By Mehwish Akram*
The recent unrest in Yemen is not a new phenomenon it has deep roots in its history. Initially, it was divided into North and South Yemen both these parts got unified in 1990. Yemen since its inception has faced small scale conflicts among the Sunni and Shia. Yemen is one of the poorest countries of Middle East having lowest GDP in the region. If we go deep into the history one easily identify the causes of division and fault lines of the brewing conflict since the independence of Yemen. It is one of the artificially created states by the colonial powers in order to indirectly rule them by giving legitimacy to tribesmen who have no experience of ruling a country. The incompetence of tribal lords promoted weak and self-serving ruling elite that deepens the roots of conflict in Yemen. In the same manner, a role of external powers cannot be overlooked as they try to take advantage of fragile government to achieve their ulterior motives rather than resolving their domestic issues.
Yemen has a history of sectarian issues since its independence due to the Sunni-Shia rift. But the situation got worst in 2011 especially after the Arab Spring when locals mainly Shia community starts to protest against the Sunni government. The instigation sparked in the country, as a result, of the oppressive rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and low economic indicators that further aggravated the domestic issues within Yemen. Yemen is mostly dependent on foreign assistance for its economy. Saudi Arabia is backing and providing financial assistance along with international donor agencies. Moreover, the sectarian divide within a country is another major cause of conflict. The power rivalry between the Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony has complicated the situation by creating division in Yemen. The Sunni government supports Saudi Arabia whereas Shia Mehdi’s are covertly backed by Iran.
Yemen is strategically significant as Bab-ul-Mandab is located here in Arabian Peninsula that is a vital route for transport of oil to the rest of the world. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia as they are helping them to cope with the poor economy. Similarly, GCC countries are also facilitating them to stand on their feet. In the same manner, Iran is providing aid but it is often criticized for promoting ethnic rivalry to challenge the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern region. Yemen predominantly remains under the influence of Saudi Arabia because of ideological affinity with Wahabi school of thought of ruling elite. Similarly, one cannot ignore the significance of Yemen for Saudi Government since Saudi Arabia will have more room to maneuver in Arabian Peninsula to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the Iranian role in the region. The regional rivalry between these two states is not something new it is deeply rooted in their historical legacy of their relations with each other.
Rationale of study
Yemen is ethnically divided between Sunni and Shia since the independence. Furthermore, this ethnic rivalry is exploited by two major players Saudi Arabia and Iran to increase their area of the influence in the region. According to the experts, the card of ethnicity is played in case of Yemen. The internal situation of Yemen was gotten worse after the Arab Spring in addition, to suppression of minorities including the Shia community under the Ali Abdullah Saleh government in the center. As he himself belongs from the Sunni community and has a soft corner for Saudi government and American influence in their country. At the same time, one cannot undermine the role of Iran in the region and their growing influence in the internal politics of the Middle Eastern region. The main aim of this paper is to analyze the repercussions of the unrest in Yemen on the whole region in terms of its security and stability is concerned. It can be assessed in three contexts that are domestic, regional and international context. In order to critically evaluate the present situation of Yemen, one cannot do it without taking all aspects into account including the domestic, regional and global level of analysis to understand its implications for the security of Middle East in coming few years.
One cannot neglect the role of external powers as far as Yemen is concerned because the role of US is an open secret as they have close ties with the Saudi Arabia as its regional ally. Many experts of Middle Eastern affairs are of the view that the US has apprehensions regarding the increasing influence of the Iran in the region particularly ousting the Sunni government in Yemen by supporting Zaydi’s Shia militias in Yemen. Since Iran also have aspirations to become a regional hegemon by challenging both Saudi Arabia and their allies in the region. On the other hand, GCC countries also are significant in determining the future of Yemen in changing regional dynamics in the context of Iran-US nuclear deal which is considered to be the victory of Iran on the diplomatic front in a global arena.
It is essential to look deep into the internal dynamics of the Yemen before going for regional and international factors responsible for the turmoil in the country. (Bookings, 2015) Every country has unique domestic issues that they had to deal it. Yemen can be called as least developed states within the Middle East. It is dependent on Saudi Arabia and foreign assistance for running the economy. Another aspect that can be considered as a root cause of domestic rivalry is a divide between Sunni and Shia that has affected the peace of the country. Moreover, the weak government of Yemen is unable to eradicate the differences between two groups to bring stability in the country. The conflict in Yemen was ignited with start of Arab Spring within the Middle East along the prevailing conditions within the Yemen most of the people living there are not satisfied the ruling elite of the country. The lack of leadership at domestic is another reason for masses that led to violence in the country. The ruling elite is not doing enough to address the issues of people rather than protecting their regime interests. The lack of unity is also a major factor for the disorder as they divided into Sunni and Shia which is exploited by the regional players for serving their interests.
Reasons for unrest
Sunni versus Shia
The major cause of conflict in case of Yemen is a Sunni and Shia divide that has created many problems. Firstly, it has created internal division within the country which is manipulated by different interest groups in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, when a nation is not united at the domestic level then one cannot have coherent policies at the national level. The lack of uniform policy at national level makes the country internally weak and fragile. Yemen due to its divisions within is suffering from the setbacks in framing national coalitions to deal with their issues at home.
Moreover, the past legacy of both Yemen North and South has a dominant role as both represent each sect which is Sunni and Shia. After the unification in 1990, this problem remains there as there was no substantial effort was done by the ruling elite of the country to resolve this contentious concern inside Yemen. The internal division further got complicated when central government detaches itself from the masses who were not satisfied with the government. The failure of a government to address the grievances of masses has played a major role in further cleavage in Yemen. The people at the national level are fighting for their basic rights including food and shelter unsuitable economic conditions and heavy dependence on the foreign aid for running the country. Furthermore, the growing differences between Sunni and Shia community considered being the core problem of Yemen. Many experts believe that it is a cause of rift among the ruling elite locals are usually use as a tool to serve their purpose most of them don’t give much thought to the so-called divide between Sunni and Shia. One cannot completely negate this analysis of experts because masses are usually exploited in the name of religion by ruling elite.
Role of Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula
Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula is another major threat that is posing a serious threat to the peace of Yemen. The role of Al-Qaeda is vital in terms security of the region is concerned because the growing influence is posing a threat to its internal security. Consequently, the unrest in Yemen is becoming a breeding ground for terrorists that can have dangerous consequences for its internal security. In addition, if they tend to get a stronghold in Yemen it can further disrupt the existing security situation in the Middle Eastern region. Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula is the offshoot of Afghani Al-Qaeda which is active and has a capability to even take over Yemen under weak government control in the country (Neubauer, 2015).
The role of AQAP cannot be underestimated provided current security situation in the Middle East. One of the key factors that they can exploit to serve their interest is of Sunni- Shia conflict within the Yemen. The proponents of Wahabi school of thought that is closer to Sunni ideology if the Sunni of Yemen started joining this organization it can adversely impact the security of the Middle East. Many experts consider AQAP as a potential threat to the not only for Yemen but also for the Arabian Peninsula in coming few years. They are against foreign intervention of the western countries especially the role of the US in the Middle East due to ideological differences and suspicious of the external powers involvement in the region. The current scenario in the Middle East is depicting an uncertainty in terms of peace and stability in the region due to the presence of Isis and their increasing violent activities.
Grievances of people
Another factor that is not addressed by the ruling elite of Yemen is grievances of local people since they are deprived of basic necessities and famine like situation due to ongoing tug of war between Houthis and Mehdi’s of Yemen. Most of the people living in the country are living under the poverty line which is alarming for international donor agencies of human relief. Yemen is not self-sufficient in terms of food to meet the needs of its population mostly relying on other neighboring countries for fulfilling needs of local population. Moreover, illiteracy is one of major reason behind the back forwardness of the Yemen. The masses, in general, are not enlightened about their potential abilities and rights being the citizen of the Yemen. It is one of poorest countries in the oil-rich region of Middle East and relatively weak internally. Despite the efforts of regional countries and international organizations, it is struggling with a shortage of food and chaos in the Yemen. The internal insecurity is widening mainly people are not happy with their government. The malfunctioning of government can be seen in its leadership that is incompetent to handle the internal situation on their own and often exploited in hands of external and regional powers.
On the other hand, due to the ongoing war between two groups in a country, most of the people are forced to leave their home to other countries. They are living in refugees camps and facing an uncertain future for them and their young generation. According to the Experts of Middle East, it is very difficult to bring stability in Yemen in coming few years. The intense fighting between government forces and rebels will not let any force to bring peace in the country by bringing both parties to the negotiation table to resolve it in an effective way.
At the regional level, one assesses the regional dynamics by giving the example of two major players in the Middle East that is Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between them is based on their historical legacy. Iran has a strong sense of nationalism that has prevented them from assimilating into the Arab identity. Whereas Saudi Arabia on the other hand, called them as advocates of the Arab unity that they are promoted at the regional level. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaidi, 2015) But Iran always opposes any such attempts that would affect the nationalism as they called them as Persians, not Arabs due to the unique identity. Iran being part of Persian Empire glorifies them as Persians rather than associating them with the Arab nation. The distinct identities of Iran and Saudi Arabia are one of the reasons that have widened their differences with each other. The distrust is another factor that is not letting them forget their bitter experiences with each other. Iran is suspicious of Saudi intentions because of their close relations with the US. Iran since its revolution has contentious relations with the US they have apprehensions regarding their influence in the Middle East. The US also developed conflictual relations with supreme leader on the issue of backing Israel against Muslim countries.
Saudi Arabia being a major state and ally of US in the region due to its oil production and export to the rest of the world makes its distinct position in a global arena. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the US since the inception. Saudi Arabia has greater regional influence due to their stature within the region and outside the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has an international standing due to its closer ties with the almost all major states of the world. Despite being major state of Middle East they have an ideological rift between their regional rival Iran. They are in conflict with each other due to Sunni-Shia rivalry. According to the experts, it not just their religious rivalry instead it is political tactics to expand their areas of influence inside the region and beyond it. The analogy of Arab and Persian was used to increase the economic and political hegemony by both the parties. The differences between the Saudi’s with the Iranian government is based upon the potential capability of the Iran and Saudi Arabia to rule the Gulf region. Many experts are of the view that the major cause of conflict is misunderstanding between them.
At the global level, one cannot ignore the role of the US and its ally’s role in the Middle East. Historically, one cannot deny the US involvement in the region after the Second World War especially having strategic relations with Israel. The interest of US has increased after the discovery of oil in this part of the world. The energy security in the contemporary world is core national interest of the US and other western countries. (Swift, 2012) The growing dependence of industries of the world on hydrocarbons has enhanced the vitality of the oil-rich region which is known as the Middle East. One of the major turning points was 1979 revolution of Iran before that Shah of Iran has friendly relations with the US. Since the revolution, the relations of US were never smooth with Iran due to differences with the supreme leader of Iran who labeled the US as Great Satan. Whereas in Iraq although they installed pro-Hashemite government but when they were replaced by the Saddam Hussein of Baathist party the relations become strained due to his aggressive posture towards other Gulf states. Before that, Saddam Hussein used to have good relations with the US as they help them to build a strong Iraq.
Currently, the alliance of US with Saudi-led coalitions against rebels in Yemen has complicated the situation. As the US initially avoided getting into confrontation directly but recently they have started using their major power status to suppress the rebels inside the Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia is an open secret but the overt participation of US forces has raised a number of questions about the future of conflict within the Yemen. Despite the claims of US to stay out of the Yemen crisis particularly after the invasion of 2003 in Iraq by other means has increased the apprehensions about their potential role in Yemen unrest. According to the analysts, the recent activities of the US are not welcome by Yemen and Iran. The backing of US for Saudi coalition’s air strikes has earned a bad name for the US across the globe due to the casualties of the civilians in Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia can have negative repercussions as far as the stability of Yemen is concerned because by supporting Saudi against rebels can affect their relations with Iran. Iran is often blamed for supporting the rebel groups to counter the Saudi influence in the Middle East.
The role of UN is very minimal as it has failed to bring peace in the country. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaydi, 2015) Although UN did pass a resolution for devising a way to stop the fighting within in Yemen but still no results are so far achieved. United Nations lacks the ability to solve the domestic issues of Yemen as it has no authority to intervene in the internal matters of any country. Similarly, UN is an inactive institution in terms of resolving issues particularly in Middle East region mainly because of interests of major players in the international arena. UN as an institution is weak for implementing its decisions at international level.
Why is it posing a serious threat to Middle East?
The Distrust of Regional players within the Middle East against the external powers can amplify the instability by deepening the misunderstanding making it more volatile in coming few years. If the regional countries are suspicious of the Western powers role in domestic issues of the region then any minor incident can initiate a major conflict that will further deteriorate the situation of the worn prone region. The external power is crucial for making the Middle East peaceful which can be attained by building the trust of the major players of the Arabian Peninsula for achieving relative stability. Moreover, the trust deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another major concern for growing instability in the Middle East. There is a need that both states try to resolve their ideological differences by removing the misunderstanding for the greater goal that is to ensure peace of the Middle Eastern region for them. According to experts the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be removed by developing a middle way or consent of leadership on both sides to let go their conflictual past for secure future for them rather than fighting with each other over regional hegemony.
The Spread of Extremism mainly after the proclamation of Daesh and growing of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East will increase the terrorism and extremism. The militant elements are using the uncertain situation of the region for serving their purpose by making it brewing ground for more lethal conflicts in near future. Furthermore, the effective leadership is required to foresee their minor issues for ensuring peace in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia can play a significant role by not letting extremist element to take refuge in their areas in the name of Sunni-Shia divide for promoting violent activities in any of Middle Eastern country. But it is difficult to attain as the ideological rivalries are deeply rooted in their mindset. In order to change the mindset deliberate efforts are needed for the considerable period of time to change the perception of Iran and Saudi leadership mindset for saving their region from the terrorists. On the hand, both countries should not fund any group for advocating sectarian divide which is becoming a hurdle in a way of the Middle East. The mutual efforts by the Saudi and Iranian government are required for bringing prosperity of the whole region instead of working for narrow national interest.
Increase rivalry between Iran-Saudi Arabia
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted but the recent involvement by both states in Yemen will increase their animosity to the larger extent. As we know both Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon particularly after a conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. Saudi Arabia has expressed their apprehensions with the US. Saudi Arabia is the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iranian role in the regional politics as the nuclear deal will disturb the balance of power in the region. The Saudi government is of the view that this deal will bring instability in the region as Iran will try to reassert its power by supporting regional proxies, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, Iran, on the other hand, has its hesitation regarding the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment. In a case of Yemen, one would say both states have their interests as they want to increase their sphere of influence in the region. Iran is blamed for covertly supporting Zaydi’s Shia living inside the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale in revolt the government.( Masood, 2016,) Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen.
Firstly, the weak leadership is one of the major issues in a context of Yemen. It is the inability of local leadership which is causing unrest in Yemen. The ruling elite is not trying to resolve their issues internally which is complicated the situation in the country. The role of regional players is increasing in case of Yemen due to the links of ruling elites with the Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to experts on the Middle East, the current situation in Yemen is becoming worse due to incompetence on the part of the leadership of Yemen who are relying on regional players to resolve their internal issues. Yemen is largely dependent on aid and assistance provided by GCC and Saudi Arabia.
Secondly, the role of external powers mainly of US is dominant after the failure of peace talks between Saleh regime and Houthis rebels (Future Directions International, 2014). Initially, US forces avoided directly involving them in Yemen. But end up indulging them in direct confrontation by supporting Saudi-backed forces by assisting them in airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US has also used drone strikes to target rebels for supporting Saleh regime in Yemen. The growing involvement of US in internal politics has transformed the internal rift within Yemen into an international conflict. The role of UN is not significant because it has failed to get desired results to maintain peace within the Yemen.
Another major threat that Yemen is facing is the threat of terrorism in form of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula (NATO Foundation Defence College, 2016,). The significance of the AQAP has increased inside Yemen due to ongoing rift between Saleh regime and Houthi rebels. The power vacuum has been created which is exploited by the Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula. The sympathies of masses for Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula can further complicate the situation in Yemen consequently increased militancy in the country. The people are frustrated if they start joining terror organization it would disrupt the stability of Yemen in long run and security of the whole region.
One can say the unity within Yemen is required for bringing stability in the country and saving Middle East region in larger extent from future conflicts. There is a need for internal cohesion among the internal players that can only be achieved by building consensus between them. The ruling elite should take steps to address the grievances of the people by sharing power with other major groups that are significant in politics of Yemen. The Shia community should be taken on board by giving then their due share in internal dynamics of the country. They should be consulted while making important policy decisions of the country to ensure the stability of Yemen. Moreover, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia was ignited in case of Yemen that will increase their hostility with each other. According to experts, Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon especially after the normalization of the relation between Iran and US with the nuclear deal. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is also expressing their reservations regarding deal of Iran with the US. Saudi Arabia being the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iran’s role in the regional politics. It will disturb the balance of power in the region as the nuclear deal will bring instability in the region. According to Saudi government Iran will try to increase its power by actively backing regional proxies in form of the Hamas and Hezbollah.
Furthermore, Iran has apprehensions about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment in Middle East region. In a context of Yemen, one can say that Iran and Saudi Arabia have their interests as both wants to increase their area of influence in the region. Iran is often blamed for clandestinely supporting Zaydi’s Shia of the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale. Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen by supporting them through aid and military assistance. The growing role of two major rival states is increasing instability of Middle East on one hand and on the hand becoming a cause of unrest in a case of Yemen.
Yemen should become self-sufficient in order to stop the intervention of external and regional players in its internal politics. It can only be possible if the leadership take the responsibility rather than serving their interests they should solve their internal issues by mutual consent. The fighting among various groups will increase the instability of their country. There is the need to on part of ruling elite is to share their power for bringing internal cohesion with the groups who deprived of becoming major getting their due share in the context of domestic politics of Yemen. For instance, Shia community Zaydi’s which constitute majority at the domestic level within Yemen.
To conclude, one can say that role of leadership of Yemen should be pragmatic in order to resolve the internal issues by taking all stakeholders on board. Currently, the reliance of ruling elite on regional and international actors is causing more chaos. The leadership of Yemen should try to resolve their issues by building the consensus of domestic actors for bringing peace and stability in their country. The future of Yemen is largely dependent upon the decisions of the ruling elite who is running the country. The masses of Yemen want stability of their country which is disrupted by the involvement of regional and international players into the domestic politics of Yemen.
The role of leadership should be pragmatic for addressing domestic issues.
The consensus building is required for ensuring the stability of Yemen.
Yemen needs to become self-sufficient for resolving their issues themselves.
About the author:
*Mehwish Akram holds masters degree in International Relations and currently doing M Phil in Political Science. Her areas of interest are Democracy, Political theory and Environmental politics .
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy