Conflict and cover-up: The real story of what is happening in Yemen

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As being played in Washington, the Yemen story is one of worsening famine caused at least in part by inaccurate Saudi bombing of pro-Iranian Houthi tribesmen. The real story is about a cover-up of Saudi military embarrassment and the imminent risk of wider conflict from which Iran, at little cost to itself, will only profit.

Since the war started almost three years ago, in March 2015, a Saudi/United Arab Emirates-led alliance has tried to reinstate the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh. UAE forces, aided by Colombian mercenaries, quickly seized the southern port city of Aden, but the Houthis, allied with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh managed to retain control of the capital, Sana. The Houthis come from around the northern city of Saada. The 20 percent of Yemen over which they now rule contains about 80 percent of Yemen’s 28 million population.

{mosads}The only progress Saudi forces along the northern border have made is to seize a small pocket of Yemeni territory near the Red Sea coast. But the overall military reality is in fact the opposite. The Houthis effectively control a strip of Saudi territory several miles deep along the border, from opposite the city of Jizan eastwards to Najran — we are talking about 100 square miles of the kingdom, possibly more. There is some debate whether the land can be described as “occupied” or not, and occasionally the Saudi military makes forays into it, but essentially it serves as a launching area for Houthi attacks on Saudi military positions and border towns.


Diplomatic assessments of the performance of the Saudi military are, well, not very diplomatic: “Poor,” “execrable” and “appalling” are just some adjectives used, with the comments applicable to the army, special forces and air force alike. The western allies of Saudi Arabia, including the United States, are exasperated by the battlefield situation and want to break the stalemate.

There seemed a chance of that in December, when the Houthi-Saleh alliance fell apart and, a few days later, Saleh was killed when his motorcade was ambushed. But other tensions have confused this opportunity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to have different views of the utility of continuing to support President Hadi. Last weekend South Yemeni activists meeting in Aden, with at least the implied support of the UAE, formed a “Southern Transitional Council,” vowing to overthrow the Hadi government. A Saudi official promptly called the announcement “unacceptable.”

Iran’s role is low-key but significant. Somebody in Tehran seems to be playing with a metaphorical dial of tension to irritate without actually prompting a direct Saudi-Iranian clash. Actions attributed to small groups of Iranian advisers have used rockets against U.S. navy ships in the Bab el-Mandeb strategic waterway between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea; a Saudi frigate was badly damaged by an Iranian-supplied drone speedboat.

In November a Yemeni missile, with its range enhanced by Iranian engineers, landed near Riyadh’s main airport, 500-plus miles from Houthi territory; the following month another missile was fired at a royal palace in the Saudi capital. Also in December, the Houthis claimed to have fired a missile towards a nuclear power plant under construction near Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. Although ridiculed by UAE officials, Western officials acknowledge the attempt, saying that with improvements, the Houthi threat against the UAE could become real.

An apparently tangential but in fact central player is Oman, which borders both Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Yemen. Plausibly accused of being the transit route for Iranian military technology destined for Houthi forces, the question is whether the ailing Sultan Qaboos of Oman is deliberately allowing this trade. The 77-year-old sultan is said to be irritated by what he regards as Saudi and Emirati foolishness in intervening in Yemen. In turn, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi judge the sultan’s use of (pre-revolutionary) Iranian forces to deal with rebels during the 1970s as creating an unfortunate precedent for Tehran’s involvement in the Arabian peninsula. 

Sultan Qaboos, predicted by at least one intelligence agency as unlikely to survive his under-treatment cancer beyond 2019, is probably also upset by the recent arrival in the Yemeni port of Nishtun of Saudi military vehicles, perhaps a move towards a lingering Saudi plan to create a corridor between Yemen and Oman, giving Saudi Arabia direct access to the Indian Ocean. In the past, Oman facilitated a diplomatic back-channel between the Houthis and Riyadh. This needs to be reactivated.

Whether the next action is military or diplomatic is impossible to predict. For the moment, Iran is adopting a posture of injured innocence. On Jan. 22, Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif wrote in the Financial Times that Tehran proposes “establishing a Regional Dialogue Forum in the Persian Gulf. Our longstanding invitation to dialogue remains open, and we look forward to the day our neighbors accept it, and their allies — in Europe and elsewhere in the west — will encourage it.”  

Almost certainly unintentionally, Zarif’s words may enable Washington to persuade Riyadh to listen to U.S. advice on Yemen.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tags Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi Aftermath of the Houthi takeover in Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh Armed Forces of Saudi Arabia Houthis Military Yemen Yemeni Civil War Yemeni Crisis

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