With the negotiations between various parties underway in Kuwait and just over one year since the outbreak of hostilities, perhaps it is time to evaluate the conflict in Yemen.
If we were to rely solely on media reports, in English or those in Arabic, we would be fooled into thinking that the war was just as real as that in Syria, or perhaps akin to Libya but with an air component. This is not the case.
The war does not pit Sunni against Shia
The war does not include ground troops from the Gulf
There is no siege imposed by the Gulf and allied nations (US, Australian, UK navy etc)
Yes, the Gulf coalition does bomb Yemen from the air but there has not been a wholesale destruction of infrastructure. There are not hundreds of civilians dying from Saudi air strikes.
After 13 months of this war total dead stands at an estimated 6,000 people. Most of those are armed combatants from both sides.
If there were a real land and naval blockade of Yemen then we would have seen a humanitarian disaster on a vast scale. There would have been many thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of dead from famine by this point. Yemen is a country fast running out of water. Much of the remaining water lies deep beneath the surface and to extract it you need a pump. The pump needs diesel which, until now, is heavily subsidized by the state. This means all villages and most towns would rapidly run out of water for drinking and irrigation if there was an actual siege.
Additionally, the Saudis have ensured that the exchange rate of the Yemeni rial has held up by making sure they back the central bank with hard currency. If the rial spiraled out of control then no one would be able to afford staple foodstuffs. In this poor country, more in common with sub-saharan Africa than the Arab world, people would soon expire.
The question is why the Saudis would want to do this. The answer is that they first of all do not wish to be responsible for a famine, nor do they want to see thousands of Yemenis escaping death by walking into Saudi Arabia. They also have adopted a tactic of a steady squeeze on the Huthi and Ali Abdallah Saleh coalition. They prefer to negotiate slowly and carefully with the major tribes in the north, bringing them onto side with a mixture of financial incentives and political reality. The system will not change, they say, but those who wield power will.
While the news is telling us that Al Qaeda has taken over vast tracts of the South of Yemen, and that the resistance is now taking the fight to them, the reality is that AQ is a catch-all term that includes organized criminals, penniless youth, as well as the die-hard ideologues. The Gulf countries are fighting them with a mixture of hard cash payments, PR offensives, and limited usage of the big stick.
It is debatable to what extent that AQAP is actually tied to Ali Abdallah Saleh but the connection is there. AQAP have not fought against him or the Huthis in any real sense. Quite the opposite in fact. Since August 2016, AQ and, to a lesser extent ISIS, have waged a campaign of assassinations against senior Hirak (southern resistance) leaders, military commanders who fought the Huthis, and several intelligence personnel from the UAE as well as Aden government.
I would argue that the US has now pivoted from siding with Ali Abdallah Saleh and his security forces in the war against AQAP in Yemen, to siding increasingly with current president Hadi and the Gulf countries. The economy and its fate remains entirely in Saudi hands. And the slow progress to stabilize Aden and environs is ongoing despite Saleh’s best efforts to counter them.
It seems that inexorably the Gulf is trying to edge the tribes into aligning with them and their figures (Saleh’s relative, Ali Muhsin, and the Al Ahmar family of the Hashid) instead of the current arrangement with the Huthis and Saleh. They are establishing their own overt network of patronage.
Aside from Yemeni (Saleh and President Hadi et al from the elite) culpability for the abysmal state of the economy and infrastrucure there must be a dollop of responsibility given to both the Bush and Obama policies here. Their desire to support Saleh with cash bribes to ensure his support for the drone campaign only succeeded in making sure that Saleh was always dependent on maintaining AQAP as a credible threat to the West. In the logic of this dance, without that threat then that revenue stream would have dried up.
The war is one between a narrow kleptocratic elite who have fallen out over how best to divide the revenue generated from the rapidly diminishing natural resources and US and Saudi aid money. The presence of AQ, the US, game-playing by the Iranians, is all a distraction from the bickering thieves who sit atop the smouldering failure of their own policies.
As a now-assassinated Zaydi scholar had said of the conflict, the debate was always over who should sit in the seat of power, rather than any discussion over changing the nature of that seat itself. His wisdom and comprehension will be much missed. Martin J