Yemen: Trapped in the Middle East’s Cold Wars
Eleonora Ardemagni 31 March 2015

It is an indirect conflict in which the Saudis and the Egyptians are, however, playing on the same team. For some time, Riyadh and Tehran have been clashing by proxy in the Levant. Yemen, however, is in the Gulf (Arabian or Persian depending on one’s perspective), geographically situated in the Arabian Peninsula that is the heart of the Wahabi kingdom, overlooking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, strategic routes for oil and maritime trade. Intervention by the new Arab military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, started while the Houthi movement (Ansarullah), who are Zaidite Shiite rebels from the north, occupied Taiz, the country’s third most important and mainly Sunni city. In coordination with those parts of the armed forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the rebels moved towards Aden, the last stronghold of interim President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the post-2011 institutions. According to Riyadh, avoiding a battle for Aden is aimed at avoiding, more than a civil war that seems to already exist, the complete overthrowing of political-tribal and regional power relations in Yemen.

Yemen is a country very easy to infiltrate from the outside, but this does not mean that it is controllable. On the contrary, Yemeni political players have always proved they can be significantly accommodating, cleverly managing to exploit interference from regional neighbours using internal power games. When, in the summer of 2013, the constitutional reform project, supported by President Hadi, was opposed by Saleh’s General People’s Congress, which for over 30 years had been the Saudi’s main interlocutor in Yemen, the president surprised Riyadh by traveling to Doha rather than to Saudi Arabia before Barak Obama’s state visit. At that time the Saudis and the Qataris were experiencing a serious phase of the intra-Sunni clash concerning support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria.

The dance of alliances between the leading players on the Yemeni political stage are helpful for better understanding the current crisis and its origins, revealing that the conflict in Sana’a is a political-territorial one. It therefore did not start as a sectarian conflict, although it is becoming one due to internal competition between the two regional powers. Saleh’s power block is now effectively allied with the Houthi’s to try and regain power. However, between 2004 and 2010, the government in Sana’a fought six battles against Ansarullah, which at the time only held northern strongholds in Yemen, denouncing their Shiite religious identity. Ali Abdullah Saleh is, however, a Zaidite, even if he has never used religion to legitimize his leadership, since he is a soldier of Nasserite inspiration. Saudi Arabia has financed and supported Saleh for over 30 years in spite of him being a Shiite. That is what the United Arab Emirates are doing now, establishing close relations with Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of the former president, former head of the Republican Guard and ambassador to Abu Dhabi, who was recently dismissed by Hadi (it is no coincidence that his father is now calling for negotiations and presidential elections). Iran, instead, has managed to established contact with groups of the fragmented Sunni Southern Movement, which pursues autonomy-independence for the south of the country, traditionally playing the whole field regardless of the Shiite factor.

After a number of tactical signs of détente seen in 2014, the clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran has once again become serious. During the Sharm-el-Sheikh Summit held on March 28-29, the Arab League agreed on the creation of an Arab military force, a project that is making its debut in Yemen and to which very few analysts paid much attention. The inter-Arab military alliance “capable of rapid intervention” against “terrorist groups” and “peace-keeping operations”, as defined by the Arab League’s Secretary Nabil al-Arabi, is actually fighting not jihadist groups, but Shiite militias. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are the key players in this operation. Field Marshal/President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who promoted this initiative can, with this test of loyalty, pay back part of Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi’s financial generosity, giving himself the role of regional stabilizer. Egypt and the Emirates are playing the leading role in air operations over Yemen because, unlike other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, they are capable of hitting moving, and not just stationary, targets. Military intervention in Yemen sees Saudi Arabia and Qatar once again united; Riyadh can now take advantage of the channels of dialogue Doha has established with the Houthi, as well as the links between the Qataris and the party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafites, Islah, which the Saudi’s are also supporting, from an anti-Shiite standpoint. Oman, as is traditional, has remained neutral.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have embarked on an extremely risky military campaign (the Houthi have already moved to the area between Jizan, Asir and Najaran, which is inhabited by Zaidite and Ishmaelite tribes). Air attacks alone, without local support on the ground, are ineffective, while a hypothetical land campaign would have tragic repercussions. Without following a diplomatic route, this is a pretty narrow path. In the meantime, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and thousands of followers of jihadism, inspired by the Islamic State group have a free rein, joining Sunni tribes wishing to reject the Houthi’s territorial penetration.

The “paradox of power” in the new Middle Eastern Cold War, as emphasized months ago by Gregory Gause, is that the pure military force of each power, therefore military balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is not central in the current geo-political competition. Instead, what makes the difference is the ability of these two regional giants to support the non-state players moving within the most unstable state in the area at a transnational level. [2] Yemen risks being trapped within this paradox.


[1] Malcom Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, Oxford University Press, 1971.

[2] Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War, Brookings Doha Center, Analysis Paper, n°11, luglio 2014.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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