The intervention of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia in March 2015 escalated the drawn-out internal conflict in Yemen. It may threaten stability far beyond the borders of Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Ansar Allah («Supporters of God»), a Zaidi Shia group, known more popularly as the Houthis (1), started an offensive in February capturing Sana, the capital of Yemen, and making Abd Rabbuh Manṣur Hadi, the former President, resign and flee the country.
Having arrived in Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni President said the resignation was no longer in effect. He accused Houthis of staging a coup and called on Saudi Arabia to “restore legal power”. Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against the Houthis. The kingdom has deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units in the Operation Decisive Storm joined by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrein, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Pakistan. The United States and the European Union support the operation. The US is involved in planning. Its support also includes intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, and advisory and logistical support. Riyadh accuses the Houthis of toppling the legal government to justify its intervention aimed at bringing back to power the overthrown president and continuing the struggle against terrorists.
Mildly speaking, the Saudi Arabian interpretation of events is not fully correct.
First, the Houthis did not overthrow President Hadi. He announced the resignation as a result of conflict sparked at the talks with the Houthis over the issues related to federalization of state. After Hadi escaped to Aden and there was nobody to rule Yemen the group started to form people’s committees that enjoyed broad support in the Shiite-dominated north of the country (Shiites account for 40% of Yemen’s population).
Second, the radical Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the Houthis’ main enemy. An operation against the Houthis meets the interests of Al Qaeda. Iran negates the fact that it renders military aid to the Houthis but it supports them politically and strongly condemns the foreign intervention in Yemen.
Moscow cannot allow the situation in Yemen to turn into an open conflict between the Arabs and Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 31. «It should not be allowed to deteriorate into a Sunni-Shia standoff», Lavrov said. «We have been warning about the serious threat of such a split inside Islam from the very start of the Arab Spring. We were not heard very well, or maybe we were heard, but they just chose not to take this into consideration. We cannot allow this situation to turn into an attempt to unleash an open conflict between the Arabs and Iran», the foreign minister said.
The crisis in Yemen can be considered as the continuation of Arab Spring. The protest sentiments had been smouldering in the country long before the Houthis’ offensive. They were fuelled by social and economic hardships (2), conflicts between religions and clans and other factors negatively affecting the situation in the country after the Ali Abdullah Saleh’s long authoritarian rule (1990-2012). Snap elections took place in Yemen in 2012 sponsored by the Persian Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. As a result, Abd Rabo Hadi took over as president. The Houthis and the Peaceful Movement to Liberate the South (the group defending the right of South Yemen for self-determination) refused to take part in the elections. They complain that the new government implements the same policy of repressions against them as the previous government headed by Saleh.
The Houthis group takes its name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who launched an insurgency in 2004 in the north-western province of Saada and was reportedly killed by Yemeni army forces the same year. The movement wants to revive the Zaidi imamat which existed for almost 1000 years since 969 till the revolution of 1962 when Imam Yahia Bin Hameed Al-Din was overthrown. In response to repressions the Houthis started an armed fight against the Yemeni armed forces. In 2009 the Saudi aviation regularly delivered strikes against the Houthis who proclaimed themselves fighters against the corrupt regime and social injustice. They say that the group has to defend its religion (Zaidism – a branch of Shia Islam) from Sunni Muslims supported by the country’s rulers who act in the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia consider the Houthis as a terrorist group supported by Iran. The Houthis and Iran reject this fact.
The clans and groups other complicate the situation, like, for instance, the Hashid tribal federation led by prominent politician, the member of Yemeni parliament Sheikh Abdullah ibn Husayn al-Ahmar and the .group separated from regular military led by General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. They are concentrated in the south of the country and demand the establishment of independent South Yemen. For many years the country was divided into two separate states – North Yemen and South Yemen. North Yemen was a religious state while South Yemen (the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) was a socialist oriented country till the unification in 1990. South Yemen was more modern with higher level of education, functioning public and political organizations, including the still existent Yemeni Socialist Party. After the unification the government started to encroach upon the Southerners rights with Northerners dominant in business, politics and holding top positions in the military. Many Southerners were made leave the army ranks and law enforcement agencies to eke out miserable existence receiving tiny pensions. The discontent grew to become a powerful separatist movement. The government took tough measures to quell it. Besides, radical forces operate in the country and enjoy significant influence. Their armed groups are linked to Al Qaeda and control a large part of the country, including the southern province of Abyan.
Under these conditions Ansar Allah became the predominant Yemeni political force in 2014. After President Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia to call for foreign armed intervention different political alliances divided by contradictions came to surface in the country. Former President Abdallah Saleh has strong support in the ranks of armed forces and security services. His son heads the National Guard. In fact he supports the Houthis. Saleh said at the recent League of Arab States summit that Riyadh was responsible for every drop of blood shed in Yemen. In his turn, Hadi enjoys broad support among the members of the movement for independent South Yemen. Meanwhile, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia continues to strike Houthis armed formations and Yemeni economic infrastructure. As a result many civilians have lost lives, including children. The coalition’s naval forces are on a mission to block the country’s sea ports.
Saudi Arabia tries to prevent the Houthis from coming to power and spreading the Iran-supported revolution to Saudi territory. Shiites account for the majority of population in the Eastern Province. Many a time they revolted against the Saudi ruling dynasty. Riyadh wants to prevent the Houthis from exercising control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait navigated through by Saudi oil tankers. The United States wants the Houthis movement insurgency quelled to enable a pro-Saudi regime come to power and weaken Iran. Such development of events would also meet the Israeli interests.
The Saudi aggression in combination with the weaker Iran may undermine the Yemeni statehood and strengthen radical Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda ready to make the fighting spill over to other regions of the Middle East.