attack were dropped by the Yemenis, and then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a promise to General Petreaus, then the then head of US central command, saying: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Such collusion added insult to injury to Yemenis.
Out of this imploding and desperate society, the Houthi insurgency mobilised domestic support for its takeover in Sanaa. However, a bit of background is in order.
The North-South split
In 1962, the new King of North Yemen, was deposed in a coup d’etat by revolutionary-minded, Arab-nationalist military officers inspired by the Pan-Arab ideology of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Yemeni army split, and the leader of the coup d’etat, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, declared the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and dug in for a prolonged civil war. The latter had the support of Nasser’s Egypt, and the nationalist officers received arms, training and eventually several thousand Egyptian soldiers, in support of the anti-monarchist revolt. The royalist side, headed by the absolutist monarch King Muhammad al-Badr, was bankrolled at various times by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, Israel – each with their own interest in weakening Nasser’s Egypt. A civil war by proxy, Egypt committed thousands of troops and air support, but neither side could achieve a decisive victory. The Egyptian political and military leadership later described Yemen as their own Vietnam.
South Yemen, having been a British protectorate until 1967, remained de facto a separate country. Basically Yemen was split into two, and with the withdrawal of Egyptian troops in 1967, the war in North Yemen spluttered to a final conclusion with the royalist faction gaining control of the capital Sanaa. South Yemen, formally known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, (PDRY) was ruled by the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and politically organised along socialistic lines. Its official ideology was scientific socialism, and it drew its ideological and political inspiration from the Soviet Union. Established in 1970, the South Yemeni regime implemented a huge urbanisation campaign, modernising the cities, opening up education to girls and women, offered equal employment opportunities, and ensured equality before the law. The YAR remained influenced by more conservative, religious-based and patriarchal ideology.
Despite ongoing tensions, the YAR and PDRY maintained cordial relations, interspersed with periodic conflicts. In the late 1980s, oil exploration by both countries sparked a renewed interest in merging the two nations, both of which could benefit economically. Both sides established joint exploration ventures in the border areas, and formed a joint oil company involving experts from both nations. The presidents of the two nations agreed to a draft constitution for a unified nation. After a prolonged period of negotiations and political compromises, the North and South Yemen formally merged in 1990. Saleh became the president of the reunited nation, while Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former president of the PDRY, became vice-president and head of the government.
Saleh is President for life, and the rise of the Houthis
Soon after the unification process in 1990, a mini-civil war broke out between the former supporters and members of the Yemeni Socialist Party and the General People’s Congress, (GPC) headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni Socialist Party had been weakened by the dissolution of its main ideological and political influence, the Soviet Union. The more conservative elements in the newly unified Yemeni state, mainly the GPC took advantage of the situation to settle scores and push out their political rivals. All those political and military officials who were members or supporters of the Yemeni socialist party were pushed out, and the Saleh regime consolidated its grip on the country. Yemen was to be ruled with an iron fist, oriented politically and economically to the capitalist West, and maintain friendly relations with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. The latter has always viewed Yemen as belonging to its sphere of influence, with Saudi leaders regarding Yemen’s security situation as inseparable from that of their own.
The ousting of the Yemeni Socialist Party members from positions of power did not mean the end of dissent against Saleh’s rule. Since the early 1990s, the Houthis have been organising as a distinct religious grouping, initially aiming for the revival of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam to which they adhere. Named after the founder of their group, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, they desired a religious awakening for their people, the Zaidis, who make up about one-third of the population in Yemen. Abstaining from politics at first, they concentrated their efforts on religious conversion and activity, and did not seek any political position in the newly unified Yemeni society. However, no grouping can remain indifferent to politics for very long in Yemeni society.
The Houthis, being Shia, were economically and politically marginalised in the new Yemeni polity. This is not surprising, because the economic situation in Yemen has been parlous for its people. Since 1990, Saleh did nothing to alleviate the desperate poverty of the Yemeni population. Yemen remained the poorest country in the Arabic-speaking world, with the majority of the population living on less than two dollars a day. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been seriously addressed by the authorities. Back in 2013, Al-Monitor published an article detailing that the vast majority of Yemenis lack access to basic services, a lack of health care, clean drinking water, and lack of access to jobs.
It is these terrible economic conditions, lack of opportunities and social immiseration, coupled with the incessant and lethal drone strikes, that drove many desperate Yemenis into the arms of opposition groups like the Houthis. The latter, having suffered grievously under Saleh’s dictatorial rule, rose up in rebellion in 2004. They fought the tanks, bombs and superior weapons of the Yemeni regime to a standstill. They gained de facto control of several provinces, mostly populated by fellow Shia, and provided a measure of stable government and security in the provinces they controlled. Let us also not forget that the Houthis are staunchly opposed to al-Qaeda, and have fought pitched battles with Sunni fundamentalist outfits, included the widely despised Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This last point partly explains why the United States is willing to contemplate negotiating with the Houthi insurgency, something it would never normally countenance with a group that has an Islamist ideology.
In 2011, a mass uprising by the Yemeni population resulted in the ousting of the detested figure of Saleh. The United States, having strongly supported the Saleh regime, now sought to defuse the popular unrest by conceding some cosmetic changes. The regime was the beneficiary of billions of dollars in finances and military equipment, so the American policymakers realised that some superficial change was inevitable to avoid letting the entire Yemeni police-security apparatus go under.
Saleh resigned, and was replaced by Hadi. A politically orderly transition was made. A transition that shifted some leaders at the top, while the lower-level military-police structures remained in place. Commitments were made by the Yemeni authorities to make political and economic changes, and the mass protests dissipated. However, no substantive economic change was implemented, and the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The Yemeni solution became a template hailed by the United States as a successful example of managed regime change. That template collapsed in a heap in January 2015 with the defeat of the Yemeni regime.
From being a marginal movement, the Houthis have emerged as a serious political force on the Yemeni scene. While the Houthis are a militant Shia group drawing their inspiration from Iran, it would be simplistic and misleading to characterise them as proxies of Tehran – anymore than the Yemeni Socialist Party are proxies of Moscow or the Soviet Union. Labelling them as a foreign importation of Iranian origin distracts us from the real economic and social grievances, the local Yemeni conditions, that gave rise to a movement like the Houthi. They are a distinct product of Yemeni politics, the desperate economic environment, and the collapse of basic security.
Much has been made of the Iranian connection with the Houthi, and indeed Iranian arms supplies have been provided by Tehran to the Shia militant group. However, the Iranian connection is also vastly overstated, with the former Saleh regime (and Saudi Arabia) exaggerating the group’s ties to Iran in order to justify their ongoing war on the Yemeni people as a ‘war on terror’. Tehran has been making statements of late, comparing the Houthi militia with the Lebanese Shia guerrillas of Hezbollah. This comparison, while appealing, is also simplistic. The Houthis are a product of the Yemeni conditions, with their own centuries-long history of the Zaidi Imamate in Yemen, and their own customs and traditions. Prior to 1962 and the founding of the Yemen Arab Republic, Yemen was ruled by an Imamate system to which today’s Houthis look for inspiration.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC) consisting of all the petro-monarchies in the Gulf including Saudi Arabia, have demanded military intervention in the Yemeni situation by the United Nations in light of the Houthi seizure of power. The GCC meeting in Riyadh also raised the possibility of unilateral military action should the United Nations remain passive. The Saudi Arabian government did back the ousted regime of former president Mansour Hadi with billions of dollars. Saudi Arabia has its own restive Shia minority, occupying territories that border the Houthi in Yemen, and is worried about the encroaching Shia influence in its traditional sphere. In 2009, the Saudi monarchy waged a brief war against the Houthis – the war proceeded disastrously and achieved nothing.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, the Houthis fought off attacks by Al Qaeda, as well as the Yemeni government forces. By September 2014, the Yemeni regime’s authority had all but collapsed, and the Houthi militia, Ansar Allah, (Supporters of God) were able to move into the capital Sanaa. The Houthi takeover of the government in early 2015, was the culmination of a prolonged process of attrition, with the Sanaa government gradually losing ground to the advancing Houthis. The GCC denounced the seizure of power as a coup, a misleading term in this instance that implies the Shia militia has no popular legitimacy. The Houthis did gain popular support as a party untainted by the corruption and subservience to American interests that characterised the Saleh administration.
The Yemeni Socialist Party has been experiencing a revival since the mid-2000s, and the re-emergence of the Left has made it an important political force in Yemeni society. The other Yemeni parties, the Yemeni Congregation of Reform (Muslim Brotherhood), Nasserist Unionist People’s Organisation, the Yemeni Arab Socialist Ba’ath party – are participants in a 2005 initiative, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). This is a coalition of parties united by their opposition to former President Saleh. Each has varying degrees of influence.
In a strong rebuff to the Houthi takeover, the Yemeni Socialist Party has moved towards re-establishing South Yemen as an independent state, and they have approached the Russian consulate for support, echoing the pre-1990s relationship between Moscow and the Yemeni socialist state. The YSP candidate for the post of prime minister is a woman, Amat Al-Alim Alsoswa – a direct challenge to the religiously conservative Yemeni social culture.
The next steps for Yemen must not involve more drone strikes, warfare and militia rule. The economy of the country needs to be rebuilt if its people are to have any hope for the future. Aerial warfare has achieved nothing but resentment and opposition among the Yemeni population. An unjust and unequal economic system has only resulted in the implosion of the society. The rule of law must apply to all parties, and torture must be banned whomever commits it. Military intervention by outside powers will only prolong the country’s suffering. The hopes and aspirations of the brave Yemenis who rose up in 2011 must not be forgotten. Yemen’s plight only underlines the fact that US imperial power is no friend of working people, and will actively prop up dictatorships to suit its own economic and military interests.