The war in Yemen has now entered its fifth year and has evolved into a multifaceted, layered conflict – a so-called proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a clash between the Saudi-led coalition that backs the Yemeni government and the Ansar Allah/Houthis, as well as attempts by actors such as the South Yemeni separatists, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the ISIS, to create a regime of their liking. Today, factors such as war-weariness, rifts in alliances, and economic and political pressures are taking a toll on this war. This paper seeks to examine the current status of the conflict in light of recent developments and calls for peace made by the parties involved.
Source: Bloomberg, 20 May 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-20/yemen-s-civil-war-is-spilling-deeper-into-gulf-region-quicktake
The war in Yemen has now entered its fifth year, but the country has been characterised by political unrest and strife for many decades, owing to the heterogeneous nature of its society. Internal divisions in Yemen run along the lines of sects, tribes, geography, and ideology. In addition, the long rule of over three decades of Yemen’s erstwhile President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which was rife with various charges of corruption, abuses, and nepotism, caused resentment amongst various factions – from the Houthis to Southern Separatists to al-Islah. “At the heart of the conflict...stands access to the state’s institutions and its resources, which serve the various factions by securing their economic interests and maintaining patronage networks that consolidate their power.” (Transfeld, 2014, p.1).
The socio-political milieu of Yemen proved to be a fertile ground for the Arab Spring of 2011, in keeping with the wave across the Middle East and North Africa region. Protestors came out in thousands to demand the ouster of President Saleh. A part of the state military backed the protests too. Eventually in May 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), supported by the United States and the United Nations, brokered a deal known as the GCC Initiative, which provided Saleh legal immunity in exchange for his resignation and the transfer of power to erstwhile deputy Abdrabbouh Mansour Hadi for the transitional period. This was legitimised through a referendum, though boycotted by the Houthis and al-Hirak, wherein Hadi was the sole candidate and he received 98% of the votes. However, the power struggle continued as the new arrangement did not burn out the opposition. On the one hand, the Houthis criticised the impunity granted to Saleh, and al-Hirak was displeased with the North-favouring position of Hadi. The Houthis even formed a temporary alliance with ousted President Saleh to take over control of the government; however, it was a failed attempt at the end of which President Saleh was assassinated. On the other hand, terrorist outfits such as the AQAP and the ISIS, at best a political challenge to the state and at worst a security threat to the state’s very existence, exploited the power vacuum to augment their control over parts of Yemen. In 2015, with the Houthis taking over Sana’a, President Hadi fled to Riyadh. Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of largely Sunni Arab states to carry out ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ in Yemen to push back the Houthis and reinstate the Hadi government. However, what was supposed to be a rapid, in-and-out intervention has today metamorphosed into a multifaceted, layered conflict – a so-called proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a clash between the Saudi-led coalition that backs the Yemeni government, and the Houthis, as well as attempts by various domestic and regional actors, such as the South Yemeni separatists, AQAP, and ISIS, to create a regime of their liking.
The indirect support of major foreign powers through the provision of arms, ammunitions, and intelligence – primarily the US, United Kingdom (UK) and France – rendered Operation Decisive Storm even more pernicious. The US has been one of the biggest supporters of Saudi Arabia and UAE, owing to its longstanding association with them as well as its broader hostility towards Iran. It has endorsed the coalition’s actions in Yemen for the two-fold benefits of sending a message to Iran and of containing the threat posed by the AQAP and ISIS.
Today, Yemen is a patchwork of state and non–state actors pursuing their own agenda, and it faces a conflict that has resisted multiple attempts at resolution. Various attempts such as the GCC Initiative, mediation efforts by Oman and Kuwait, the National Dialogue Conference, UN-backed peace talks in Sweden, UNSC resolutions and the like went one step forward and two steps backward, and failed to yield desirable results due to mutual mistrust amongst warring factions. Yet, all hope is not lost, as the past year has witnessed certain domestic, regional, and international developments indicating that sustainable effort at peace-building may well be in the pipeline. Factors such as war-weariness, rifts in alliances, and economic and political pressure are evidently taking a toll on this war.
TAKING STOCK OF THE PRESENT
That the time is now ripe for a political negotiation is evident from the state of individual participating countries as well as that of the coalition. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are becoming increasingly aware that their military involvement in Yemen is becoming tedious, expensive, and has arguably failed to yield any of the results they had envisaged. Another major development since 2018 has been the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, primarily on grounds of (i) Saudi Arabia’s support for Al-Islah much to the displeasure of the UAE, and (ii) UAE’s support for the southern separatists and the Southern Transitional Council, to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia. The rift was confirmed when the UAE in July 2019 pulled out its troops from the port city of Hodeidah (Wintour & McKernan, 2019) and when it attempted to ease tensions with Iran in order to prevent a violent conflict in the region, in which UAE would likely become the first target (Sly, 2019). Saudi Arabia has also been criticised for not having been able to defeat the Houthis (Yaakoubi, 2017) even after five years of aggression and for overestimating, at the outset, Iran’s involvement and influence over the Houthis.
Equally important is the gradual change in the USA’s involvement in Yemen. Although USA’s policy intentions have been known to be inconsistent, the upcoming American elections in 2020 as well as the commencement of an impeachment investigation against President Trump signal a mitigation of the erstwhile aggressive American policy towards Yemen and even Iran. Thus, with two of Saudi Arabia’s major allies beginning to change course, power dynamics and traditional alliances in the region have been altered as the crisis continues. On the other side of the Gulf, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have repeatedly reiterated the need for Gulf countries to take their regional peace into their own hands, and have even proposed the Hormuz Peace Initiative (HOPE) as a way out of regional conflict.
Various statements and decisions made in the past year show the potential of placating the crisis in Yemen. The erstwhile rigid stand taken by the Houthis, visible in their refusal to accept various peace proposals, has changed. In late September 2019, the Houthis released 350 prisoners apparently including some Saudi troops, in accordance with a list of prisoners identified to be exchanged under the Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 (Al-Jazeera, 2019). About a week prior to that, they had announced their willingness to halt attacks on Saudi Arabia, provided the coalition reciprocates (Agence France-Presse in The Guardian, 2019). In Aden, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, on 5th November 2019, signed a significant peace and cooperation deal for a united front against the Houthis, which was brokered by Saudi Arabia (Asian News International, 2019). Interestingly, this has been supplemented with a recent statement made by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs saying that the Houthis, who are an important part of the Yemeni society, will form a part of the political resolution for Yemen (Al-Jazeera, 2019). Most notably, Saudi Arabia and Iran are making some headway to hold indirect talks (Fassihi & Hubbard, 2019) in the aftermath of a ruinous attack on Saudi Gas-oil Separation Plants in Abqaiq and Khurais, allegedly carried out by Iran. These may well be tepid announcements, but given rising economic and political burdens of this war for all parties involved, onewould be wise to take them at face value and encourage the warring factions to come back to the negotiation table.
Source: Al-Arabiya, 7 November 2019, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2019/11/07/UN-Security-Council-welcomes-Riyadh-Agreement-between-Yemeni-parties.html
IMPACT ON INDIAN INTERESTS
India and Yemen share a common historical legacy of British colonial rule and India has endorsed Yemen’s sovereignty from the very beginning (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India). Yemen is home to a sizeable Indian diaspora, particularly in Aden and Hadhramaut, who maintain strong roots with both countries. Both countries are part of various strategic, commercial, and educational partnerships, some of which are (i) membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), (ii) proposal by BHEL to set up a power plant in Yemen, (iii) MoU between the Indian Council of World Affairs and the Sheba Centre for Strategic Studies for exchange of knowledge, (iv) bilateral agreements for cooperation in air services, agriculture, (v) import of Yemeni crude oil, mineral fuels, and minerals oils by India, and (vii) Indian scholarships under Indian Council for Cultural Relations programme and civilian training for capacity building under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. India is also providing medical assistance of approx. US $ 1 million to Yemen, as part of its commitment as a member of the Friends of Yemen (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reiterated on various occasions, including the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly as well as his recent meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the need for international efforts against global terrorism. Given the alarming presence of AQAP and ISIS in Yemen, there is a concern of overspill of security threats into Indian borders. This relates not only to traditional security challenges but also that of energy security. As seen recently, the attack on oil plants in Saudi Arabia led to a hike in fuel prices even in India due an impact on supply from the Kingdom. Stability in Yemen is also crucial economically as the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait are one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes and acts as an important link between India and the Mediterranean. India uniquely enjoys genial relations with not only the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, but also with Iran - the key parties to the conflict in Yemen. Hence, it is well positioned to leverage these positive relations to prompt a meaningful peace process for Yemen. Thus, for the safety of its diaspora, investments as well as for the greater humanitarian good, it is imperative for India to work towards a lasting peace in Yemen and the larger Indian Ocean region.
Finally, it may be concluded that the Yemeni conflict is nearing resolution. Coalition partners UAE and Saudi Arabia are witnessing a growing rift amongst themselves owing to divergent alliances and strategic visions, while also bearing the economic cost of the war. The Southern Transitional Council has put its differences with the Yemeni government aside for now in order to stand with the coalition against the Houthis. The Houthis, as also the Iranian government, have made calls for peace. Western actors are seemingly taking a backseat in the face of mounting international criticism. Famine, cholera, and destitution continue to afflict Yemeni citizens. Therefore, there is an urgent need for all parties concerned to reorient their vision from making military gains to making a post-war Yemen, which addresses the original Arab Spring demands of accountability, employment, human rights, and democracy. It is the onus of regional actors and the international community to ensure that Yemen does not turn into another Syria.
However, while this apparent rapprochement provides a glimmer of hope, other challenges still remain. This conflict is notorious for containing ‘wars within wars’ due to the diverse social and political fabric of Yemen, and the resolution of local tensions has tended to be an afterthought. The half a decade of war has highlighted a top-down approach and contesting claims for absolute power have prolonged the conflict. Yemen is facing a democratic deficit, the lack of a robust bureaucracy, and that of a strong national identity. It is in need of a stable federal governance model which would allow its various communities, down to the lowest rung of the hierarchy, a stake in the government. The Peace and National Partnership Agreement of 2014 (DARP, European Parliament, 2014) and the NDC outcome provide comprehensive guidelines for federal rearrangement, however these were never effectively implemented due to mistrust between parties and opposition by the Houthis. The creation of an independent South Yemen continues to be a contentious issue, although at present the STC has agreed to join hands with the coalition. However, if and when a peace deal with the Houthis is established, old grievances will resurface. The merits of creating a separate South Yemen are questionable given the sizeable presence of AQAP and ISIS in the South, unequal distribution of resources, and the anticipated need for financial aid for post-conflict reconstruction.
Of all the outcomes of the Arab Spring since 2011, Yemen’s has proved to be one of the costliest. As in the case of most wars, human rights and humanitarian concerns have not been the main preoccupation of the parties involved. What remains to be seen now is the development of a blueprint for the reconstruction of Yemen, and discussions on what role each stakeholder will play in creating and maintaining peace in Yemen. Without such a feasible plan, Yemen faces the risk of a mass exile of its citizens, of obstacles to one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes, and of inadvertently providing fertile ground to extremist and terrorist groups. This will have implications for Indian interests in the region too. India therefore has a role to play in the potential resolution of this conflict, by (i) leveraging its unique cordial relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, as well as the USA to push for peace negotiations, and by (ii) contributing to the reconstruction process by providing such commodities as food grains, medicines, and other capacity-building expertise. A stable peace in Yemen lies not only in a ceasefire but also in the assurance that the violence will not relapse.
Source: TRT World, 25 April 2017, https://www.trtworld.com/mea/un-seeks-urgent-aid-to-avert-humanitarian-disaster-in-yemen-342626
 Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 1993, became the first democratically elected leader of a united Yemen. Prior to 1990, the Republic of Yemen of today existed as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The former existed as a theological state and the latter as a communist one, until they merged in 1990 to form a unified state with erstwhile YAR President Saleh became that of the unified republic. Despite unification, Yemen has faced intermittent bouts of violence due to North-South differences.
Officially Ansar Allah – members of the Zaydi Shia community based primarily in North Yemen; ideologically supported by Iran
The Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood
Saudi Arabia’s response to this was cautious, as they emphasised that the Houthis’ deeds, not their words, would ultimately confirm their intentions.
Thousands of such people were rescued as part of Operation Raahat by the Indian Air Force, at the outset of the Yemeni crisis.