By Ifrah Waqar
Apr 9, 2015
Yemen, a country located in the South of Saudi Arabia is increasingly making headlines these days both regionally and internationally. Conflicts, uprisings, drone attacks (which began in the country in 2002) and disturbances, none of which are unknown to the residents of Yemen, as the country, have been a magnet for trouble pretty much since the 1960s.
The current unrest in Yemen can be traced to the 1962 uprising when the British with the help of its Middle Eastern allies carried out covert activities in the country and used it as a battle ground. The country was divided into two fronts then: North and South. Ever since, the country has continuously faced turbulence and has been a soft target for other entities.
Al Qaeda, Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), “terrorist hub” are some of the names which are now associated with Yemen. Lately, it’s the Houthi Shia rebels who have brought the country to limelight.
Historically, Houthis are Zaidi Shias. They constitute about 30 percent of the population, were once best known as a movement who preached peace, are now being labelled as trouble mongers but this latest uprising or tide in their movement did not happen overnight.
The first time, Houthis came face-to-face with the Yemini government was in 2004 when the founder of the Houthis, Hussein Bader Addian was arrested and later killed. It was then when the movement turned to arms. The Houthis movement started conducting protests based on grounds of self-defence with the then Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh viewing them as a threat to his rule.
The Houthis have been gathering momentum pretty much since last August after the country cut down on the fuel subsidy by declaring it an economic strangulation. It was then that thousands of Houthi protesters marched towards the Yemini capital Sanaa and demanded the government under President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to resign. The call which was given by the Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi also demanded granting them with political rights and reforms. The Houthi protestors were then called for dialogue by the Yemini government and a UN brokered deal was ultimately agreed upon by the two sides. The agreement did not last and Hadi was declared as illegitimate by the Houthi rebels after they moved to the capital on 21st September, 2014. The Houthi rebels stormed into the Presidential palace and placed Hadi, Yemen’s Prime Minister and two other ministers under house arrest.
However, President Hadi was able to escape. He flew to Aden on 21st February and declared himself as the rightful President of Yemen. On the other hand, violence and anarchy continued to rock Yemen when finally its Northern neighbour felt the need to intervene to save itself from the flames igniting from Yemen and Saudi Arabia formally began airstrikes against the Houthi Shia rebels.
Sharing a border of 1,800 (1,100 miles) Kilometres with Yemen, Saudi Arabia is gravely concerned about the situation in its volatile backyard. Before initiating air strikes under its own-led coalition on Yemen, last year Saudi Arabia started building a giant border fence to seal its border with Yemen. The action obviously did not reap the desired results and about a month after ousting the Saudi backed Yemini President Hadi, Saudi Arabia initiated airstrikes in Yemen.
A 10-nation Saudi led coalition is currently carrying out attacks in Yemen. After initiation of airstrikes, an Arab League meeting was immediately called upon to discuss the issue of Yemen in Sharam-ul-Sheikh. The 22 nations representing the Arab League called for creation of a joint Arab military force whose Chief Nabil al-Arabi said the Saudi-led offensive would “continue until the militia withdraws and surrenders its weapons”.
Saudi Arabia is currently calling for international support against the Houthi rebels and has blamed Iran for creating confusion and destabilisation by supporting the Houthis. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has gone one step further and has referred to the Houthis as “puppets of Iran” thereby alleging Iran of directly supporting them.
Currently, Saudi Arabia is engaged on multiple fronts i.e. internal and external. Saudi Arabia recently experienced a power transition with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz coming to power after the recently deceased King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Firstly, the Kingdom feels a direct threat emanating from the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) which has emerged as perhaps the biggest threat to the Middle-East and Saudi Arabia. Secondly, the recently concluded nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 led by the United States has added to the threats perceived by the Kingdom. Finally, the prevailing turbulence over its border with Yemen caused by the Houthi rebels, is a cause of grave concern.
Saudi Arabia is a heavy-weight and like other heavy-weights, the countries under its influence acting out on their own. The current Saudi regime feels it is being cornered and to get back into control, it has to tackle with the Yemini situation with an iron hand and complete success. It needs to be understood that Saudi Arabia will not leave any stone unturned unless it emerges from this situation with the upper-hand, no matter the cost.
Iran is once again amid controversy and this time it is not only about its impending nuclear deal. Iran is being accused by the Arabs especially Saudi Arabia of providing support to the Houthi Shias. Even through Iran has called for political talks between all parties on Yemen issue, it cannot save itself from the allegations of igniting the flames of war in the country.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have more than often found themselves on opposite side of the page. Iran, which takes great pride in its Iranian nationalism and Shia history has historically refused to bow down to Saudi Arabia’s lead, dictation and its place in the Muslim world. Though the two have never directly engaged in a conflict but they have been found fighting against each other via proxies. Over the years, their battle grounds have altered but the fight for dominance, regional or otherwise, has not.
The case of Yemen is no different. Houthis who share a Shia bond with Iran, it seems are being supported by it. The motivation or goal for supporting the Houthis can be debated upon but it seems Iran is bent upon extending its sphere of influence to Saudi Arabia’s backyard.
Adding to this mix is the geo-politics of sea. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It connects the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea with the Red Sea and is located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea. In 2013, an estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway. This politics of sea is a driving factor that cannot be overlooked while considering the raison d’etre of the current conflagration.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s influence in Yemen as a way to spread its wings in its backyard, in the Gulf of Aden. This conflict needs to be seen in this geo-strategic backdrop.
The prevailing situation in Yemen is an outright play of realpolitik, narrowing it down to sectarianism will perhaps be, over simplifying it. It is a fight for dominance and interest. As in this conflict, one of the parties involved is Saudi Arabia, a lot of attention has been focused on Pakistan’s decision and role in the Yemen conflict.
To put it simply, Pakistan is in a conundrum with regard to the situation in Yemen. The country shares a deep historical bond with Saudi Arabia and any decision to join or not join the Saudi-led coalition against airstrikes on Houthi rebels will have a deep impact on the relations between the two countries.
On the other hand, Pakistan houses 20 percent of Shi’a population and any wrong decision at this time when Pakistan itself is rocked by violence and turbulence has the possibility of impinging upon the country’s future by provoking sectarian violence in the country. A Pakistani delegation led by Khwaja Asif, Pakistan’s Defence Minister went to Riyadh to assess the situation. Pakistan’s policy makers have sat down together in a joint Parliamentary Session and are currently contemplating on which decision to take.
Different political parties have expressed divergent views on Pakistan’s supposed role in Yemen but they all have agreed that Pakistan should not be directly involved in the conflict.
The main opposition parties, Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Awami National Party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement and smaller parties like Awami Worker Party have outrightly opposed military intervention in the ongoing conflict. The religious political parties especially Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-ullema-Islam have called for Pakistan’s role as a mediator and not as an interventionist. It should be noted that the Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz has hinted at an emerging consensus in parliament against intervention in Yemen. Furthermore, media and civil society is staunchly opposing Pakistan’s role as an interventionist force.
The safest policy option for Pakistan would be to play the role of a negotiator among all parties and avoid taking a part in the Saudi-led coalition carrying out attacks in Yemen. Pakistan’s interests are in playing the role of a facilitator and avoiding conflict with any of the involved parties to save itself from any future controversy.
Violence and wars are never a solution. World’s history is full of evidence on how every war ended on a political solution. Pakistan, itself, being the victim of anarchy and violence for more than three decades, has enough experience of how a vulnerable neighbour can impinge upon a country’s security, and it therefore, needs to convey this sentiment to its Arab allies especially Saudi Arabia to solve these issue diplomatically. Yemen is a sovereign country and the world needs to let the people of Yemen decide on which direction to take.
With the over-all volatile situation in the Middle-East, all parties involved need to let sanity prevail or else the situation will get worse and perhaps engulf the countries along with their monarchies, and there will be nothing to fight over.
Ifrah Waqar is currently working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. The views expressed in this report are of writers own and do not necessarily present the position of the Centre.