Geopolitics of Saudi Yemen War


Britain’s Boris Johnson has rejected the call by Netherlands for setting up an independent inquiry into civilian deaths in Yemen by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

The inquiry was based on evidence that Britain has sold £3.3bn of arms to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the Yemen war. This sale includes drones, helicopters, aircrafts, bombs, missiles, grenades, armored vehicles and tanks.

Senator Rand Paul and others had put up a resolution to bar a sales of $1.15Billion worth tanks to Saudi Arabia, stating that “If we really want to cut off extremism at its source, then we can’t keep closing our eyes to the money that flows out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states into this conservative Salafist missionary movement around the world but the Senate rejected the resolution.

In March the US State Department told the press that they had sold $33billion worth of weapons to Arab Gulf allies, (who are also allies of Saudi Arab in the Yemen War), since May 2015 – not to mention the additional $10 billion sale to Qatar of Apaches, Patriot and Javelin missiles in 2014. Reports of weapons sale to Saudi Arabia in the pretext of the Yemen War by France and Canada have also surfaced.

Polly Truscott of Amnesty International said “Blocking attempts to create an international inquiry is a betrayal to the people of Yemen who have suffered so much during this conflict… It’s shocking. The UK ought to be standing up for justice and accountability, not acting as a cheerleader for arms companies.”

The ‘Betrayal’ however is not new, it is relentless, inhumane and impossible to confront in a human rights framework.  If we need to understand the Yemen War and its possible conclusion, we need to look a little back into history – for the string of future can only be snapped from the past.

Britain colonized the Port of Aden in 1839, later they claimed the whole of South Yemen as the Aden Protectorate, until 1967 when independence was gained. The Ottomans made treaties with the Shia Imams of the North to curb British influence and when the House of Saud came into power in 1932, they too made treaties with the Shia Imams of the North.

The US and British interests in Yemen were always vital because of its proximity to the Bab al Mandab Strait, through which all ships crossing the Red Sea had to pass. In other words there was no point in controlling the Suez Canal if you did not control the Bab al Mandab. For this vital control, the US and Britain allied closely with Saudi Arabia whose influence in Yemen’s matters was natural. In fact the popular rhetoric is that while tribal uprisings were building up in the South against the British occupation, the British considered the Saudi alliance with the Royalists Imams as vital for themselves too.

In 1962, when the one year coalition of United Arab Republic between Egypt, Syria & Yemen broke, the Saudis sided the Imams of North Yemen against Nassir of Egypt, while the pre-dominantly Sunni South Yemen, sided with Nassir. Civil war broke out, around 200,000 died and two Yemen were formed, one a pro-Soviet South and one a pro-Saudi North. Declassified files from 1962 reveal that in the joint Saudi Arab/Jordan war on Yemen, CIA & Britain’s SAS death squads covertly worked with Royalist Imams to save Yemen from Nassir’s influence, while their own colony in Aden was being bitterly resented by the Yemenis.  Yemen was just as important for the Saudis, all their trade was also via the Red Sea or the Arabian Sea which approached through South Yemen.

In 1970, Yemen was re-united, with an agreement of shared power and Saleh’s 20 years rule began in 1990, with Ali Salim al-Baidh of the South as vice-President. Saleh was a Zaidi Shia of the Houthi tribe himself, but the Houthis disowned him on account of his pro-Saudi and pro-US policies. The South also despised him for the same reasons and also because ties with Saudi Arabia gave the North more economic stability and authority. Saleh also had the reputation of allowing excessive Wahhabi influence on state policy and schools, but the actual resentment was the dire economic condition of the people, for which puppet regimes seldom have the will to do anything.

Dislike for Saleh began on two accounts, first in 1990, when Yemen abstains from UN Security Council resolutions that authorized military action against Iraq in the Gulf War, for which reason Saudi Arab expelled over 700,000 Yemeni workers from its soil, creating an economic crisis in Yemen. Secondly Saleh angered the Saudis when he allowed oil companies to drill newly discovered oil along the border with Saudi Arab. This was punished in the North-South civil war of 1994, when the Saudis shifted their favors to the South. Saleh resolved this in the 2000 Treaty of Jeddah, when he submitted to Saudi wishes on the condition that they will not back the South.

So when the Arab Spring broke out in Yemen against Saleh’s dictatorship in 2011, the Saudis were not very keen to save him, nor did they trust the Houthi tribe that had rebelled against Saleh time and again. They had a submissive alternative in Hadi, who was Saleh’s vice-president from the South – Hadi was of the Islah Party, created in 1990. According to a Yemeni analyst, Riyadh used Al Islah to control Saleh and keep his power in Yemen in check. The whole point of Al Islah was to keep Yemen in a semi-state of control and dependence. Al Islah was the perfect medium for that — Al Saud’s Wahhabis and Salafis used Al Islah to spread their influence across Yemen, slowly reshaping both its political map and its religious demography.

This was the same time when Bin Laden was weaving his net of militancy throughout the Muslim World and pro-Wahabist Al Ishah could become a cover for its presence in Yemen. Al Qaeda’s first attack was on the USS Cole in 2000 and now by 2016 al Qaeda has partial territorial control in the Abyan, Al Bayda’, Ma’rib, Shabwah, and Lahij Governorates in South Yemen.  In 2001, Saleh pledged to assist in the War on Terror with the US, since then CIA and MI6 have been given free hand for covert presence. In 2009, British Special Air Service & Special Reconnaissance Regiment was deployed in Yemen & Somalia and many AQAP leaders were CIA assets – returnees from Guantanamo Bay.

So at the time when the Houthis rebelled against Hadi, the Saudis were buried neck-deep in Yemen, which was not only a vital element for their own survival, but wherein their nexus with Britain and US had become importunate. The Saudis had worked hard to build common interest with the US, the prevailing post-WW2 superpower – and decades of cooperation had made both indispensible for each other.  The importunity came with the Saudis being pulled into grave acts of corruption that have been part and parcel of CIA covert warfare around the world since the beginning of the Cold War.

The Saudis had not waged a major war on a country before, so the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, announced the start of “Operation Storm of Resolve” at a news conference in Washington. The Gulf States were as usual allies in this war. On the first day of the strike, 26 March 2015, four Egyptian warships entered the war to secure the Gulf of Aden and Sudan announced that it will take part with its air and ground forces.

Egypt had become stable for the Saudis by the election of former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in May 2014, letting Egypt safely fall in the Saudi camp after a few quiet tumultuous years of the Arab Spring. And Sudan that had long been considered an Iranian friend, as opposed to the Israeli threat it felt against its sovereignty (Israel fueled the separatist war in Sudan by supplying rebel factions), and for which the ICC had made a case on President Bashir for alleged war crimes and the US had imposed heavy sanctions on it – suddenly changed sides. The Saudis deposited $1 Billion and the Qataris $1.22 Billion in Sudan’s Central Bank earlier in the year. In return Saudis wanted Sudanese boots-on-ground, which not many other countries were willing to give, and the Sudanese forces were battle-hardened for having a long experience of fighting against the rebels in their south.

What remains to be seen is, will the future see the Yemen War, to be a strategic necessity doomed to failure for Saudi Arabia and if the Houthis prove to be stubbornly steadfast like the Taliban of Afghanistan then in the long run the Saudis will have to deal with them on equal grounds.  Or if the tribesmen of the South ally with the Houthis to oust al Qaeda and the host of covert interventions from Yemen and take their matters in their own hands. Or will the Houthis be militarily defeated and the Bab al Mandab secured for Saudi Arabia and the western allies. Or would the Houthis become wise enough to make the same treaties their brother Saleh had with the Saudis and stop shouting the anti-US rhetoric. In any case the Saudis are not to make an ex officio decision, because the Red Sea has to be secured at any cost, for the western trade, for Israel, for US naval hegemony starting from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and up to the Persian Gulf – pawns like Yemen or Somalia cannot be allowed to disrupt this compulsive line of control.

The Arabs are right in believing in the Shia-threat and that the Iranians are already dominating Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a. But do they also see their mistake in their blind alliance with the US – that they too have been betrayed. Baghdad was never under Iranian influence until Saddam was displaced, the US threw him down and presented Baghdad to the Shi’ites in a silver platter. Syria was never a strategic threat to the Arabs but only to Israel, the US instigated the Syrian War allying the Arabs and the Turks with them – now would the Sunni Syrians want a severed Syria with no coast line and only deserts – is that what the majority of the nation deserves.  And as for Sana’a, if the Saudis were wise they would have made their first door neighbor stronger and prosperous and willing to stand with it, instead of forcing it to submission, disallowing it to take the fruit of its resources and ports.  Perhaps they followed the advice of their friends, the US, who had applied the same hegemony on its own neighbors in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua etc. and they have struggled against it for decades and are still struggling. Saudis should think twice before trying to imitate US’ isolationist unilateralism.

What the Arabs should actually fear is that when/if the Saudis do touch the shores of Aden, that they find themselves engulfed within that same vicious line of control and no buffer in between.

is a writer at and can be contacted at, she tweets @AneelaShahzad

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