On the hunt for contraband? Search no further than Yemen. Yemen: a land with a plethora of weapons for sale, lucrative smuggling ports, immense poverty and nearly a complete institutional breakdown. Not to mention a principal base for Al-Qaeda and increasingly ISIL operating out of the Arabian Peninsula.
So why is nobody talking about Yemen? While Syria has rightly taken a strong focus in international and political rhetoric, Yemen appears forgotten. Saudi Arabia and Iran have taken a strong interest in the failed state, yet many countries outside of the Arab world lacked to give Yemen adequate attention. Despite John Kerry’s meeting with exiled Yemeni President Hadi in Riyadh in May 2015, the U.S. political rhetoric surrounding the conflict has been limited.
Yemen is characterized by civil war, humanitarian tragedy and is a known breeding ground for terrorist organizations. Both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL operatives are present in the failed state, adding another dimension to the already complicated civil war.
Much like Syria, Yemen is host to a sectarian conflict exacerbated by terrorist organizations. The conflict in Yemen reveals a deeper understanding of world and regional politics and sets the stage to an increasingly volatile proxy war.
Why Yemen Matters
The conflict in Yemen exists between forces loyal to President Hadi, who is Sunni and backed by a Saudi-led coalition and a Shi’a rebel force known as Houthis backed by Iran. The Zaidi Shi’a Houthis are supported by Iran, despite the difference in Shi’a sects. The rebel force evokes fierce anti-American sentiments, calling for death to both the United States and Israel in their chants.
While the origins of the conflict are clear, the current state of the conflict has been complicated by international terrorist organizations and the financial and military backing of external actors, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As stability in Yemen continues to deteriorate, the opportunity for organizations such as ISIL to gain control continues to rise. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) uses Yemen as a safe haven, feeding off of the lack of institution and the breakdown of order.
While civil war continues to rage, both AQAP and increasingly ISIL have exploited the chaos as an opportunity to gain a stronghold. Opposed to the Shiite Houthis, the terrorist organizations are using the destruction of the Shiite rebels to preach their distorted message of creating a Sunni caliphate.
The Proxy War: Saudi Arabia & Iran
In an attempt at regional influence, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have crucial interests at stake in Yemen. Saudi Arabia as the principal Sunni power in the region and Iran representing the key Shiite power. Much like both countries’ interest in Syria and Iraq, the fight for Yemen is not simply a geographic battle or a battle against terrorist organizations; the clash is sectarian, evoking a struggle between the two dominant sects in Islam.
For Saudi Arabia, Yemen remains an essential strategic location. Sharing a direct border, Saudi’s interest lies not only in the prospect of potential geographic expansion but over geographic access. Yemen offers Saudi Arabia direct access to the Arabian sea, giving the Gulf country an opportunity to a secure trade route that would avoid the volatile Strait of Hormuz.
With the recent Iranian uproar over the execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the prospects of peace talks in Yemen has inevitably been stalled. Saudi Arabia insists the execution is a domestic issue. The Iranian storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran has only furthered the uproar in the region, forcing countries such as United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait to all stand strong with their Saudi allies. The Iranians accuse the Saudis of intentionally attacking their embassy in Yemen.
Weapons Without Words: The U.S. Policy Towards Yemen
The U.S.’s lack of public communication surrounding the conflict perhaps speaks louder than any words. The Obama Administration’s lack of explicit rhetoric surrounding Yemen despite the grave importance displays a resistance to show direct involvement in a perceived regional conflict.
A brief mention of Yemen as an Al Qaeda operative home base in the G20 Press Conference in Antalya Turkey (November 16, 2015). A reference to “situations like Yemen” in an Address on Iran at American University (August 5, 2015). A shared reference of Yemen with Somalia in the National Counterterrorism Center Address (December 17, 2015). Yet zero mention of Yemen in the United Nations General Assembly Speech (2015) or the Oval Office Speech on Foreign and Domestic Counter-Terrorism Strategy (December 6, 2015).
Despite Obama’s focus on Syria, Al Qaeda and ISIL in the mentioned speeches, the purpose of excluding Yemen is powerful. The Administration has been reluctant to show direct involvement, a communication policy inconsistent with their constant military supplying and support of the Saudi-led coalition. The United States has carried out drone strikes in Yemen in an attempt to destroy Al Qaeda. President Obama used Yemen as a model for U.S. counterterrorism strategy as recently as last September. However, the situation in Yemen has quickly deteriorated and become increasingly dire.
The long time alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based in a secure supply of petroleum and military assistance. Although not an official member of the Saudi-led coalition, the United States has been a strong supporter of the coalition in intelligence sharing, weapon supplying as well as blockades.
How Far is Peace
Despite the lack of communication surrounding the conflict in Yemen by the President Obama, the U.S. supports attempts to foster U.N. sponsored peace talks between the Houthi rebels and the exiled Yemeni government.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations (OHCHR) has expressed grave concern over the tremendous amount of civilian deaths, exacerbated by the airstrikes. The multilayered conflict in Yemen has only worsened the already dire humanitarian situation. With a population of 26 million, three out of four of the population is in need of humanitarian aid.
According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), 14.4 million Yemenis are considered food insecure, with more than half of that number considered severely food insecure. While the United States has increased humanitarian assistance, the aid distribution is complicated by a lack of institution and organization.
Saudi Arabia’s recent internal issues prove a potential setback towards peace in Yemen. Iran’s denunciation of the execution of prominent Shi’ite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has only aggravated pre existing tensions. Despite Iran’s trade ties with countries such as the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf countries have been quick to take sides with Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran must proceed with caution as continued conflict in Yemen represents a broader continued conflict in the region.