Yemen - Saudi Arabia's bombings and the fake pretext of an "Iranian threat"

Summer 2015

While in Syria and in Iraq the population is caught in the crossfire between Islamic militias and imperialist bombs, at the southern end of the Arabic Peninsula, the Yemeni population is being subjected to a similar onslaught, even though this has attracted much less attention from the media.

Early last year, a militia known as the "Houthis" - after the name of its founder - went on the offensive outside its northern territory. By September, they had occupied the capital Sanaa and forced president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee. They went on to march towards the south of the country and, in April, they reached Aden, a strategic harbour which controls the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which sees an estimated 10% of world sea trade every year. Since then president Hadi has been living in a safe haven, in Saudi Arabia, while fighting was going on across the southern half of the country between numerous rival forces.

Meanwhile, just as Obama had done with regard to Syria and Iraq, a multinational coalition was formed to bomb Yemen under the pretext of restoring its "legitimate institutions". This time, however, the coalition is led by Saudi Arabia, with the participation of Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Since March 26, the air forces of this coalition have been bombing Yemen continuously, with only a small 5-day respite, which was meant to allow humanitarian supplies into the country.

A catastrophe for the population

After over three months of these bombings, the price paid by the population is already catastrophic. Whole residential areas have been damaged, if not destroyed. So has much of the infrastructure, including bridges, power plants and, even more importantly, part of the water supply system, which is so vital in a country where there is such a shortage of water. One of the country's few dairy factories was reduced to rubble on April 1st and 40 of its workers were killed. Refugee camps haven't been spared either: for instance, the al-Mazraq camp, in the north of the country, where 13,000 internally displaced refugees live, was partly destroyed by Saudi bombs.

No-one knows the number of casualties caused by the Saudi aggression. But NGOs estimate that it has already added another 100,000 refugees to the 300,000 or so caused by the past decade of more or less on-going civil war. And this is taking place in a country where over one million Africans - mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia - had taken refuge, in an attempt to escape for war and poverty.

The air and sea blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen, is depriving the country of vital supplies. For the 16 million or so among the 26-million population, who depend more or less entirely on international food programmes for their survival, this blockade is equivalent, in the long run, to a death sentence, whether it is from starvation or illness.

In fact, the combination of the civil war and the Saudi-led coalition's bombings has caused such deterioration in living conditions that, today, the "boat people" who cross the Bab-el-Mandeb strait out of despair, are no longer coming from Africa: they are Yemeni people who are trying to reach Djibouti or Somalia, despite the fact that they can hardly expect much there.

As if Yemen had not seen enough destruction during the armed conflicts of the past 50 years - not to mention those caused by the drones targeted at the country as part of the US "war on terror"! As one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, which is short of everything, this further bombardment is devastating.

A difficult and precarious unification

Yemen is a relatively new country. It came out of the unification, in 1990, of the Yemeni Arab Republic (YAR) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), following a process which involved a number of armed conflicts.

The Yemeni Arab Republic (the northern part of today's Yemen) had originally been formed following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, in 1918. For 40 years it had been ruled by a brutal, religious monarchy. In September 1962, this monarchy was overthrown in a coup staged by republican officers influenced by Nasserism.

But it took another 8 years of a bloody civil war for the Republic to be finally consolidated, in 1970. In this war, which claimed 200,000 victims, the Egyptian army intervened on the republican side, with the backup of Soviet weapons, while the Saudi army intervened on the royalist side, with the help of British weapons. Just 8 years after the end of this civil war, president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People's Congress managed to move into power, establishing a kleptocratic regime which was highly dependent on Saudi Arabia, both in terms of weapons and funding.

As to the PDRY (the southern part of today's Yemen), it was yet another by-product of British colonialism. The port of Aden itself had become a British colony as early as 1839, due to its strategic position on the maritime route to India. But the rest of southern Yemen had remained split into two protectorates where the British relied on the local feudal headmen to maintain order in return for Britain's protection.

By the late 1950s, the British government decided to build around Aden what could become, at some point, a viable, stable, independent state, tailor-made to preserve British interests. However, its attempt backfired. In 1958-60, Aden was repeatedly paralysed by strikes against the British occupation. By 1963, a Yemeni National Liberation Front (YNLF) regrouping all nationalist forces launched a guerilla campaign. After 3 years of trying, in vain, to crush the rebellion, the British government gave in - probably partly under pressure from the US as well.

Eventually, on 29 November 1967, British troops withdrew from Aden, abandoning their military base. 2 years later, the YNLF became the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and the country became the Peoples' Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Like many other poor countries at the time, the PDRY then declared itself "Marxist-Leninist" and turned towards the Soviet bloc and China, hoping to get from them the economic aid that it would not have been able to get from the rich imperialist countries without making unacceptable concessions in return. But, while it was undoubtedly socially and economically more progressive than its northern neighbour, the PDRY still remained a dictatorship, under the iron hand of the YSP.

In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia's efforts, on behalf of the imperialist powers, to use the YAR as a proxy to push back the USSR's influence over the PDRY resulted in conflicts between the two countries - and even in 2 wars, in 1972 and 1979. Meanwhile, both countries saw the emergence of armed uprisings caused by the brutality of their regimes.

In May 1990, however, the two countries finally reached a unification agreement. But this agreement did not resolve the past tensions. The new unified regime, which was based on the old state machinery of the YAR, under the helm of president Saleh, left little space to the former dignitaries of the PDRY regime. In fact, it had not even succeeded in merging the armies of the two constituent countries.

Predictably, therefore, Yemen imploded in 1993, just 3 years after its unification. A revived version of the PDRY was proclaimed in the south. Fierce fighting followed, in which Saudi Arabia intervened behind the scenes by sending Salafi militias to fight on Saleh's side. Eventually, the southern secession was crushed in 1994 and Saleh retained sole political power over Yemen.

The repression was brutal. Around a hundred YSP activists were murdered in cold blood by the Salafi militias and the leaders of this party, who had fled in exile, were sentenced to death in absentia. In response to the demands of his allies in the Islah party (the Yemeni equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was then funded by Saudi Arabia), Saleh attacked the rights that southern women still enjoyed from the pre-unification period - for instance, he banned mixed-sex schools and repealed the law which set a minimum age for a woman's marriage to be legal. Saleh also purged the army and the state machinery, replacing many "southerners" with "northerners" who were chosen among his own loyalists or among the followers of the Islah party. And due to the country's 40% unemployment rate, many of those who were purged at the time have never found any other form of regular employment since. Finally, Saleh introduced a series of measures aimed at privatising the state-owned industries and collective farms which still remained from the days of the PDRY. It was a free-for-all for the protégés of the régime who were awarded the lion's share of the cake at bargain-basement prices. Meanwhile, the existing public services - which were already far from adequate - were left to fall apart.

These policies were designed to consolidate Saleh's grip over southern Yemen. However, they only managed to produce a large southern separatist movement - "al-hirak" or "the movement" as it is commonly known. Its main component was the "Southern Movement", a group which had originally been launched by officers who had been purged by Saleh, in 1994.

Saleh overthrown... but no change

It was this "Southern Movement" which launched the first wave of demonstrations against the regime's corruption, in July-August 2007. These protests were brutally repressed, both by the army and the air force.

Nevertheless, the protests against Saleh's regime resumed at the time of the so-called "Arab Spring", in 2011. This time, however, they started in the capital, Sanaa, on 27 January, before spreading to Aden and other northern and southern towns. Despite the state of emergency which had been immediately declared and the police snipers who were shooting at demonstrators from the rooves, the protests carried on relentlessly, throughout February, March and then April.

But as early as March, the situation had begun to change in the high spheres of the regime. Feeling that the tide was turning against them - but also, probably, under the pressure of the US and Saudi Arabia - a number of regime heavyweights declared their support for the protesters: among them were not only several of Saleh's ministers, but, far more importantly, major-general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the strong man of the Yemeni army.

At this stage, Saleh still retained some loyal troops, but his position had been considerably weakened. In May, it became even weaker when al-Ahmar announced to the media that 7,000 members of the Republican Guard were joining the dissidents - the very elite unit which, so far, had been considered as the main pillar of the regime. Over the following months, there were more and more reports of armed clashes between army units. Then, in November, demonstrators took over a Republican Guard barrack in the northern town of Nahm, without meeting any resistance from the soldiers and then successfully used its anti-aircraft cannons against the air force units sent by Saleh to dislodge them.

Whether for the Yemeni capitalists, Saudi Arabia or the US, the possibility of the country's state machinery imploding just as the population was mobilised was just an unacceptable risk. So, the diplomatic machine of imperialism went into overdrive. A UN Security Council resolution accordingly condemned the violence in Yemen and called for regime change.

In reality, much horse trading had already been taking place behind closed doors to seek some sort of political transition. This came to light on 23 November 2011, in the Saudi capital Riyad, during a ceremony attended by just about every Arab monarch and dictator and by western diplomats - although none of the Yemeni organisations which were most concerned by such a transition had been invited. The purpose of this ceremony was to witness Saleh signing a "democratic transition plan".

At the time the media reported the broad smile displayed by Saleh. And for good reason. The plan guaranteed that he would enjoy full immunity for any act carried out during his 33-year rule. He and his family were allowed to keep all the proceeds of their looting off Yemeni public funds - later, a UN report gave an estimate of $62 billions! He remained the leader of his party, which still controlled an absolute majority in the Yemeni parliament - which it had won in 2003, the last election held in Yemen! Finally, his successor was to be his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was meant to be "elected" in a presidential election in which he would be the only candidate!

Saleh came out of this crisis taking all the honours. The face of the regime was changed, but not the regime itself. As to the army, it remained as divided and unstable as before. Hadi was to try on two separate occasions to sack some of Saleh's top loyalists in the army, to try to provide it with a unified command structure. But both attempts failed. The only result was that the list of active senior officers who were likely to join a rebellion, at some point in the future, just got longer.

The origins of the Houthi rebellion

It was against this background of corruption, factionalism within the state machinery, armed conflicts and foreign interventions - by Saudi Arabia, in particular - that the Houthi rebellion developed. It appeared in the early 2000s, among the Yemeni Shia minority, along the country's border with Saudi Arabia. This minority had become alienated by the corruption of Saleh's regime, its dictatorial methods and the arbitrary taxes that it imposed on the poor rural population. At first, the Houthi movement only provided a politico-religious expression to this sense of frustration. What turned it into an armed rebellion was the combination of Saudi Arabia's attempts to interfere in their traditional territory and the brutal repression meted against them by Saleh's regime.

What was the reason for Saudi Arabia's interference? It should be said that the Yemen-Saudi border, in addition to being artificial, like all borders inherited from the past relationship of forces between the great powers, was also ill-defined until relatively recently. The population living on both sides of this border have common historical traditions, in particular the fact that they belong to the same Shia sect, known as Zaidism. The theocratic Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia have always considered their country's Shia minority (25% of the population) as a threat, not so much for religious reasons, but because it of its potential for becoming a focus for political opposition. Of course, they had the means to pre-empt this threat and they certainly did so, by systematically repressing this minority. But exercising any control over the Yemeni Shia (35% of Yemen's population) on the other side of the border, was not so easy - nor was it easy to pre-empt a possible contagion across the border in case of political unrest in Yemen.

From the early 2000s, the Saudi rulers tried to deal with this potential danger by sending Salafi preachers into northern Yemen. Their brief was to convert young Shias to Salafism by organising schools and summer camps. But this turned the Houthi movement into an open rebellion. Although, at this stage, it was primarily defensive in nature, aimed at protecting their region against Saudi meddling.

But this defensive policy against Saudi Arabia, immediately sparked off retaliation from Saleh's pro-Saudi regime. Subsequently there were no fewer than six full-scale offensives by the Yemeni army against the territories under Houthi control. On several occasions Saudi Arabia got involved, more or less openly, on Saleh's side. In particular, during Saleh's 2009 offensive, which lasted over 3 months, the Saudi air force bombarded Shia villages in which the NGO Human Rights Watch found debris of US-made cluster bombs.

Then came the "Arab Spring". The Houthi movement called on its supporters to join the demonstrations in order to demand Saleh's resignation. Meanwhile, due to the army's increasing unreliability, Saleh resorted to the use of an armed militia recruited among the Salafi wing of the Islah party in order to attack the Houthis. Some of these Salafis were captured just as they were about to carry out suicide attacks against Houthi-controlled villages.

The Houthi offensive

During 2012-2013, there was a 10-month truce, during the proceedings of a "National Dialogue Conference" which was meant to conclude a political settlement of the conflict. The Houthi movement and the Southern Movement had been invited to take part in this conference. They were under-represented, but at least they were there, unlike in previous similar initiatives. The ceasefire held for the whole 10 months - although Saudi Arabia also used this respite to resume its conversion campaign in northern Yemen and to start building an 1,100-mile fence along its border with Yemen.

Eventually, the conference published its conclusions in January 2014. But far from resolving anything, the federal constitution it advocated only managed to bolster the resolve of the opponents of Hadi (Saleh's successor). It divided the country into six more or less autonomous provinces, without taking into account the demands made by the Houthis and the Southern Movement, whose territories would have been split by the new regional boundaries. Moreover, instead of trying to address the regime's chronic corruption and nepotism, it included a provision allowing Hadi to remain president for another year - even though he had never been really elected by anyone!

Predictably, the result was more protests across the country. In the south, in particular, these protests carried on for two months, until March 2014, behind vocal separatist slogans. Meanwhile, armed groups claiming allegiance to the Southern Movement started attacking units of the Yemeni army.

Then the focus of the protests shifted to the northern towns, this time against a rise in fuel prices ordered by Hadi's government. The Houthi movement played a prominent role in these demonstrations. Eventually, Hadi backed down and cancelled the fuel price hikes. But, at the same time, he blamed his ministers for the price increases, sacked his entire government and announced that he would "temporarily" rule by decree. It was as if the old practices of the Saleh era were back all over again!

It was in response to this provocative coup by Hadi, that the Houthis went on the offensive. But every available evidence points to the fact that they also got the support of powerful sections of the army. Reports noted that when the Houthi militias occupied the capital Sanaa, in September 2014, they met no real resistance from the army, despite the large size of the city's garrison, which includes several units of the elite Republican Guard. Other reports described how aircraft belonging to the Yemeni air force had backed up the Houthi forces in clashes with the regular army.

Divisions within the Yemeni army have, therefore, reappeared. The odds are that these divisions were deepened by the purges carried out by Hadi and his US and Saudi advisers in the army. They were certainly further aggravated by Hadi's draft federal constitution, which some senior army officers consider as an unacceptable concession to regional centrifugal forces. In any case, they expose the failure of the bogus political settlement engineered by the imperialist powers, back in 2011. Far from stopping the disintegration of the Yemeni state machinery - which was putting the regional status quo at risk - this settlement resolved nothing. Instead, as can be seen today, it only paved the way for a further destabilisation of the region.

From Iran's hand to the long arm of imperialism

The western governments and their media were quick to present the Houthi movement as a proxy for Iran's policy.

However, while both the Yemeni and Saudi authorities have accused the Houthis of being armed and trained by Iran, they never provided any proof to back up these allegations. In fact, judging from a whole series of diplomatic cables published by Wiki-leaks, the US authorities themselves do not seem to have ever taken these allegations seriously, despite their traditional bias against Iran.

Thus a 2007 cable commented, with some humour: "For President Saleh and his senior security team, the Houthis' educational and religious links to Iran and Tehran's meddling in other countries in the region appear to be enough to convince them that an Iranian hand is behind the current phase of the al-Houthi insurrection, which has been going on for the past three years. Based on the information the Yemenis have provided thus far, however, this embassy is not ready to make that leap of faith." In November 2009, following the alleged discovery of an Iranian arms shipment to the Houthis, another cable added that the Yemeni government "has yet to produce evidence that Iranians were smuggling arms to the Houthis, as the ship was apparently empty when it was seized."

More importantly, it is hard to see in what way causing trouble in the Middle East by arming the Houthi rebellion would be in the interest of the Iranian regime. To create difficulties for its Saudi rival? This would be conceivable in another period, but not at a time when, on the contrary, Iran is trying to normalise its relationship with the US and to prove its usefulness to the regional imperialist order by contributing to its restoration in Iraq.

By contrast, the role played by imperialism in Yemen is quite ambiguous. Clearly, a regional pillar of the imperialist order like Saudi Arabia would never have embarked on its offensive against Yemen, nor assembled 150,000 troops on its border, without seeking US approval. As if to stress Obama's implicit endorsement, the Saudi-led coalition to bomb Yemen was formally announced by the Saudi ambassador to the US, during a press conference held in Washington. For good measure, the code name of this bombing operation - "Operation Decisive Storm" - was chosen as a reminder of "Operation Desert Storm" launched by George W Bush Senior, during the first Gulf War.

As to Obama, he did not objected to this blatant infringement of Yemen's internal affairs. Quite the opposite, in fact. He announced that he had authorised the US army to provide the Saudi-led coalition with logistical and intelligence assistance. Of course, quite apart from the threat represented by the Houthi rebellion to the regional imperialist status quo, this was also an opportunity for Obama to reassure the Saudi rulers that their privileged relationship with the US would not be threatened by the likely normalisation of relations between the US and Iran.

As to the minor imperialist powers, they have scrambled to follow in Obama's footsteps. Cameron, for instance, has asserted his unconditional support for the Saudi bombings in order to "restore stability in the country".

As if every single Saudi bomb dropped over Yemen, just as every single British or US bomb dropped over Iraq, did not destabilise these countries and the surrounding region even more, by causing untold suffering and misery to the populations.