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Demystifying Yemen’s Conflict

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at  a Houthi demonstration in 2014

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at a Houthi demonstration in 2014

The conflict in Yemen today is incredibly complex and multifaceted, even by the regional standards of the Middle East. The poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 26 million, Yemen has unfortunately found itself at the crossroads of key local and international threats. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the oldest and most dangerous franchise of Al Qaida is alive and well while in many other countries the organization has relatively declined. Furthermore, the Houthi capture and consolidation of power in the capital Sanaa pushing out Hadi loyalists and the growing southern secessionist movement are both pulling the country in separate directions. Add to that external actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, and you get the basics of current situation in Yemen.

Map of control, late January 2014

Map of control, late January 2015

Yemen as we know it today was formed by the unification of two separate states in 1990, though internal friction has persisted intermittently since the merger. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, continued as President of Yemen after being accepted via agreement with the South. Nonetheless, South Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, causing a brief civil war that was quashed by the north. Saleh retained power until he was overthrown in 2012 and replaced by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Grievances continued until renewed demonstrations for independence began in 2007 led by the Southern Movement. The southern secessionists have intermittently clashed with security forces and recently have gained more traction due in part to instability in the rest of the country and the success of the Houthis.

The Houthi movement, a Zaidi Shia opposition group stemming from the northern areas of Yemen took control of the capital city from government forces in late 2014. On January 22nd, 2015, President Hadi yielded to Houthi demands and resigned. Composing 35%-40% of the country, the Houthis are if nothing else pragmatic, vowing to work with rival groups and international actors including the United States. Important to note, the Houthis have a unique connection with their Shia counterparts in Iran, receiving significant media backing and alleged arms support. It is also worth pointing out that the Zaidi Shiites, also known as Fivers, differ in belief from the majority of Shiites (Twelvers) in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Both Shia branches are distinct from Sunni Islam, from which AQAP ascribes to a bastardized version of known as Salafi Jihadism.

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

AQAP, also known as Ansar al Sharia within Yemen, has been linked to a number of high profile international terrorist incidents including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 Americans were killed, the failed “Underwear Bomber” attack in 2009, and the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper shooting of 2015 in which 12 were killed. The group has been the target of one of the longest and most intensive US drone campaigns, behind the drone strike campaign in the AfPak tribal regions. Though both the Houthi and Hadi factions oppose the terrorist group, they’ve been able to launch frequent attacks on Yemeni security forces, notably seizing military bases. It is evident that AQAP has thrived in the unstable environment of Yemen and will continue to persist.

The manner in which the Houthis assumed power has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare their action as a coup, further underscoring regional obstacles in the road ahead. Soon after, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the takeover in a resolution and called for the Houthis to immediately relinquish control, but the Houthis thus far have remained defiant. If military action is undertaken by GCC or outside forces, the situation will almost certainly devolve into even further chaos. Right now, the future of Yemen rests primarily on the new Houthi leadership in Sanaa and de facto President Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The Hadi political leadership and their supporters still maintain a significant amount of influence, though any and all negotiations with the new Houthi group in charge are guaranteed to come with tensions and the threat of further violence. AQAP will continue to be a threat regardless of who is in power, and secessionist sentiments will multiply if southerners are excluded or marginalized from the political process.  Ideally, any ruling authority would represent the interests of Hadi and Houthi elements, though the balance within any shared agreement will undoubtedly be questioned. Attempting to facilitate a peaceful political transition to a new government is in the best interests of the region, international community, and Yemeni people, yet to say it is a difficult objective would be an understatement.

 

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Shifting Sands and the Gulf Monarchies

Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders

Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at the most recent GCC summit

For the first time since 1995, in October the US produced more oil domestically than it imported from overseas. The US has been steadily moving towards greater energy independence and this shift will have a tremendous effect on the relations between the US and the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia. If demand for their oil dries up, the Gulf states will find it increasingly difficult to sustain their entrenched traditional systems in a modernizing world. While the Gulf will remain strategically important to the US, the oil factor is set for a decline that will open new opportunities and consequences for the US-Gulf relationship.

If there’s any place in the world where money really can buy happiness, it’s the Gulf (if you’re in the right family). The extremely controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar for example, even had a senior FIFA official admit the decision was a mistake. On a more serious note, for decades the Gulf has successfully bought stability at home and influence on the international stage with their oil profits. Recently the Gulf countries have come under greater criticism for their treatment of foreign workers, antiquated laws towards women and divisive foreign policy agendas. In the long term, the Gulf states will continue to face mounting pressure against such controversial policies especially as the significance of their oil wealth declines.

Overview of the Gulf Monarchies

There are six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia,  the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is more populated than the other five states combined and by far most influential. The Saud family has ruled for generations, as have the Al Thani in Qatar, Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Said in Oman and the Al Khalifa in Bahrain. Each emirate of the UAE has its own ruling family and the head of government has always been held by the emir of Dubai. All six are Arab, though many have substantial foreign laborer populations. All the ruling families are Sunni with the exception of the Ibadi sect in Oman which is neither Sunni nor Shi’a. Bahrain is the only country to have a Shi’a majority populace, which has been the cause of major sectarian tension.

US-Gulf Relations

The US and Saudi Arabia especially have always had a very close, but very complicated relationship. The strategic partnership concerning oil and security in the region has come under further strain due to a variety of foreign policy differences on recent events in the region. The Saudis were alarmed by the exchanges between Obama and Iran’s new Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani, and  the Saudis argue the US has not done enough to help the rebels against the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has taken their own initiative in supporting opposition groups aligned to their own agendas, worrying American officials. Furthemore, while the US has reduced the amount of aid to the current military backed government in Egypt, Gulf countries have sent billions more.

However, this all pales in comparison to the longstanding relationships that have been in place for decades between the US and the Gulf monarchies in military and oil agreements. Also critical is the mutually beneficial collaboration between the US and the monarchies against terrorism.

What’s Next?

While predicting the imminent collapse of the Gulf monarchies is a bit premature, the Gulf leaders of the future will increasingly find themselves forced to concede on some issues or else risk exacerbating the tensions within their states. The Gulf states operate in a strange, hypocritical world at times. For example migrant workers within the Gulf have been severely exploited, though leaders are still quick to send 10 million in aid to the Philippines for disaster relief. There’s no shortage of cash in the monarchies and they’re constantly investing more into their future, but such extremely modern business ventures coupled with their traditional political systems is becoming more and more incompatible. The Gulf states can throw money at their problems for now, but they cannot do it forever.

The US needs to take a stronger stand against human rights injustices within the Gulf. Exploiting workers, oppressive women’s rights policies and questionable foreign policy initiatives have largely been swept under the rug in exchange for allies in oil and regional security. The Gulf states should realize that improving their domestic issues benefits their standing in the international community, and the West should reiterate this point to them.  As the US relies less on Gulf oil in the future, it should not step away from its Gulf partners but rather evolve those relationships. The US should pressure its allies in the region to improve their human rights issues, while continuing the critically strategic agreements in place.

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