By Yanis Iqbal
On April 12, 2021, a meeting was held in Germany between US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. In a press statement following the meeting, Griffiths said: “The war in Yemen has lasted over six years. In these six years Yemenis have increasingly and appallingly, lacked access to food and medicine; more than six years with no basic services; with restriction of movement in, around and out of the country; and over six years of the children of Yemen being deprived of schooling, and being deprived of their future. A generation has been lost.”
Griffith’s lamentation of Yemen’s tragedy occurred against a backdrop of intensifying conflict in the city of Marib – the last governorate under the control of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. The spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, Basheer Omar, told a news outlet, “If the looming battle continues and reaches the city centre, then 350,000 residents will flee.” “Civilians in Marib have been suffering a lot…They need life-saving aid and medical assistance.” “We urge the conflict parties to agree to a ceasefire to allow our teams, along with the teams of the Yemen Red Crescent Society to get access to these areas to help provide humanitarian help to those in need and to retrieve the dead bodies.” Why is Yemen bleeding so profusely?
The Rise of Houthis
Houthis are one of the central actors in Yemen’s ongoing conflict, fighting against imperialist aggressions. They belong to a religious movement within the Zaydi branch of Shi‘i Islam. The Zaydis name their sect after Zayd ibn Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who was martyred in the year 740, while leading a rebellion against the Umayyad monarchy. It is important to note that Zaydism has few theological or practical differences with Shafi‘ Sunni Islam, which is dominant in most of the rest of Yemen. Their beliefs and rituals are so close that people of both groups pray together in the same mosques.
Houthis rose to prominence in the early years of the 21st century. In 2000, Riyadh signed the Treaty of Jeddah which “resolved” the boundary disputes dating back to Saudi border claims made in 1934. The Saudi border regions of Asir, Najran, and Jizan were originally Yemeni regions annexed by Saudi Arabia with British support following the defeat of Imam Yahya-ruled Kingdom of Yemen in 1934. They contain Shiite Zaydi tribes whose allegiance may lie more favorably with the Houthi movement than with the Saudi government.
With the signing of the Treaty, a program to separate the countries with walls, fences, and security posts began. Those who moved back and forth across these lands for all their lives were now required to obtain visas to pass through newly fenced areas. A former member of parliament, Husain al-Houthi emphasized the right of local communities in Sa’ada to use sources of water and grazing lands increasingly rendered inaccessible by expanded Saudi border patrols and the privatization of some key tracks of lands as per International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural adjustment” demands.
Houthi-led resistance resulted in six cycles of fighting in Sa’ada between 2004 and 2010. The first lasted from June 22 to September 10 2004; the second lasted from March 19 to April 11 2005; the third lasted from November 30 2005 to February 23 2006; the fourth lasted from February 16 to June 17 2007; the fifth lasted from May 2 2008 to July 17 2008; the sixth lasted from August 11 2009 to February 11 2010.
In its campaign of orchestrated violence against the Houthis, Yemen’s government of Ali Abdullah Saleh enlisted the support of al-Qaida sympathizers and Salafi jihadists. The latter’s presence was the outcome of a long and toxic process. Sa’ada played host to a network of Salafi madrasas, sponsored in part by money from the Saudis, who established a religious footprint throughout Yemen from the 1980s onwards.
Many viewed the spread of Saudi-sponsored Salafism as an attempt to weaken Zaydi socio-political influence. This, in turn, spurred the foundation of a Zaydi educational trust, called the Youthful Believers, and disputes with the authorities over the Youthful Believers’ educational curriculum, coupled with allegations that the government was replacing Zaydi imams with Salafi preachers, contributed to the complex development of the battles in Sa’ada.
In September 2014, Houthi rebels situated in Sa’ada took over the capital city of Sana’a in alliance with ousted Saleh’s Republican Guards. The Houthis were disappointed with the undemocratic character of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The NDC was initiated during the 2011 Arab Spring agitations in Yemen when most of the members of Saleh government came out openly against his rule and demanded his resignation. Street protests and internal opposition within the government led by figures like Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Sadiq al-Ahmar led to Saleh’s resignation in 2012.
The transitional government was headed by Saleh’s vice president Hadi. The mandate of the NDC was to involve all the stakeholders in Yemen and come up with a new constitution. However, the proceedings of the NDC were marred by frequent Gulf interventions due to which most of the parties, including the Houthis, had suspicions regarding its operations. After the assassination of two of its delegates during the proceedings of the NDC, the Houthis demanded greater representation in the transitional government and questioned its right to take central policy decisions.
The dominance of pro-Saudi Islah Party members in the transitional government was also problematic for the Houthis. Established in 1990, the Islah Party combines Sunni Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, a more extremist faction led by al-Zindani, and a third one composed of northern tribesmen, mostly from the Hashed confederation (led by al-Ahmar family).
With Houthis’ entry into Sana’a, Hadi fled to Aden and appealed to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for military assistance. Saudis and Emiratis assembled an alliance of Middle Eastern and African states – Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Eritrea, Morocco, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan – acting in the name of Hadi’s government – exiled in Riyadh. The first Saudi air strikes were launched on 26 March, 2015. Bombing of Yemen by lackeys of imperialism did not defeat the Houthis.
Houthis succeeded in capturing the crucial port city of Hodeida in the Red Sea after a lengthy war. This city is the entry point for most of the crucial food and other imports and a major export hub for Yemeni goods. It is estimated that Hodeida is a gateway for almost 80% of goods trade to the country. Given its strategic significance, the Hadi government and the Saudi-led alliance wanted to take control of the port. The control over the city would have strengthened the Saudi alliance’s bargaining power vis-à-vis Houthis, in the United Nations (UN)-led negotiations. The Houthis, however, established firm control over the city.
Ending the Genocide
No significant efforts have been made toward ending the genocide in Yemen. On February 4, 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he was ending US participation in “offensive” attacks and “relevant” weapons shipments. He did not clarify the exact meaning of “offensive operations” and “relevant arms sales”. On February 24, 2021, a letter from 41 Congress Members asked him what he meant by his vaguely-worded statement and inquired whether he would support Congress ending the war. The letter requested a response before March 25, 2021. There seems to have been none.
Since the start of the war in 2015, USA has provided full backing to the Saudi-led coalition, including technical support, training fighter jet pilots, targeting assistance, selling arms, and supplying military hardware. The same is the case of UK and France. Western powers will keep making Yemen bleed until they extract unconditional surrender from Houthis. Yemen’s location on the southern coast of Arabian Sea and eastern cost of the Red Sea has geo-political significance. The Red Sea is crucial for international trade. It connects the Suez Canal. Around 8% of the worlds’ trade happens through the Suez Canal. Imperialist countries will never allow a neo-colony as significant as Yemen from slipping out of their hands.