The GeoPolitics of Yemen

Early History

The ruins of The Great Dam of Marib – destroyed by God, when the people left the worship of God, and indulged in sin. This was sometime between 1000 BC and 300 AD. A very fertile region was turned into a desolate place. Yemen was first populated by Cain (or Kabil), Adam’s son who killed his brother. Yemen has a fascinating history. The ruler of Yemen in 1000 BC was Bilkish, Queen of Sheba. She later married King Solomon (PBUH). It was a very prosperous land, and remained so for many centuries after her death. When the people forgot their Creator and became arrogant and full of pride, the Creator destroyed them. Some ruins of their great civilization have remained for us to see, ponder and reflect. The Marib Dam above reflects that.

 Yemen was the home of the Sabaens (biblical Sheba), a trading state that flourished for over a thousand years and also included parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 275 AD, the region came under the rule of the later Jewish-influenced Himyarite Kingdom.  Christianity arrived in the fourth century. Islam spread quickly in the seventh century and Yemenite troops were crucial in the expansion of the early Islamic conquests. Administration of Yemen has long been notoriously difficult. Several dynasties emerged from the ninth to 16th centuries, the Rasulid Dynasty being the strongest and most prosperous. The country was divided between the Ottoman (North Yemen) and British (South Yemen) empires in the early twentieth century.

 Starting in 1890, hundreds of Yemeni people migrated to Aden to work at ports and as laborers. This helped the population of Aden once again become predominantly Arab after, having been declared a free zone, it had become mostly foreigners. During World War II, Aden had increasing economic growth and became the second-busiest port in the world after New York City.

The 1962 revolution in the north coincided with the Aden Emergency, which hastened the end of British rule in the south. On 30 November 1967, the state of South Yemen was formed, comprising Aden and the former Protectorate of South Arabia. This socialist state was later officially known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and a programme of nationalisation was begun.

Egyptian military intervention in North Yemen in 1962

Arab nationalism made an impact in some circles who opposed the lack of modernization efforts in the monarchy. This became apparent when Imam Ahmad bin Yahya died in 1962. He was succeeded by his son, but army officers attempted to seize power, sparking the North Yemen Civil War.  The royalists were supported by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Britain, and Jordan (mostly with weapons and financial aid, but also with small military forces), whilst the military rebels were backed by Egypt. Egypt provided the rebels with weapons and financial assistance, but also sent a large military force to participate in the fighting. Israel covertly supplied weapons to the royalists to keep the Egyptian military busy in Yemen and make Nasser less likely to initiate a conflict in the Sinai. After six years of civil war, the military rebels were victorious (February 1968) and formed the Yemen Arab Republic.

British Army’s counter-insurgency campaign in the British controlled territories of South Arabia, 1967

Unification and civil war

Relations between the two Yemeni states fluctuated between peaceful and hostile. The South was supported by the Eastern bloc. The North, however, was not able to get the same connections. In 1972, the two states fought a war. The war was resolved with a ceasefire and negotiations brokered by the Arab League, where it was declared that unification would eventually occur. In 1978, Ali Abdallah Saleh was named as president of the Yemen Arab Republic. In 1979, fresh fighting between the two states resumed and efforts were renewed to bring about unification.

North Yemen (in orange) and South Yemen (in blue) before 1990

Thousands were killed in 1986 in the South Yemen Civil War.  

In 1990, the two governments reached a full agreement on the joint governing of Yemen, and the countries were merged on 22 May 1990, with Saleh as President.  After the invasion of Kuwait crisis in 1990, Yemen’s president opposed military intervention from non-Arab states.  This outraged the Saudis who then expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 to punish Yemen for its opposition to the intervention.

Following food riots in major towns in 1992, a new coalition government made up of the ruling parties from both the former Yemeni states was formed in 1994, until the signing of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia peace treaty in July 2000. Yemen’s northern border was undefined; the Arabian Desert prevented any human habitation there. Yemen settled its dispute with Eritrea over the Hanish Islands in 1998. The Saudi – Yemen barrier was constructed by Saudi Arabia against an influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons. Yemen’s constitutionally stated capital is the city of Sana’a.  Yemen’s territory includes more than 200 islands; the largest of these is Socotra.

Yemen under Saleh

Yemen is a developing country, and the poorest country in the Middle East.  In the absence of strong state institutions, elite politics in Yemen took the form of collaborative governance, where competing tribal, regional, religious, and political interests agreed to hold themselves in check through tacit acceptance of the balance it produced. The informal political settlement was held together by a power-sharing deal among three men: President Saleh, who controlled the state; major general Ali Mohsen -Ahmar, who controlled the Yemen Armed Forces; and Abdullah-Ahmar, Saudi Arabia’s international broker of  patronage payments to various political players, including tribal sheikhs. The Saudi payments were to facilitate the tribes’ autonomy from the Yemeni government and to give the Saudi government a mechanism with which to weigh in on Yemen’s political decision-making.

 In October 2000, 17 U.S. personnel died after a suicide attack on the U.S. naval vessel USS Cole in Aden, which was subsequently blamed on al-Qaeda. In a Newsweek interview of December, 2000, President Saleh said that the bombing of the USS Cole was done by the Mossad. (See the articles titled “Behind the Terror Bombings Pts 1, and 2” for a full cause and background on this).

The Shia insurgency in Yemen began in June 2004 when dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Zaidi Shia sect, launched an uprising against the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government alleged that the Houthis were seeking to overthrow it and to implement Shī’a religious law. The rebels counter that they are “defending their community against discrimination” and government aggression. Saleh went to Washington for military help. See picture below.

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the Pentagon, 8 June 2004

In 2005, at least 36 people were killed in clashes across the country between police and protesters over rising fuel prices.

A suicide bomber killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis in the province of Marib in July 2007. A series of bomb attacks occurred on police, official, diplomatic, foreign business, and tourism targets in 2008. Car bombings outside the U.S. embassy in Sana’a killed 18 people, including six of the assailants in September 2008. In 2008, an opposition rally in Sana’a demanding electoral reform was met with police gunfire.

Al Qaeda

In January 2009, the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni al-Qaeda branches merged to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and many of its members were Saudi nationals who had been released from Guantanamo Bay. Saleh released 176 al-Qaeda suspects on condition of good behaviour, but terrorist activities continued.

The Yemeni army launched a fresh offensive against the Shia insurgents in 2009, assisted by Saudi forces. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the fighting. A new ceasefire was agreed upon in February 2010. However, by the end of the year, Yemen claimed that 3,000 soldiers had been killed in renewed fighting.

 U.S. warplanes fired cruise missiles at Al Qaeda training camps in the provinces of Sana’a and Abyan on 17 December 2009. Instead of hitting Al-Qaeda operatives, it hit a village, killing 60 civilians.  Another airstrike was carried out on 24 December.

The U.S. launched a series of drone attacks in Yemen. Since December 2009, U.S. strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the U.S. military with intelligence support from the CIA. Controversy over U.S. policy for drone attacks mushroomed after a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. Another drone strike in October 2011 killed Anwar’s teenaged son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

In 2010, the Obama administration policy allowed targeting of people whose names are not known. The U.S. government increased military aid to $140 million in 2010. U.S. drone strikes continued after the ousting of President Saleh.

Revolution and Aftermath

The 2011 Yemeni revolution followed other Arab Spring mass protests in early 2011. The uprising was initially against unemployment, economic conditions, and corruption, as well as against the government’s proposals to modify the constitution of Yemen so that Saleh’s son could inherit the presidency. By this point Saleh had lost popularity. Saleh then resigned as head of Yemen, and was replaced by Al-Hadi.

By 2012, there has been a “small contingent of U.S. special-operations troops” – in addition to CIA and “unofficially acknowledged” U.S. military presence.

In September 2014, the Houthis took over Sana’a with the help of the ousted president Saleh, later declaring themselves in control of the country after a coup d’état. This resulted in a new civil war and a Saudi Arabian-led military intervention aimed at restoring Hadi’s government.

The Third Saudi-Yemen War – March 2015

 On 26 March, Saudi Arabia announced operation al-Hazm Storm and began airstrikes and announced its intentions to lead a military coalition against the Houthis, whom they claimed were being aided by Iran, and began a force buildup along the Yemeni border. The coalition included the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, and Pakistan. The United States announced that it was assisting with intelligence, targeting, and logistics. Saudi Arabia and Egypt would not rule out ground operations.

As of 2015, Shi’a Houthis are fighting against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia. U.S. supports the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis, but many in US SOCOM reportedly favor Houthis, as they have been an effective force to roll back al-Qaeda and recently ISIS in Yemen. ISIS has claimed recent, bloody suicide bombings in Houthi mosques and Sana’a when it once had no known presence in the country, while AQAP has continued to seize territory in eastern Yemen unhindered by American drone strikes. In February 2016 Al-Qaeda forces and Saudi-led coalition forces were both seen fighting Houthi rebels in the same battle.

   Al-Hadi was ousted, because with Saudi and US support he tried to backtrack on the power sharing agreements he had made and return Yemen to authoritarian rule. The ousting of President Al-Hadi by the Houthis and their political allies was an unexpected reaction to the takeover Al-Hadi was planning with Washington and the House of Saudi.

The Houthis and their allies represent a diverse cross-section of Yemeni society and the majority of Yemenites. The Houthi movement’s domestic alliance against Al-Hadi includes Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims alike.  With the House of Saud, Al-Hadi had been involved in the persecution of the Houthis and the manipulation of tribal politics in Yemen even before he became president.

Coup or Counter-Coup: What Happened in Yemen?

At first, when they took over Sana in late-2014, the Houthis rejected Al-Hadi’s proposals and his new offers for a formal power sharing agreement, calling him a morally bankrupt figure that had actually been reneging previous promises of sharing political power. At that point, President Al-Hadi’s pandering to Washington and the House of Saud had made him deeply unpopular in Yemen with the majority of the population.

The Houthis eventually detained President Al-Hadi and seized the presidential palace and other Yemeni government buildings on January 20. With popular support, a little over two weeks later, the Houthis formally formed a Yemeni transitional government on February 6. Al-Hadi was forced to resign. The Houthis declared that Al-Hadi, the US, and Saudi Arabia were planning on devastating Yemen on February 26.

Al-Hadi’s resignation was a setback for US foreign policy. It resulted in a military and operational retreat for the CIA and the Pentagon, which were forced to remove US military personnel and intelligence operatives from Yemen.  The Houthis had got their hands on numerous secret documents when they seized the Yemeni National Security Bureau, which was working closely with the CIA that compromised Washington’s operations in Yemen.

Al-Hadi fled the Yemeni capital Sana to Aden on February 21 and declared it the temporary capital of Yemen on March 7. The US, France, Turkey, and their Western European allies closed their embassies. Soon afterwards, in what was probably a coordinated move with the US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all relocated the embassies to Aden from Sana. Al-Hadi rescinded his letter of resignation as president and declared that he was forming a government-in-exile.

The Houthis and their political allies refused to fall into line with the demands of the US and Saudi Arabia, which were being articulated through Al-Hadi in Aden and by Riyadh. As a result, Al-Hadi’s foreign minister, Riyadh Yaseen, called for Saudi Arabia and the Arab petro-sheikdoms to militarily intervene to prevent the Houthis from getting control of Yemen’s airspace on March 23.

The Houthis realized that a military struggle was going to begin. This is why the Houthis and their allies in the Yemenite military rushed to control as many Yemeni military airfields and airbases, such as Al-Anad, as quickly as possible. They rushed to neutralize Al-Hadi and entered Aden on March 25.

By the time the Houthis and their allies entered Aden, Al-Hadi had fled the Yemeni port city. Al-Hadi would resurface in Saudi Arabia when the House of Saud started attacking Yemen on March 26.

Yemen and the Changing Strategic Equation in the Middle East

The Houthi takeover of Sana took place in the same timeframe as a series of success or regional victories for Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and the Resistance Bloc that they and other local actors form collectively. In Syria, the Syrian government managed to entrench its position while in Iraq the ISIL/ISIS/Daesh movement was being pushed back by Iraq with the noticeable help of Iran and local Iraqi militias allied to Tehran. 

The strategic equation in the Middle East began to shift as it became clear that Iran was becoming central to its security architecture and stability. The House of Saud and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to complain that Iran was in control of four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana – and that something had to be done to stop Iranian expansion. As a result of the new strategic equation, the Israelis and the House of Saud became perfectly strategically aligned with the objective of neutralizing Iran and its regional allies.

The US-Iran Secret Alliance

 When the Rothschilds refused to give due accord to the Americans regarding Genie Oil’s massive discovery of oil in the Occupied Golan Heights, the Americans made a secret deal with Iran. It went something like this:

 If Tehran could send Hezbollah and Shia militias to take control of the Golan Heights from Israel, and stop it from extracting oil there, then Washington would scrap sanctions against Iran, and treat it as a normal nation. It would also release a part of the frozen funds belonging to Iran.

 Washington’s main interlocutor in Iran was former President Hashim Rafsanjani, Iran’s wealthiest man, and its first billionaire. He represented the business class of Iran, who were being squeezed out of lucrative deals by the IRGC. Furthermore, the Iranian youth are yearning for stronger economic ties to the west, and its glitzy lifestyle. Most of the youth of today were born after 1988, and see no profit in destabilizing the region for geopolitical or religious reasons.

 From America’s point of view, they could not let Israel have unlimited access to the oil of the Golan Heights as it would allow Israel to expand militarily in the region.  It was a feeling shared by all the many nations around the world. The only way for America to achieve this goal was to “subcontract “this to Iran. Thus, the deal between the Obama Administration and Tehran came to be.

 Israel found out about this, and informed Saudi Arabia. Both were very very upset. As part of the deal with Iran, America agreed to allow Iran to control the key chokepoints of Hormiz and Bab el Mandab.  The end result of this would be to choke off all oil shipments from the Gulf to the outside world.

 It was at this point that the Arabs were faced with no choice but to go into Yemen in order to secure their flanks and as well as to have an option to be able to build more pipelines through Yemen , and ship its oil to the outside world. In short, it’s a war for future and current pipeline routes.

 By 2014, the tension between Israel and the US had reached an all-time high. To add fuel to the fire, two of Israel’s dolphin submarines were destroyed by the Americans, one directly in May 2014, and the other indirectly, in the same month. A month later, Israel retaliated against America by killing Richard Rockefeller, David’s son. The conflict between the two ruling families of the world had taken a turn, which precluded any reconciliation.

 Back in Iran, the deal was done between Iran and Washington. Relations with Iran were on the track to being normalized. Washington even released a sum of $100 billion of frozen funds to Iran. But, the IRGC jailed Rafsanjani’s son in July of 2016, on corruption charges, and in October 2016, Rafsanjani was murdered. The deal with America fell away.

 The Rockefeller’s made sure that when their man Trump took over management in Washington, that he would cancel this deal with Iran. And furthermore, Trump’s team had a mandate to bolster the defense of Iran and Saudi Arabia to give them the strength to fight Iran. All of this has come to pass. But the overall objective of Iran, Syria and Russia has not changed in regard to the Golan Heights. Sometime in the second half of 2018, the focus of the war in Syria will shift to the south, around the Golan.

The Geo-Strategic Objectives of the US and Saudis Behind the War in Yemen

While the House of Saudi has long considered Yemen a subordinate province of some sorts and as a part of Riyadh’s sphere of influence, the US wants to make sure that it could control the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, and the Socotra Islands. The Bab Al-Mandeb it is an important strategic chokepoint for international maritime trade and energy shipments that connects the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea. It is just as important as the Suez Canal for the maritime shipping lanes and trade between Africa, Asia, and Europe. 

Israel was also concerned, because control of Yemen could cut off Israel’s access to Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and prevent its submarines from easily deploying to the Persian Gulf to threaten Iran. Saudi Arabia was visibly afraid that Yemen could become formally align to Iran and that the events there could result in new rebellions in the Arabian Peninsula against the House of Saud. The US was just as much concerned about this too, but was also thinking in terms of global rivalries. Preventing Iran, Russia, or China from having a strategic foothold in Yemen, as a means of preventing other powers from overlooking the Gulf of Aden and positioning themselves at the Bab Al-Mandeb, was a major US concern.

Added to the geopolitical importance of Yemen in overseeing strategic maritime corridors is its military’s missile arsenal. Yemen’s missiles could hit any ships in the Gulf of Aden or Bab Al-Mandeb. In this regard, the Saudi attack on Yemen’s strategic missile depots serves both US and Israeli interests. The aim is not only to prevent them from being used to retaliate against exertions of Saudi military force, but to also prevent them from being available to a Yemeni government aligned to either Iran, Russia, or China.

In a public position, the Saudis threatened to take military action if the Houthis and their political allies did not negotiate with Al-Hadi. As a result of the Saudi threats, protests erupted across Yemen against the House of Saud on March 25. Thus, the wheels were set in motion for another Middle Eastern war as the US, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait began to prepare to reinstall Al-Hadi.

The Saudi March to War in Yemen and a New Front against Iran-2015

For all the talk about Saudi Arabia as a regional power, it is too weak to confront Iran alone. The House of Saud’s strategy has been to erect or reinforce a regional alliance system for a drawn confrontation with Iran and the Resistance Bloc. In this regard Saudi Arabia needs Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan —a misnamed so-called “Sunni” alliance or axis — to help it confront Iran and its regional allies. 

On March 21, Mohammed bin Zayed met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to discuss a military response to Yemen. This was while Al-Hadi was calling for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to help him by militarily intervening in Yemen. The meetings were followed by talk about a new regional security pact for the Arab petro-sheikdoms.

During these events, Egypt’s Sisi stated that the security of Cairo and the security of Saudi Arabia and the Arab petro-sheikhdoms are one. Remember that Saudi Arabia and the UAE count on two reserve armies to help defend its interests – Egypt and Pakistan.  In fact, Egypt said that it would not get involved in a war in Yemen on March 25, but the next day Cairo joined Saudi Arabia in Riyadh’s attack on Yemen by sending its jets and ships to Yemen.

In the same vein, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif released a statement on March 26 that any threat to Saudi Arabia would “evoke a strong response” from Pakistan. The message was tacitly directed towards Iran. 

On March 27, it was announced in Yemen that Israel was helping Saudi Arabia attack the Arab country. This is the first time that the Israelis are conducting a joint operation in collaborations with Arabs. The Israeli-Saudi alliance over Yemen, however, is not new. The Israelis helped the House of Saud during the North Yemen Civil War that started in 1962 by providing Saudi Arabia with weapons to help the royalists against the republicans in North Yemen. 

The US is also involved and leading from behind or a distance. While it worked to strike a deal with Iran, between 2011 and 2015, it also wants to maintain an alliance against Tehran using the Saudis. The Pentagon would provide what it called intelligence and logistical support to House of Saud. Make no mistakes about it: the war on Yemen is also Washington’s war.

There has long been talk about the formation of a pan-Arab military force, but proposals for creating it were renewed on March 9 by the rubberstamp Arab League. The proposals for a united Arab military serve US, Israeli, and Saudi interests. Talk about a pan-Arab military has been motivated by their preparations to attack Yemen to return Al-Hadi and to regionally confront Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the Resistance Bloc.

 There are seven major powers in the world today : the US, the EU, Russia, China, India and Iran.  And finally Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Everyone one of these six powers are inherently hostile to Saudi Arabia – be it for geopolitics or religion. These are the facts today. And Saudi Arabia is playing a brilliant juggling game between these six powers. It’s like “dancing in the rain without getting wet”.

The geopolitical significance of Yemen has weighed heavily in the equation. This war is as much about oil as it is about Saudi suzerainty and the House of Saud’s objectives to make Yemen a vassal state, in order to safeguard its rear, and as well as to deny the landspace of Yemen to any hostile powers. Alongside Djibouti, Yemen forms part of an important maritime chokepoint, called the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (also known as the Gateway of Tears/Anguish), which connects the Indian Ocean’s Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

It is no exaggerations to call the Mandeb Strait one of the world’s arteries. As a maritime chokepoint, the strait is just as important as Egypt’s Suez Canal — which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea — and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, because Bab-el-Mandeb overlooks one of the most strategic and important global corridors for the transportation of energy and international commerce.

Preventing US and Saudi rivals from gaining a strategic foothold over the Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden is a major objective of the war on Yemen. The US and the House of Saud see control over the Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden as strategically important in the scenario of a conflict with Iran where Tehran closes the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments and international shipping. Nearly all Saudi commerce is via sea, and direct access to the Arabian Sea would diminish dependence on the Persian Gulf — and fears of Iran’s ability to cut off the Strait of Hormuz.

Oil Pipelines in the Arabian Peninsula

Plan B in such a scenario for the Kingdom includes using Aden and other Yemeni ports.

Support for the balkanization of Yemen chimes with this and ideas about dividing Yemen have been floating around since the Arab Spring. In 2013, the New York Times had this to propose about a Saudi takeover and annexation of southern Yemen: “Arabs are abuzz about part of South Yemen’s eventually merging with Saudi Arabia. Most southerners are Sunni, as is most of Saudi Arabia; many have family in the kingdom. The poorest Arabs, Yemenis could benefit from Saudi riches. In turn, Saudis would gain access to the Arabian Sea for trade, diminishing dependence on the Persian Gulf and fear of Iran’s virtual control over the Strait of Hormuz.”

Houthi control over Yemen, however, complicates and obscures US and Saudi plans. Both do not want the Houthis to succeed in Yemen, for it will give Iran a super-strategic control over the oil shipping lanes of the region. Thus, the fight over Yemen has widened in scope to include the Horn of Africa. Here, the UAE is taking the lead in establishing bases in the Horn. See the map for more clarification.

 This war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not seem to have an end. It will bleed both countries dry. And not counting the humanitarian disaster it has brought upon the people of Yemen. This is so typical of all pipeline wars, or control over the geopolitical spaces in whatever region these wars are based. We will endeavor to keep you updated on Yemen – and the geopolitical battle for control of its land and sea space.

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