ISSN 2330-717X

Yemen, Gateway To The Region – OpEd

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The civil war in Yemen has now raged since 2014 and has centred around the conflict between the Islamist Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), known as the Houthis, and the internationally recognised Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) (1). The Houthi’s largely represent the country’s significant Zaydi Shi’ite minority, who are estimated to make up around 35% of the country’s population, with the other 65% being Sunni (2). 

Following the Houthi takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and a push south towards Aden, a Saudi-led coalition commenced airstrikes to hamper the Houthi effort and facilitate the restoration of the government. Since then, war has raged in the country between various groups, but largely the ROYG and the Houthis, who are backed by the Saudi coalition and Iran respectively, in what has become a key aspect of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war. 

The conflict has become notorious for the scale of human suffering, with UNICEF estimating that 80% of Yemen’s population are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, with 2 million children acutely malnourished and over 325,000 children under 5 suffering from severe acute malnutrition (3). Groups fighting have also engaged in mass repression and likely war crimes. Amnesty International has long tracked the excesses of the war and has highlighted notable cases including the Houthi detention of ten journalists in 2015, of whom four were sentenced to death in 2020 (4). This type of intimidation and violence has become regular. 

The conflict has been deeply shaped by proxy interests and Iranian support to the Houthis has been invaluable. It is in line with a much broader regional strategy of emboldening sympathetic militias and destabilising unsympathetic governments that Iran arms and supports the Houthis, much like it does for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias of Iraq and Syria. Notably, Iran has made an effort to make its interactions and material support for the Houthis somewhat more covert than for others. There is also some religious distance between Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Bahrain, who belong to the ‘Twelver’ branch of Shia Islam, and the Houthis on the other hand, who profess the Zaydi version of the sect. Iran is also keen to obfuscate its ties with the Houthis, partly because of the danger of being seen to be overtly supporting attacks on Saudi Arabia. 

That being said, the ideological and geopolitical drivers of Iranian support for the Houthis is unmistakable, with the Iranian constitution requiring Iran’s government to fulfil “the ideological mission of jihad in Allah’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of Allah’s law throughout the world.” (5) Furthermore, the evidence for Iranian support of the Houthis is hard to deny and according to the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen, “An increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.” (6) In Tehran’s eyes, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza, Manama, and Sana’a are all places to be considered by the Iranian regime in their bid for regional hegemony. 

Not only has this support from Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in particular driven the conflict and been of vital importance to Houthi gains in Yemen but weapons and training provided have created the potential for the violence to spill into the Red Sea and for attacks to be launched into neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia. Houthi drone and missile attacks directed at Saudi cities and refineries have become a feature of the conflict, one that further necessitates a Saudi aerial presence in Yemen to counter such launches (7). The collapse of Yemen’s state has worried policymakers in particular due to the country’s potential to serve as a base for other transnational terrorist groups and to provide Iran with a means to threaten the Saudi heartland and leverage this position in its ongoing struggles with Riyadh (8). 

Further concerns have stemmed from Yemen’s proximity to vital international shipping lanes near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is one of the world’s busiest chokepoints for crude oil and petroleum liquids transported per day. According to the Energy Information Administration, “Total petroleum flows through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait accounted for about 9% of total seaborne traded petroleum (crude oil and refined petroleum products) in 2017.” (9) From a base in Yemen, the Houthis, and therefore Iran, can exert pressure on this vital part of the global economic network. 

Amidst this deep concern for the fate of Yemen and the importance of its role in a larger campaign by Iran for influence and power, the role of worrying changes to education within Yemen has been explored by IMPACT-se. IMPACT-se is a think tank focused on the role education plays in radicalisation and politics in the region. Their most recent work on Yemen, released in 2021 and surveying Houthi educational materials in Yemen from 2015–19 produced worrying results. “The combination of the textbooks’ graphic depiction of deceased children, prevalent hatred, glorification of violence as the only solution for resolving conflicts, the indoctrination of children to sacrifice their lives, and the overall Manichean worldview, run contrary to UNESCO standards of peace and tolerance and are unacceptable in any society.” (10)

Not only have the textbooks pushed a worryingly violent and jihadist worldview on many of Yemen’s children, but the report sheds light on what is in reality a much more common occurrence in the many areas where Iranian proxy militias rule. Ultimately, if through education and indoctrination, the Houthi slogan “Allah is the greatest—Death to America—Death to Israel—Curse on the Jews—Victory to Islam” is taught to a generation of children in Yemen and is spread beyond that country’s borders through Iranian networks, intellectuals, and proxy groups, the region is set for a more violent and insecure future. Educational reform must be fought for and challenging Iranian aspirations of political and ideological hegemony must be seen for the vital task it is.

*Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, and a member of the board of IMPACT-se. He served on the Board of Jewish Funders Network and the executive committee of the JDC. Mr. Ruderman is a life-long Bostonian, was an assistant district attorney in Salem, Massachusetts and Deputy Director of AIPAC in New England. A graduate of Brandeis University with honors, he received his JD from Boston University School of Law.

Notes:

  1.  War in Yemen | Global Conflict Tracker (cfr.org)
  2.  Yemen – The World Factbook (cia.gov)
  3.  Yemen crisis – Unicef UK
  4.  YEMEN WAR: NO END IN SIGHT – Amnesty International
  5. https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b56710.html.
  6.  United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, “Letter dated 22 January 2021 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council,” U.N. Document S/2021/79, January 25, 2021.
  7.  Houthis say drone attacks target several Saudi cities | Houthis News | Al Jazeera
  8. R43960.pdf (fas.org)
  9.  U.S. Energy Information Administration, “The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a Strategic Route for Oil and Natural Gas Shipments, August 27, 2019.
  10.  Review-of-Houthi-Educational-Materials-in-Yemen_2015-19.pdf (impact-se.org)

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