The Yemen War: A Proxy War, or a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

By Świętek, Hubert | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Yemen War: A Proxy War, or a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?


Świętek, Hubert, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


Yemen, the poorest and weakest state on the Arab Peninsula, has become in recent years an arena of the strategic rivalry of Middle Eastern regional powers, into which they draw, directly or indirectly, the United States as the sole global superpower. This conflict, originally a civil war unfolding in a failed state, quickly became internationalised to a large extent, including foreign armed intervention. It has its own genesis and specifics, but it was also skilfully included in a broader narration of a regional clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh insists that Iran has been waging a proxy war in Yemen as an element of its strategic offensive which Saudi Arabia must counteract for the sake of its own security interests. The question of whether this position describes accurately the essence of the Yemeni war, or whether this is a misperception of the developments in progress, or, perhaps, deliberate, skilful manipulation designed to achieve particular interests under the pretext of a strategic defensive seems warranted.

War in Yemen: Origin and Dynamics

The contemporary Yemen was formed in 1990 by the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen; the presidency went to the former president of North Yemen (in office since 1978), Ali Abd Allah as-Saleh. The system he had created was characterised by corruption, the dominance of a narrow business-political elite, political violence, the growing weakness of the central government, mounting economic problems and widespread poverty.1 In Yemen, the traditional clan and tribe division structure (tribalism) prevails as the fundamental principle of organising society. The ordering of different groups according to the denomination of Islam is as follows: Sunni Muslims, living in the south of the country, account for 53% of the population, and Shiites, dominating in the north, for some 45%. The spatial structure of this pattern is fairly close to the former political map of the two Yemen states. As a result, since unification there have been centrifugal tendencies at work, reflected primarily in the activities of two major movements: the Sunni Southern Movement fighting for secession from the Republic of Yemen or for autonomy for the former South Yemen (in 1994 it made, with support from Saudi Arabia, an unsuccessful bid for secession, which triggered a short-lived civil war), and the Houthi2 movement.

The Houthi movement, officially Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), is the political representation of the Zaidi Shia community, a Shiite faction living in the northern Yemen, whose imams had ruled there for a thousand years (until the 1962 nationalist military coup d'état). The emergence of this movement is related to the struggle for non-discrimination of the Zaidi minority, which accounts for some 40% of the Yemeni population. The movement started in Saada, an economically neglected mountain province on the border with Saudi Arabia over which the central authorities had weak control. In June 2004, the Zaidis' spiritual leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, started a rebellion when government forces tried to arrest him on charges of subversive activities and association with Iranian intelligence agencies. In September 2004, the leader of the rebels was killed and since then the movement has been led by his brother, Abdul-Maik al-Houthi. Between 2005 and 2010, the Houthis repeatedly rose against the central government. These risings were quelled by Yemeni military operations led by General Ali Moshen al-Ahmar, rating as a local conflict of medium and low intensity.3 In April 2009, the secessionists from the south of Yemen again stepped up their activities, which soon evolved into an armed rebellion, also of low intensity, which lasted until 2011.

The centrifugal tendencies, the weakness of the Yemeni state, and the widespread poverty provided fertile ground for activities of terrorist organisations. As early as the late 1980s, the first Al Qaeda training camps were established in Yemen by mujahedin fighters returning from Afghanistan. …

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