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Alexei Sarabyev

PhD in History, Chief of Research and Publishing Dept, RAS Oriental Studies Institute

Iran may be playing the “Yemen card” to try and replicate Hezbollah’s “resistance” tactics with the Ansar Allah, yet competition along a totally different axis seems to be a more likely explanation. The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once an incredibly important figure for the Arabian Peninsula, may serve as a trigger for the escalation of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. And in terms of confronting the United Arab Emirates, it offers a pretext not only for putting even more pressure on the Houthis, but also, most importantly, for blocking the United Arab Emirates’ creeping expansion into southern Yemeni areas.

It remains to be seen whether Yemen’s discovered oil reserves are running out. Nor is it clear whether the claims that the country sits on extremely abundant oil deposits have any basis in reality. Apparently, these deposits can only be developed if at least two conditions are met: a formal guarantee of the stable legal status of the areas in question and the security of investments. But there is ample evidence that both the war in Yemen and the social and political upheaval it has unleashed are not limited to geopolitical or military-strategic — let alone religious or confessional — factors. It would seem to make sense here to look for “cui prodest,” and quite literally so.

Clashes erupted in Yemen’s capital Sana’a on November 29, 2017 between former tactical allies, the armed Houthi militias and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (who led the country from 1978 to 2012). On December 2, following severe fighting within the city limits and in its suburbs that involved the use of grenade launchers and artillery, Ali Abdullah Saleh announced the split with the Houthi forces, the Ansar Allah movement led by Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. Two days later, reports emerged of a Houthi attack on Saleh’s motorcade that killed him and several of his senior aides.

With such an experienced player as Ali Abdullah Saleh on their side, the Houthis ought to have been prepared for him to continue his game — at the worst possible moment for them.

That Strange Alliance That Was

Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaydi Muslim, had been fighting the Houthi rebels since 2004 from his base in the mountainous northern province of Saada. Following an attempt on his life in June 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh retreated to Saudi Arabia to recuperate, returning to Yemen in September of that year. He then signed a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored power-transfer plan on November 23 in Riyadh in exchange for guarantees of his personal safety. But what followed caused confusion and gave rise to suspicions that the ex-president had embarked upon a multi-dimensional game in a bid to not let power slip from his hands for good. When the Houthi entered Yemen’s capital on September 21, 2014, encountering almost no resistance, many started to talk about the loyalty of key Yemeni warlords to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had for some reason become interested in a Houthi victory march across the entire country.

Indeed, it soon became clear that a strange alliance of the former adversaries had taken shape. But Ali Abdullah Saleh’s tactical allies, the Houthis, continued to suspect him. They remembered all too well the border treaty he signed with Saudi Arabia on June 12, 2000 (66 years after the previous border treaty had been signed), which secured Ali Abdullah Saleh a huge political and financial advantage in the struggle for Saudi favour, in particular against the Islamist al-Islah party, and directly affected the Houthis’ territorial claims.

With such an experienced player as Ali Abdullah Saleh on their side, the Houthis ought to have been prepared for him to continue his game — at the worst possible moment for them. On the other hand, it is not inconceivable that the time had come for the ex-president to repay the Saudis what he may have owed them. This could explain why he rose against the Houthis in the Yemeni capital with all the firepower of his supporters.

Saudi Leadership Ambitions — Again

The last time the House of Al-Saud was this incensed was when a missile was launched on November 4 in the direction of Riyadh from an area controlled by the Ansar Allah movement. The attack alarmed the Saudis very much and generated many opinions. An article from Resolution 2216 of the UN Security Council adopted on April, 14 2015 comes to mind here: it demands that “the Houthis immediately and unconditionally <...> withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sana’a, and <...> refrain from any provocation or threats to neighbouring States, including through acquiring surface-surface missiles, and stockpiling weapons in any bordering territory of a neighbouring State.” The fact that Saudi Arabia had already been bombing Yemen for three weeks by the time the resolution was adopted (since March 25) was conveniently omitted from the document.

One month after the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Saudis might intensify the “southern dimension” of their deterrence of Iran.

Clearly, the Houthi missile launched towards the Saudi capital in November 2017 gave the Saudis yet another reason to demand compliance with the Security Council resolution. At the time, the incident led, among other things, to the Saudis intensifying their rhetoric with regard to Iran’s “proxy” Hezbollah in Lebanon and to increase pressure on it via the Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad al-Hariri, himself a Saudi citizen.

One month after the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Saudis might intensify the “southern dimension” of their deterrence of Iran, this time by putting more military pressure on what they view as another Iranian proxy –Ansar Allah.

That said, it could well turn out that the simplified theory of a regional axis of the supposed Shia–Sunni confrontation does not explain what is really going on. We believe that competition for the status of the most financially potent Arab Gulf state is an important (even central, though not so obvious) factor.

Rivalry in the Gulf

There was a time when countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen tried to establish a club similar to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Under an agreement signed in Baghdad on February 16, 1989, the Arab Cooperation Council, headquartered in Amman, was created. The rules of that club (which in any case failed after just two years as a result of an anti-Iraq campaign during the Gulf War) were supposed to be quite different. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a club that is effectively closed to outsiders (it includes Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia), exists to this day and apparently feels no discomfort from a total lack of ideology. On the contrary, this club of monarchies usually demonstrates, in the words of a classical American philosopher, “loyalty to loyalty.”

While the internal cohesion of the GCC project can be called into question for a whole number of reasons, its viability is beyond doubt because it stems from the export and financial potential of its members. The severity of internal competition surfaces only in such demonstrative actions as the recent “Qatar crisis,” but the real struggle seems to be between the two richest members, the ruling houses of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (which, incidentally, trace their origins to different local tribes, a is big deal on the Arabian Peninsula).

The Saudis have been bombing their neighbours for more than two and a half years now, having effectively isolating the country economically. Meanwhile, according to data announced by UN experts at the Security Council meeting on December 5, 2017, there are nearly 8 million people starving in Yemen, and up to 970,000 suspected cases of cholera had been reported. What is more, seven freight vessels carrying a month’s supply of food were moored at the ports of Hodeida and as-Salif at the time but were not allowed to dock.

But there is ample evidence that both the war in Yemen and the social and political upheaval it has unleashed are not limited to geopolitical or military-strategic — let alone religious or confessional — factors.

The severity of the humanitarian situation casts a favourable light on the United Arab Emirates’ efforts to expand its influence in Yemen’s southern muhafazat (provinces) — Mahra, Hadhramaut, Shabwah and the Socotra archipelago. The United Arab Emirates is paying for telecommunications, food supplies, roads and other infrastructure there. Naturally, supporters of an independent South Yemen now look favourably upon that country.

So it is possible that Iran may be playing the “Yemen card” to try and replicate Hezbollah’s “resistance” tactics among the Ansar Allah, yet competition along a totally different axis (inter-Sunni at that) seems to be a more likely explanation. The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once an incredibly important figure for the Arabian Peninsula (as well as a number of his relatives and associates) may serve as a trigger for the escalation of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. And in terms of confronting the United Arab Emirates, it offers a pretext not only for putting even more pressure on the Houthis, but also, most importantly, for blocking the United Arab Emirates’ creeping expansion in southern Yemeni areas.

It remains to be seen whether Yemen’s discovered oil reserves are running out. Nor is it clear whether the claims that the country sits on extremely abundant oil deposits have any basis in reality. Apparently, these deposits can only be developed if at least two conditions are met: a formal guarantee of the stable legal status of the areas in question and the security of investments. But there is ample evidence that both the war in Yemen and the social and political upheaval it has unleashed are not limited to geopolitical or military-strategic — let alone religious or confessional — factors. It would seem to make sense here to look for “cui prodest,” and quite literally so.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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