2:55 am - Sunday February 18, 2018

The Shia-Sunni War in Yemen and its implications on regional stability

The current flare up in Yemen started last September with the Shia Houthis backed by soldiers loyal to former President Abdullah Saleh, forcing the president Mansour Hadi to abdicate and flee.  Immediately afterwards, neighbouring Saudi Arabia intervened by bombing the Shia rebels with the proclaimed aim of restoring Mansour Hadi back to power. The Yemeni conflict  claimed its first Saudi Arabian causalities this week with three Saudi border guards reportedly killed in shelling by Houthi militants. Simultaneously, Egyptian navy has attacked the Houthi forces near the coastal city of Aden. Turkey has agreed to give logistical support to the Saudi led intervention. Shia dominated Iran, which supports the Shia Houthis has told the Sunni forces to back off.

The fault lines of the war in Yemen are as old as Islam. This conflict is to be viewed as the part of the wider sectarian blood feud being prosecuted simultaneously in various countries of west Asia. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have the same players supporting the rival Shia- Sunni sides with weapons and training. What makes the Yemeni conflict special is the fact that Yemen lies just south of Saudi Arabia and shares a long and porous border with that Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Arab league – Egypt, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain have officially joined forces against the Iran backed tribesmen. On 28th last month, the Arab countries met at Sharm el-Sheikh and announced the formation of a joint Arab army to deal with the Houthis.  It is interesting to note that such an unprecedented step of organising a joint force under the Arab league has never been tried out against Israel since 1973. It is clear that, for the Sunni Arab League, Shia dominated Iran is the number one enemy

saudi bombing in yemenYemen has a bloody History with Saudi interventions

Throughout its history, Saudi Arabia has expended both men and money to ensure its control in the neighbouring Yemen. The reason for Saudi direct intervention is clear. The Saudi royal family knows that an unstable Yemen at its borders will directly threaten the very survival of the Kingdom of Saud. To make matters worse, the northern part of Yemen, adjacent to the Saudi border is dominated by the Shias who are in the leading the rebellion.

Beginning in 2004, the Houthis, led an armed rebellion against Sunni Yemeni and Saudi Arabian forces until a truce was brokered in 2010. The Houthis defend the right to practice Zaidism [a type of Shia-ism]. The Yemeni Sunni dominated government allegedly received $10 million per month in 2007 from Saudi Arabia during the war as a payment for keeping the Houthis under check. The Saudis also intervened militarily in November 2009 with extensive air and naval power to stabilize the situation in the restive country. Saudi Arabia has lost over 100 troops and border troops.

The Saudi royalty has also used its petrodollars to buy influence and mercenaries from other Sunni Muslim countries including Pakistan. Pakistani army had come to Saudi Arabia’s aid in 1969 during its intervention in Yemen. In return, Pakistan, received $1,5 billion dollars in aid from the kingdom. The reason why Pakistan is reluctant to intervene this time around is because of the increasingly restive Shia minority at home.

Other factors which will keep the pot boiling

The religious angle aside, there are other factors which will keep the Yemeni pot boiling.

Yemen is very rapidly running out of water and oil. Its capital Sanaa could potentially be the first capital city to go completely dry. Oil reserves, which are its main revenue today, are set to disappear within the next 5 – 10 years.

Then there is what can be called as the ‘Youth bulge’. Two thirds of the Yemeni population is under 24. In the next 20 years, the country’s population will double to more than 40 million. That means 30 million unemployed youth looking for trouble and finding it through the familiar path of militant Islam. A failing Yemen would entail these militant youth to seek asylum and work in Saudi Arabia. The situation is similar in other GCC countries. Foreign labourers in the 6 Gulf Co-operation Countries (GCC ) represent 51% of the total GCC population. The prospect of a massive influx of refugees and radicalised youth from Yemen seeking jobs would be catastrophic to the stability of these countries.

Presence of Al –Qaeda in North Africa

Another factor which has worried the world and Washington is the growth of Al-Qaeda in North Africa (known as the AQIM) in general and in Yemen in particular. The group has increased its activities in the Sunni south of Yemen. The American drone program for targeting the Sunni terrorists was active under the earlier Hadi government. The US had an airbase in South Yemen from which it used to launch strikes against Al Qaeda leadership in the whole of N Africa. The fall of South Yemen to the Houthis led to the closing of this airbase. In the chaos of battle, Al Qaeda has managed to free hundreds of its fighters from a jail in south Yemen. It has also targeted the Shia Houthis with suicide bomb attacks in which hundreds have been killed.

Loss of the fear factor and insecurity of the Arab oligarchies

The fight in Yemen will continue as will the conflicts in other Arab counties with the fault lines of sectarian Islam cutting across borders. For the Saudi Kingdom, like for other Arab Kingdoms and oligarchies, the Yemeni conflict particularly is a fight for survival.

Till date, Saudi has intervened in Yemen by striking at its opponents from the air. However, recent wars in Syria and Iraq indicate that it is impossible for air attacks alone to defeat well entrenched ground forces. In Yemen too, Saudi airstrikes have failed to stop the Houthi advance southwards towards the port city of Aden. Thus, if the Houthis have to be stopped, the Sunni armies led by Saudi Arabia will have to send its troops into Yemen to root out the Houthis fighting from inside city buildings. This will be a costly venture as built up areas will blunt the technological edge enjoyed by the Sunni Army. The attackers will surely suffer substantial causalities which will prove quite unpopular at back at home.

yemen war 1In the end, if the Saudi led army fails to score a decisive victory or if it loses face, the fear factor which keeps the Arab ruling oligarchies in power will be severely eroded. Voices of dissent inside the Saudi empire, which have till now been kept muted by repression, will grow louder and may even lead to a rebellion and can dislodge the ruling elite. If one Arab kingdom falls, the other dominos will fall like a house of cards. The first ones to fall will be states with a substantial Shia population like Bahrain. Thus, the war in Yemen is not just about the political fortunes in Yemeni but for the stability of all repressive Sunni regimes in Arabian Peninsula.

Girish P










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