Yemen: Internal and External Factors

The events in Yemen were triggered by the breakdown of the consensus between the elites of society, which is fragmented along tribal and regional lines.

Saudi Arabia is pressing ahead with Operation Decisive Storm, which it launched on March 26, 2015 in coalition with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), save Oman and several other Arab states (Pakistan was named as a coalition member but has yet to actually participate). The official aim of the operation is to “restore the law” (i.e. reinstate President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi), prevent Yemen from sliding into anarchy for which Iran is blamed, and ensure the security of the GCC states. The operation, which is receiving logistical and reconnaissance support from the United States, became possible only after Hadi appealed for help to the GCC heads of state. Previously, foreign powers had concealed their actions in support of the parties to the domestic conflict. They resorted to direct intervention only when the Houthis refused to take part in the National Dialogue and their paramilitary formations approached Aden.

The events in Yemen were triggered by the breakdown of the consensus between the elites of society, which is fragmented along tribal and regional lines. The impact of religion goes beyond the Sunni-Shia divide. The desire to change the consensus has compelled the parties to the conflict to seek support from outside the country. Yemen is part of a broader process underway in the Arab world. Not only the Houthis but other religious, regional and party leaders, including President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have violated the consensus. The foreign powers involved in the domestic conflict in Yemen (primarily the Saudis) are out to create a balance between the Yemeni elites that would be the best guarantee of Saudi interests, which depend on a stable Yemen. They also want to prevent the interference of regional players (primarily Iran and Hezbollah) that they consider their “strategic foes.” Actions taken to this end and the meetings of the parties to the conflict in Riyadh have given a new lease of life to the 2011 initiative of the Gulf States. While launching air strikes against Houthi targets and blockading Yemeni ports, the Saudis remain open to a political solution to the conflict. The National Dialogue has not been discarded; in fact, the goal is to force the Houthis to take part in it.

The actions of Saudi Arabia and other GCC members are being justified by the appeal of President Hadi, who cited provisions of the Arab League Charter and UN Security Council resolutions on Yemen. There have been numerous precedents of countries responding to similar pleas for help by legitimate governments. So, the coalition is not doing anything extraordinary. The fact that the operation has not been authorized by the UN Security Council does not mean that its initiator, Saudi Arabia, did not intend to seek the necessary sanction, but it realized that the highest body of international law is currently incapable of taking such action. Naturally, this raises questions about the US role in these events.

US support for its strategic partner was made clear by the statement of Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Al-Jubeir immediately after the start of the operation and by the presence of US military experts in Riyadh. But is this support exclusively determined by the US interest in getting involved in the events in Yemen? The stabilization of Yemen is important for the United States as a precondition for eliminating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and preventing Iran from interfering in Yemen’s domestic affairs. US support is also a means of exerting pressure on Iran at the P5+1 talks. However, the overriding purpose of Washington’s support for Riyadh is to restore mutual understanding with its strategic partner. US-Saudi relations are far from perfect, as their divergent positions on the Iranian nuclear program make clear.

There are no grounds to think that the operation will be a prelude to a new large-scale regional conflict. Despite all the statements denouncing Saudi aggression and demanding its immediate end, Iran, like Hezbollah, is unable to do anything about it (the blockade of ports and no fly zone over Yemen have ruled out material aid to the Houthis). Iran is also unlikely to intervene, for fear of upsetting the negotiations with international mediators that are nearing completion, which offer the best chance of lifting sanctions.

According to the Saudi press, Riyadh is not fully convinced that a ground operation is necessary, although the idea has not been dismissed altogether. Riyadh understands that it would be expensive and result in considerable casualties. Furthermore, it would exacerbate the centrifugal forces in Yemen, create a persistent hotbed of tension on its southern border, and trigger international consequences.

All of these factors are important, and the participants in Operation Decisive Storm must take them into account. This will help prevent a civil war and the division of Yemen and help the country resume the National Dialogue, making it impossible for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain strength. However, there is no doubt that National Dialogue will become a reality only when the initiator of the operation decides that it has achieved its goals.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.