Michael Horton is a Senior Analyst for Arabian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation where he specializes in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Yemen and Egypt. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: Islamic Affairs Analyst, The Economist and the Christian Science Monitor
The war in Yemen has received little media attention. Yet it is just as brutal as the war in Syria. Blowback from U.S. policy in Yemen that supports Saudi Arabia’s war against the country’s Houthi rebels will be profound for both the region and, potentially, for the United States.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are enforcing a naval blockade of Yemen. Yemen — already the poorest country in the Middle East — imports 90 percent of its food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis face starvation as food prices have soared and aid is either non-existent or slow to arrive. The United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 23 million are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance.
The chief executive of Oxfam, Mark Golding, stated: “Yemen is being slowly starved to death. First there were restrictions on imports including much need food. When this was partially eased, the cranes in the ports were bombed, then the warehouses, then the roads and the bridges. This is not by accident. It is systematic.”
Concurrent with the naval blockade, Saudi Arabia is waging an aerial campaign that has laid waste to Yemen’s limited infrastructure. There are few parts of the country that have not been impacted: bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, water wells and, according to some reports, even farms and orchards have all been targeted. The damage to Yemen’s infrastructure will take billions of dollars and probably decades to rebuild, if it is ever rebuilt.
However, this is only the physical cost of the war. The cost to the Yemeni people and particularly to its young people — roughly 60 percent of Yemenis are under the age of 24 — is incalculable. Vast numbers of Yemeni children are unable to attend school, child malnourishment — already high — has soared, and unemployment — also high before the war — is now endemic. It is likely that an entire generation of Yemenis, who already faced profound challenges, has been further disadvantaged and made more vulnerable by a war that is even more senseless than most.
Before the launch of the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 26, 2015, AQAP was short on funds and it was locked in a battle with the Houthis that it was losing. AQAP—like all Salafi groups—considers Shi’a to be heretics. Nearly two years later, circumstances could not be better for AQAP. The operational environment in Yemen is now ideal for an insurgent organization like AQAP. Millions more Yemenis have been pushed into poverty and made vulnerable to radicalization, the Yemeni Armed Forces are in disarray, state structures in most areas have ceased to function, and the country is, more than ever, awash in arms and materiel.
So why is the United States supporting a war that has laid waste to one of the world’s poorest countries and — at least indirectly — helped enable one of al-Qaeda’s most deadly and resilient franchises? The narrative embraced by much of the media and seemingly by parts of the U.S. government is that the Houthis are acting as Iranian proxies that pose a threat to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. For much of the last two years, almost every mention of the Houthis by the press was preceded by “the Iranian backed.” It is worth pointing out that the Houthis are fiercely independent and deeply rooted in Yemen. Doctrinally Zaidism is closer to Sunni Islam—such that it is often referred to as the fifth school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence—than the Twelver Shi’a sect that predominates in Iran.
There have been numerous attempts to link Iran with the Houthis and many claims made about how Iran is arming the Houthis. The latest report by UK-based Conflict Armament Research suggests that Iran is supplying the Houthis with small and medium arms via dhows (small sailing vessels) that first dock in Somalia where the weapons are offloaded and are then re-shipped to Yemen. It should be noted that Somalia itself is a major market for weapons and a transshipment point for Africa. Weapons that do not remain in Somalia are destined for places like South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. In all of these countries, prices for small and medium arms are higher than in Yemen due to supply constraints in those countries.
The brief report relies on the fact that the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) has intercepted a number of dhows that were carrying stockpiles of mainly small arms that included some Iranian manufactured assault rifles and anti-tank missiles that may be of Iranian origin. Much of the report hinges on unverified reports by UAE forces in Yemen who claim to have recovered Iranian and Russian manufactured weapons with serial numbers that link them with weapons seized by CMF ships.
The Houthis, who are allied with the best armed and trained units of the Yemeni Army, have little need for Iranian small or medium arms. Apart from the fact that Iranian made rifles are considered to be inferior by most Houthis who prefer Russian made Ak-47s and G3 rifles from Europe, Yemen is already the second most heavily armed country on the planet after the United States. Now, thanks largely to Saudi Arabia and the UAE — not Iran — Yemen is truly awash in weapons and not just small and medium arms.
Rather than focusing on what at most is limited Iranian support for a group that has thus far paid little attention to Iran — the Houthis ignored Iran’s advice about not seizing Sana’a in September 2014—the United States and the United Kingdom should instead consider the ramifications of the tens of millions of dollars of weapons being supplied to armed groups in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is all but certain that some of these weapons have already been sold on to organizations like AQAP and quite possibly al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The proliferation of weapons and the empowerment of AQAP are only two aspects of the blowback that the United States’ flawed policy in Yemen has already produced. Of possibly more consequence is the damage being done to the House of Saud and the country it rules over. The House of Saud is spending billions of dollars on a war that it cannot win. The instability in Yemen will likely last for years and will impact Saudi Arabia’s own security. Even now, the Saudi provinces of Jizan and Najran, which border Yemen, are subject to frequent and prolonged retaliatory cross-border attacks by Houthi forces and allied units of the Yemeni Army.
It was these same unsound views that led to the invasion of Iraq which fundamentally upset the balance of power in the Middle East. The Iranian government acted quickly to fill the void. Iran now wields tremendous influence in Iraq. Most critically, the invasion of Iraq and the neoconservatives’ preoccupation with Iran helped lay the foundation for the rise of the Islamic State across the region.
For the sake of the millions of Yemenis who have had their country torn apart and in the interest of U.S. national security, one can only hope that the president-elect’s foreign policy advisors will consider the mistakes of the past and re-evaluate the outgoing administration’s policy on Yemen.