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22 September 2017
10 June 2015

The nature of the Yemen conflict

The nature of the Yemen conflict

Political turbulence in the Middle East does not seem to come to end. The trouble zones are not limited only to Iraq and Syria where the “Islamic State” is operating. The internal conflict in Yemen worsens by confrontation of the interests of the region’s two leading states – Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It is widely known that the riots against the government in Yemen broke out at the same time as the so called “Arab spring” started. However, unlike Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Yemen power was delegated to another leader peacefully. This is partly due to the diplomats who managed to persuade a self-perpetuating Ali Saleh who was governing the country for 33 years to cede the power. Yet, this did not alleviate the tensions within the country. Instead, the tensions mounted and led to a full-scale civil war. The main opponents are represented by the Shia Iran-backed military tribe al-Houthi, Sunni militant groups financed by Saudi Arabia and the organisation “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”.

The armed militants of the Shia tribe al-Houthi successfully managed to take control of the country’s capital city Sana’a. This is quite similar to the situation in Lebanon in 2008 when the Shia group “Hezbollah” seized the Lebanon central city Beirut. Yet, this similarity is superficial as it refers only to the following aspects: the ideology which the both movements followed and the use of the armed forces to achieve own political goals. The fundamental distinction between the militants of “al-Houthi” and the group “Hezbollah” is the social and political setting which led to mobilisation and the use of force in both cases.

The nature of the Yemen conflict

Some experts, including Mr. Farea al-Muslimi from the Middle East centre of “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”, believe that it is the division of the parties which is the main difference between the situations in Lebanon and Yemen. The religious factor is the basis for a social and political delineation in Lebanon. The group “Hezbollah” came up as a reflection of a complex confessional situation in the country. It worsened after the Israeli invasion and the civil war which started in 1975. The situation in Yemen is quite ambiguous. It is more about regional distinctions overlapping confessional divisions. Under the President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is originally from Abyan, a southern Yemeni governorate, the power was gradually delegated to the representatives of the southern region. Clearly, the northerners were not happy about this as the power had been under their control for a long time. The ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh came from the Shia tribe Sanhan situated in the north of Yemen. Exploring the geopolitical issue of the conflict allows us to find the reasons underlying support given by the followers of the toppled president Saleh to the tribes “al-Houthi”. They conducted six military campaigns against the Shia tribe between 2004 and 2010. Regionalism is the most decisive factor which is reinforced by the religious divide aspect.

The militants of al-Houthi tribe continued their territorial expansion explaining their actions by the necessity to control the southern cities where the so called “terrorists” are hiding. Naturally, this worries Saudi Arabia which seems to think that the al-Houthi rapid advance is backed up by Iran. Iran aims to save its geopolitical authority in case of Bashar Assad regime collapse. IslamReview has already discussed this issue. The Saudi power is currently occupied with the problem of consolidating the Sunni tribes. The organisation “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, designated as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia, is also looking into this. The Saudi authorities are put in a predicament as the Yemeni branch of “al-Qaeda” is likely to call upon the militants of the “Islamic state” for help. Under these circumstances, the chances are getting higher that the situation in Saudi Arabia will be destabilised.
Aydar Zinnatullin