Yemen’s in trouble. The United Nations has called the situation ‘the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.’ The country has been plagued by civil war for over two years. Already the poorest nation in the Arab world, the war has exacerbated poverty and illness, causing the deaths of over 5,000 civilians, 20% of which are children. Apart from the disturbing figures below, almost 80% of Yemen’s population lacks reliable access to food.
At the heart of the Yemen crisis is a ongoing conflict in the Middle East. These conflicts are achingly difficult to understand and explain in a succinct way, encompassing messy politics that involve international trade, terrorist groups, religious violence, sectarian violence and interference from Western countries like the United States. So, for the time being, we’ll look at the current situation in Yemen to reveal just the tip of a much bigger blood-stained iceberg.
Who are the main players in Yemen’s civil war?
In 2011, Yemen’s citizens moved to oust President Ali Abed Allah Saleh. He’d been in charge for 33 years. After deadly clashes between protesters and the military, Saleh eventually – with great reluctance – stepped down. He was replaced by his Vice President Abed Rabbi Mansour Hadi.
These two guys are the names that you need to know: Saleh, the exiled President, and Hadi, the new President.
The other big name is the Houthis. These are a small branch of Shiite Muslims who have grown in power. They support Saleh’s return to power. (Or they did until a few days ago, more on that in a minute.) By 2014, the Houthis had enough military might and momentum to kick Hadi out of Yemen’s capital city.
In 2015, things went to another level when Saudi Arabia mucked in to help Hadi’s side of the war. They claimed that the Houthis were getting help from Iran.
So here we arrive at the real heart of the issue. By 2015, the civil war in Yemen was no longer really about Yemen, it was about two Middle East heavyweights getting caught in a proxy war and using Yemen as the in-betweener: Iran versus Saudi Arabia. This is not uncommon. It’s similar(-ish) to situations in Syria and Iraq.
Why do Iran and Saudi Arabia not like each other?
So here we start to descend the iceberg. I’ll be brief.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are both Muslim countries that clash over many issues. The bigs ones are the fundamental interpretation of Islam, oil export policies and relationships with Western countries such as the US and UK. Saudi Arabia is a Western ally, where as Iran has ties to Russia, China and Cuba. Saudi Arabia is a right-wing conservative Sunni Islamic kingdom. Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic Republic.
Is there a link to the war on terror in all of this?
You know the name al-Qaeda, right? It’s a fundamentalist terrorist group founded by Osama Bin Laden. They are a militant Sunni Islamic organisation (although the word organisation is a bit mis-leading.) Well, Yemen has a growing al-Qaeda group, who are on the side of Saudi Arabia and Hadi’s leadership.
The United States, as an ally to Saudi Arabia, is providing weapons and logistical support. This means that the United States is bizarrely on the same side of al-Qaeda in this fight. This is a bit awkward, as they’re still carrying out drone strikes on al-Qaeda bases in Yemen. But then, the complicated and fraught relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a whole other blog post.
What about the citizens caught in the middle?
Indeed. Thousands are suffering at catastrophic proportions. Last week, the situation caught international media attention when the humanitarian crisis reached a new level. In response to a supposed Houthi-led missile strike into Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia locked down its borders, severely restricting international aid. The United Nations has tried to pressure Saudi Arabia into lifting some of its blockades – which it has, but not enough.
The missile didn’t hit anything, although it was aimed at an airport. Saudi Arabia has declared it an act of war from Iran.
But in the last few days there’s been a shocking twist in the story that’s leaving everyone momentarily dumb-founded.
On Sunday, old-time President and Houthi friend Ali Abdullah Saleh published a video effectively switching sides in the civil war. The relationship between Saleh and the Houthis had been deteriorating for months, with allegations spreading that Houthis were involved in the murder of one of Saleh’s sons. Saleh’s video was adamant that that the Houthis were reckless, and he ordered forces loyal to him to push back against Houthi control.
This morning, Saleh has been announced dead, killed by the Houthis for switching sides. Houthi fighters killed Saleh while he was travelling with other top party leaders. He was surrounded by 20 armoured vehicles. Gruesome video footage of his corpse has been circulated online.
Wow. What now?
We don’t know. With Saleh gone, Saudi Arabia is likely to take the gloves off and ease up. But the Houthis have gained massive ground in just 72 hours, not only killing off Saleh, but claiming a lot of ground in Sana’a, the country’s capital. The United States will be really pushing Saudi Arabia to take cautious diplomatic action to stop Iran fighting back in ways that would only make the situation worse.
The story will continue in the coming weeks, which is of no relief to the thousands who are suffering.
Photo at the top courtesy of the Huffington Post.
News summary at the end of the week.
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