Ou, Chia-Ying

Battered by war, Yemen has millions of civilians at risk of famine. Forceful international intervention has worsened the situation since Saudi-led military coalition began its first airstrike. Moreover, as the conflict developed, the resolution for Yemen increasingly obscured the real actors. Between domestic key powers and foreign third parties, the conflict resolution lost its functionality and purposefulness in promoting peace. The aim of the conflict resolution for Yemen should have been to settle the differences between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, both of which have presumably been supported by foreign third parties and fighting the war as proxies.

Despite the unification of Yemen in 1990, tension between the two former nations remained high.[1] Economic downturns constantly posed challenges to the government.[2] During the Arab Spring, Ali Abdallah Saleh, former president of Yemen, was forced to resign and hand over his power to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as the result of years of political dynamics, corruption and inequality.[3] However, Hadi also failed to cope with economic downturns.[4] Economic reforms following a loan from the International Monetary Fund led to widespread public discontent.[5] As a result, The Houthis became a dominant opposition.[6] Meanwhile, subversive movements of jihadists and separatists in the south further destabilized Yemen. Consequently, Hadi was forced out and fled to Saudi Arabia in 2015. The Saudi-led coalition soon launched military campaigns while the Houthi forces were invading Aden, a strategic port near the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb.[7]

Conflict Resolution

The GCC Initiative

Foreign intervention in Yemen was hardly new before the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative. Saudi Arab in particular has exerted considerable influence on Yemen’s internal affairs.[8] Its relations with Yemen’s tribal powers and elites have long been seen as attempts to intervene in Yemen’s political affairs.[9] The introduction of the GCC Initiative in 2011, backed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2014, was aimed at stabilizing the political order through peaceful measures. It was believed that Saudi Arabia set up the Initiative under GCC’s name in order to increase the chance of success.[10] The GCC Initiative asked for Saleh’s immediate resignation, the formation of a transitional government and the commencement of the National dialogue Conference (NDC).[11]

The NDC succeeded in bringing all political forces and powers together to negotiate on political reforms.[12] Despite the progress, the result was hardly satisfactory. A federal state was agreed by all, but sensitive issues such as the sharing of power and resources remained unresolved.[13] Above all, the NDC was viewed as elite-driven and could not reflect the interests of Yemenis.[14] Its Transitional Justice Working Group was composed of core elites who were responsible for the human rights violations.[15] Eventually, the Initiative ended with unmet goals in early 2014.

Saudi-led Coalition

The Saudi-led coalition began military intervention in March 2015 to restore Hadi to power and stop the Houthi forces from taking control of Aden. The coalition was largely unsuccessful. Emile Hokayem and David B. Roberts suggest that the coalition forces were unable and reluctant to carry out a massive ground invasion; hence their reliance on airpower.[16] Also, the coalition forces were more of a symbol than solidarity. Contributions of troops made by allies to the coalition were possibly exaggerated.[17] Interestingly, it remained debatable if the Houthis received Iranian military support and fought against the coalition as an Iranian proxy. Many believe these allegations were overstated.[18]

The United Nations

Since the Arab Spring, the United Nations Security Council has passed 15 resolutions for Yemen and set up peace talks between the Houthis and the government. (Table 1.1) The UN has mostly been a passive mediator who firmly supports the GCC Initiative and the outcomes of NDC, even though both achieved little success in reflecting the public interests and settling differences. Given the Saudi influence over the GCC, UN’s mediation efforts were possibly seen as intervention favorable to Saudi Arabia.[19] Failing to build mutual trust, the UN struggled to maintain a ceasefire after the signing of Stockholm Agreement.[20]

Intervention Motivated by Self-Interest

While self-serving intervention does not necessarily intensify the war, the mediators’ interests are in direct conflict with those of the disputants in this case. The mediation efforts therefore further exacerbated and complicated the conflict.

National security

Saudi intervention in Yemen was partly due to its concern for national security. Even in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia raised the alarm during the unification of Yemen. Helen Lackner believes Saudi Arabia saw Yemeni unity as a potential threat because Yemenis had been superior fighters and Yemen had roughly the same population.[21] Furthermore, the boundary dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia over areas with potential oil reserves has never been settled.[22] Thus, undermining the stability in Yemen seemed to be a feasible tactic for Saudi Arabia when the unification was inevitable.[23] The rise of the Houthis posed a greater threat to Saudi Arabia largely because the Houthis allegedly received military support from Iran and fought against the coalition forces as Iran’s proxy.    

Geopolitical significance of Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a vital trade route between the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Shipments for Persian Gulf oil, natural gas, and petroleum products to Europe and North America as well as shipments from Europe and North African to Asia must pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2018, roughly 6.2 million barrels of oil and petroleum products and 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day flowed through the strait.[24] Due to its geopolitical significance, countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, vie for the control over ports along the strait. Investing in ground intervention, the UAE extended its influence on ports including Al-Mokha, Aden, Balhaf, Bir Ali and Mukalla.[25] Likewise, Saudi Arabia increased its military forces in Aden and Perim Island after the UAE reduced its military presence.[26] 

Arms sales

Although Germany imposed an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in 2018, the US, UK, France and several European countries have been supplying arms to the coalition, especially the leading forces, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[27] In 2017, the US alone proposed 17.9 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and 2.8 billion of arms sales to the UAE. In 2016, approximately 5 billion of arms sales to each were proposed in the US.[28] Similarly, the UK, second largest arms exporter, supplied arms that accounted for 60% of UK arms sales to the Middle East between 2009 and 2018. Saudi Arabia was the biggest importer of the UK arms.[29] Even though the volume of arms exports from Germany, France and several European countries to Saudi Arabia was much lower, most countries continued arms sales despite the humanitarian crisis, claiming that the prevention of Iranian dominance was necessary.[30]

Ou, Chia-Ying is A graduate student of Graduate Institute of International Politics at National Chung Hsing University, majoring in International Political Economy.

[1] Vincent Durac, “Elections and Transition in Yemen,” in Mahmoud Hamad and Khalil al-Anani, eds., Elections and Democratization in the Middle East: The Tenacious Search for Freedom, Justice, and Dignity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) pp. 112-121

[2] World Bank, The Republic of Yemen: Unlocking the Potential for Economic Growth (Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group, 2015) pp. 5-9

[3] April Longley Alley, “Tracking the Arab Spring: Yemen Changes Everything…and Nothing,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2013) pp. 74-77

[4] Ibid, pp. 77-81

[5] “Yemen fuel subsidy cut drives poorest deeper into poverty,” The Guardian (2020/05/03 accessed), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/aug/26/yemen-fuel-subsidy-cut-drives-poorest-poverty

[6] Vincent Durac, op. cit., pp. 118-119

[7] Alice Fordham, “Saudi-Led Coalition Pushes Houthi Rebels out of Aden, Yemen,” NPR (2020/05/03 accessed), https://www.npr.org/2015/07/28/427178363/saudi-led-coalition-pushes-houthi-rebels-out-of-aden-yemen

[8] Rene Rieger, Saudi Arabian Foreign Relations: Diplomacy and Mediation in Conflict Resolution (New York: Routledge, 2017) pp. 208-216

[9] Stephen King, The Arab Winter- Democratic Consolidation, Civil War, and Radical Islamists (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2020) pp. 231-232

[10] Rene Rieger, op. cit., p. 4

[11] United Nations Peacemaker, “Agreement on the Implementation Mechanism for the Transition Process in Yemen in Accordance with the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),” (2011) pp. 1-9

[12] Erica Gaston, “Process Lessons Learned in Yemen’s National Dialogue,” United States Institute of Peace (2014) pp. 3-4

[13] Ibid, p. 4; see also Noel Brehony, “Yemen and the Houthis: Genesis of the 2015 Crisis,” Asian Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2015), p. 239

[14] Ibid, p. 5

[15] Stephen King, op. cit., pp. 240-241

[16] Emile Hokayem and David B. Roberts, “The War in Yemen,” Survival Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 58, No. 6 (2016), pp.  165-170

[17] Ibid, pp. 170-174

[18] Ibid, p. 163; see also Stephen King, op. cit., p. 232; Noel Brehony, op. cit., pp. 248-249; Helen Lackner, “The GCC, Iran and Yemen: An Overview of Relations,” in Helen Lackner and Daniel Martin Varisco eds., Yemen and the Gulf States: The Making of a Crisis (Germany: Gerlach Press, 2017) p. 14

[19] Helen Lackner, op. cit., pp. 7-12

[20] Mohamed Ghobari, “Heavy weapons fire rocks Yemen’s Hodeidah as U.N. pushes to clinch troop pullout,” Reuters (2020/05/09 accessed), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/heavy-weapons-fire-rocks-yemens-hodeidah-as-u-n-pushes-to-clinch-troop-pullout-idUSKCN1R614F

[21] Helen Lackner, Yemen in Crisis: Road to War (London: Verso, 2019), pp. 73-74

[22] Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-First Century: The Political, Foreign Policy, Economic, and Energy Dimensions (London: Praeger, 2003) p. 65

[23] Helen Lackner, op. cit., p. 74

[24] Justine Barden, “The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic route for oil and natural gas shipments,” U.S. Energy Information Administration (2020/05/10 accessed), https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41073

[25] Eleonora Ardemagni, “Gulf Powers: Maritime Rivalry in the Western Indian Ocean,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (2020/05/11 accessed), https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/gulf-powers-maritime-rivalry-western-indian-ocean-20212

[26] Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohamed Ghobari, “Saudi Arabia moves to secure Yemen Red Sea ports after UAE drawdown,” Reuters (2020/05/11 accessed), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/saudi-arabia-moves-to-secure-yemen-red-sea-ports-after-uae-drawdown-idUSKCN1U61YJ

[27] Josie Ensor, “Britain, US and France may be complicit in Yemen war crimes, UN says,” The Telegraph (2020/05/11 accessed), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/09/03/britain-us-france-may-complicit-yemen-war-crimes-un-says/

[28] James Cavallaro, Brynne O’Neal and Ruhan Nagra, “Day of Judgment: The Role of the US and Europe in Civilian Death, Destruction, and Trauma in Yemen,” Mwatana for Human Rights, University Network for Human Rights and Pax for Peace (2019), p. 12

[29] “UK Defence & Security Exports Statistics for 2018,” Department for International Trade Defence & Security Organisation (2020/05/11 accessed), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-defence-and-security-exports-for-2018/uk-defence-and-security-export-statistics-for-2018

[30] Beth Oppenheim, “Europe is at war over arms exports,” Foreign Policy (2020/05/11 accessed), https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/18/europe-is-at-war-over-arms-exports/

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