Spearhead Analysis – 28.06.2018
By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
In early April 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reported that the Yemen crisis had become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Caught in the crossfires of the budding rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia since 2015, Yemen has found itself geographically and idealogically in the midst of a crisis of its neighbors’ makings.
It is interesting that despite the alarming statistics, a conflict largely described by Amnesty International as the “forgotten war” with over 10,000 unaccounted people killed and the country reduced to rubble and host to the ‘worst mass epidemic of cholera and famine in the 21st century’ , Yemen in the past few days has surprisingly found itself in headline news.
The reason has been an assault by the combined forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the critical port city of Hudaida controlled by the Houthi rebels in the South and aimed at weakening the Houthis by cutting their main supply line. Riyadh has accused the Houthis of using the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, including missiles – accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
In February, independent experts from the UN found that ballistic missiles fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia in 2017 were infact made in Iran and introduced into Yemen after the 2015 arms embargo. Tehran again denied the claims of sending weapons.
‘The battle for Hudaidah’ has left an estimated 30,000 Yemenis to flee their homes and puts at risk the lives of some 22 million Yemenis who depend on Hudaida as the main gateway for imports of relief supplies and commercial goods.
Today, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. consider the Houthis to be a proxy for the countries’ mutual foe, Iran, and have accused Tehran of supplying the Yemeni militia with the ballistic missiles they have used to target Saudi cities. Iran has offered political support for the Houthis, but denies any military backing in the three-year struggle.
While it’s the Saudi-led coalition that has waged this war for the past three years, many media outlets describe Yemen as a proxy war, hence the oft-repeated term ‘Iran-backed Houthi rebels’.
But in the midst of this Iranian-Saudi escalating rivalry, what then of the role of the United Nations whose largely verbal condemnations have begun to fall on deaf ears or of the US and the UK whose weapons sales and military assistance have enabled the Gulf states to carry on the war?
In June 2018, AlJazeera reports cited that the United Nations was urging the Saudi-Emirati coalition to stop its bombing campaign in the Yemeni port city of Hudaida and manage the port itself to ease the delivery of aid.
But even as recent as December 2017 when the Yemen crisis erupted on media channels and sixty-eight Yemeni civilians were estimated to be killed in two air raids by the Saudi-led coalition in one day, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen could only condemn the attack as “an absurd and futile war”.
Since December 2017, the Arab coalition had intensified its air campaign targeting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, when Saudi air defences intercepted a ballistic missile the insurgents had fired at the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
UN officials at the time had distinctly verbalized that Yemen had no military solution and could be resolved only through ‘negotiations.’
The same position has been adopted by the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who has said the resolution of the Yemen conflict is his No 1 priority.
But what then of the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of British-made missiles and bombs sold to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen under an opaque licensing system that makes tracking arms sales more difficult?
A recent investigative report by UK based media outlet The Observer revealed that the UK has used standard arms licences to approve more than $6.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, including advanced jets and munitions.
But figures reported by independent Arab based media outlet, Middle East Eye show that the government has actively overseen a more than 75 per cent increase in the use of secretive “open licences” to approve additional arms sales to the kingdom, including vital parts for the jets striking targets in Yemen.
Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade) recently commented that the figures suggest “that the scale of arms sales to Saudi Arabia is even higher than we previously expected”.
The rules for these open licences were updated by government in 2015. Today, they are difficult to track and allow for multiple consignments of arms to be sent to the same destination without public scrutiny or parliamentary oversight.
It is notable that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has defended British arms exports to Saudi Arabia, saying all such sales are strictly regulated, that Saudi involvement in the Yemen conflict is backed by the U.N. Security Council and her government supports it. Despite the large opposition to May’s decision, both by the Corbyn-led Labour party in Parliament who hail the current British premier as ‘colluding in war crimes” and the myriads of protests carried out by human rights campaigners, the the Conservatives, as well as the British royal family were seen to be giving MBS the “red carpet equivalent of a state visit,” according to a leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. Hundreds of demonstrators stood on Downing Street when the Saudi Crown Prince began his meeting with PM May, chanting “Hands off Yemen” and “No more profits from bin Salman’s wars” outside May’s office.
But given that the UK government made over £1.1bn ($1.5bn) from arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2017 alone according to government figures, it is unsurprising that Boris Johnson, British foreign secretary’s remarks earlier this year praised MBS’s Vision 2030 national programme and looked ‘forward’ to negotiations with the Saudi Prince confirming that Britain will infact remain a firm ally, though no longer a closeted one, for all Saudi endeavors in the Middle East.
Many ponder; what do Saudi Arabia and Iran, one of the richest Arab states in the world with the second and third biggest economies in MENA region truly seek out of Yemen, the historically poorest Arab country in the region?
In March 2018, Riyadh’s international airport was targeted by what was almost certainly an Iranian modified missile from northern Yemen, an area controlled by Houthis.
Historically, the Saudi-Iranian power struggle predates MBS—the latest iteration dates back to the 1979 Islamic revolution and Saudi Arabia till today views Iran as its historical and ethnic foe, a Shia rival challenging Saudi leadership of the Sunni-Muslim world.
For MbS and the Saudi leadership, attacks from Yemen represent a phobia which the Houthis and their Iranian backers find it imperative to tweak. Following the attack, Saudi-based Arab News carried the headline that the missile attack was “an act of war” by Iran and that the Kingdom now reserved ‘the right to respond.. to the hostile actions of the Iranian regimes.”
For Iran, Yemen, under the declining rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a target of opportunity. Supporting the Houthi tribes by providing organizational assistance and funds was a mere stratagem. Saleh’s rule collapsed but he forged an alliance with the Houthis against President Hadi, who is under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Despite the Saudi air force’s best efforts, it has failed to dislodge the Houthis. The UAE’s forces have been more successful in the south of the country, around the port city of Aden. But there it is challenged by al-Qaeda types who have turned the Yemeni hinterlands into their sanctuary.
A more closer observation of Saudi incentives would show that the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates are engrossed in their mission to reinstate PM Hadi and appear to be trying to capitalise on the political instability that has come about as a result of the death of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed by the Houthis in December 2017 as punishment for switching sides and seeking negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s long-term goal is to upset a status quo effectively guaranteed by the United States. Its short-term goal is to take advantage of the consequences of the Iraq war and the Arab Spring to spread its influence and reach out to Shia communities across the region. Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa, and Beirut, now reside in the Iranian camp. Saudi Arabia leads the conservative Arab states, although the steady rise of MBS means that these populations are now being offered a more lucrative future, if they choose to ally with the Saudi Arabs
Thus, when errant air strikes kill hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools and markets and coalition warplanes target what appear to be specifically civilian targets like marketplaces, marriages and funeral homes, one can remember former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quote, calmly asserting that U.S. policy objectives were ‘worth the sacrifice of half a million Arab children’ during the Iraq invasion.
Today, when Saudi warships blockade Yemeni ports, the only source of international humanitarian aid to reach besieged Yemeni citizens in a country that even before war broke out imported 90% of its food and all of its fuel and medicine, the Saudi-Emirati coalition simply puts out statements and ‘denies’ targeting civilians in any of its campaign.
Today, the Saudi-led war against the Houthis brings together troops from Saudi Arabia, President Hadi’s supporters in the Yemeni military, Emirati countries, Islamist militants and some smaller tribes. Saudi allies are intervening to support the Hadi’s Saudi-installed puppet regime, with the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, and Belgium joining in the effort. Regional countries – Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Republic (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan – are also providing support to the Saudis.
Amidst all this chaos, one of Saudi Arabia’s chief allies in the war in Yemen, the United States has announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council citing that the US could no longer be part of a UN body that was a “protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.”
Earlier this month, before the decision of the withdrawal had been announced, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, staged a special press conference to back up the Saudi claim and assert that provision of the Iranian sponsored Houthi missile was in breach of UN security council resolutions.
The US already unhappy with what it termed the ‘anti-Israel’ bias at the United Nations also found that nearly all its proposals to condemn Iranian actions in Yemen and sanction Tehran, were swiftly thwarted by Russia at the UNSC.
A fact quietly kept away from most US media outlets is that the United States led by President Donald Trump’s government has been quietly escalating America’s role in the Saudi-led war on Yemen and offered virtually unqualified support to MBS, disregarding the huge humanitarian toll and voices in Congress that are trying to rein in the Pentagon’s involvement. With little public attention or debate, the president has already expanded US military assistance to his Saudi and UAE allies. During his first May visit to Riyadh, the US President announced a series of weapons sales to the kingdom that will total nearly $110bn over 10 years.
True to his word, in late 2017, after the Houthis fired ballistic missiles at several Saudi cities, the Pentagon secretly sent US special forces to the Saudi-Yemen border, to help the Saudi military locate and destroy Houthi missile sites.
Historians today make the following analogy; Just as the invasion of Iraq eventually produced the ISIS, the killing of innocent Yemenis for no moral reason at all is providing a recruitment tool for terrorist organisations throughout the Middle East and Africa. And just as the Iraq invasion was predicated on a false claim of weapons of mass destruction, the war in Yemen rests on the bogus argument that Iranians are supporting terrorism in that country. In the first two years of the conflict in Yemen, the United States was not able to point to any evidence of Iranian weapons delivery to Yemen. Yet, the United States joined with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States with weapon sales, intelligence, and a US-enforced naval blockade. Trump’s recent sale of arms to the Saudis was worth $125 billion.
The results of all this has been catastrophic.
The war is being described as Saudi Arabia’s very own Vietnam. Investigations have revealed that the Saudi-led coalition is looking into less than 15 percent of more than 300 alleged violations of international law carried out by its forces in the country.
“I honestly don’t know how to describe in words how desperate the situation is in Yemen,” says Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a step away from famine.”
The conflict has reached an effective stalemate. It includes a blockade that the UN says has left more than eight million civilians facing a famine.
“Without the arms sales, spare parts and assistance from the UK and the US, the air war over Yemen would stop within 48 hours,” said one former military source.
What the UN was already calling a “humanitarian catastrophe” six months ago has been unleashed. Eight in every 10 Yemenis are now dependent on humanitarian aid, and most do not have “adequate access to clean water or sanitation”, according to the UN.
Bombing raids have shredded the country’s healthcare system: 130 medical facilities have been targeted, including those run by Médecins Sans Frontières – “a total disregard for the rules of war”, as MSF says itself. The risk of famine looms: the UN believes more than 14 million people are food insecure, half of them severely so, while nearly one in 10 have been driven from their homes.
Yemen is a human-made disaster, and history will attest to the fact that the fingerprints of the west are all over it.