War in Yemen: Historic Prerequisites and Geopolitical Aspects (I)

Strategic Culture

It is generally considered that bloody Russian-Turkish wars, the insurgencies in the Balkans and the contradictions in Europe that led to WWI made the Ottoman Empire collapse. Generally speaking it’s true. But there was another factor to influence the process. Diplomatic reports from Istanbul coming to Europe before the war informed about the situation in the Balkans and Yemen. The abrupt deterioration of the situation in Yemen directly threatened the interests of great powers – Great Britain and Germany. 

The Yemeni territories making up part of the Ottoman Empire to great extent enjoyed self-rule and were also governed by Imam of Sana. The Imam led the most massive rebellion against the Ottoman Empire that lasted till WWI. Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Younger, Chief of German General Staff, told his Austrian counterpart Franz Xaver Joseph Conrad Graf von Hötzendorf that Turkey was too weak to be considered as a military force to reckon with. According to him, previously it had been called a sick man of Europe, now it became a dying man of the continent. He wrote that as a state Turkey lost viability and was going through agony. In 1918 North Yemen (Sana) became an independent state. The Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ten years later Yemen signed a comprehensive friendship treaty with the Soviet Union which gave an impetus to developing political, trade and economic ties between the two countries. 

The USSR has always supported Yemen while its neighbor – Saudi Arabia – has always been hostile. Territorial disputes cast a shadow over the relationship: Riyadh asserted claims to a large part of Yemen. The first (to become one of many) conflict between Yemen, an independent country, and Saudi Araba sparked in 1934. 

Saudi Arabia not only attacked Yemen, it also regularly interfered into its internal affairs. Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin, the penultimate king of Yemen, died in 1962 to be replaced by the Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr. In a week a military coup took place but the overthrown monarch was supported by Saudi Arabia. Those days it was opposed not only by Yemeni guardsmen but also by elite units of Egyptian army siding with the opponents of monarchy. In 1967 South Yemen was proclaimed to be an independent state to complicate the situation in the south-western part of Arabia Peninsula. The tribal and ethnic contradictions were exacerbated by differences on foreign policy issues. South Yemen fully allied with the Soviet Union and ideology became a factor to widen the existing gaps. 

In 1990 the both states united but the contradictions remained. Riyadh intensified efforts to increase its regional influence. The 1991 Persian Gulf operation of international forces against Iraq was to large extent financed by Saudi Arabia. The West does not like to remember about it. In 2002-2003 the al-Aqsa Intifada, a military operation conducted by Israeli special services and supported by the United States, spread to the territory of Yemen. Civilians died as a result of missile strikes. Suzanne Nossel, a US human rights activist, said in the heat of presidential pre-election campaign in the United States, that the strikes enabled US leader George Bush to meet the situation head on and make Israeli enemies see what fate awaited them in the near future. 

The family of Osama bin Laden had roots in Yemen. In late 1920s Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden left Hadhramaut for Saudi Arabia looking for a job. In 1931 he founded a company of his own. He was always affected to his homeland. 

The political, ethnic, tribal and religious divergences, as well as outside interference, led to Yemen’s involvement into the process of «color revolutions». It lasted a few months and finally made Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi become president in February 2012. The change of power did not result in stability. To the contrary, it spurred the confrontation as former president Ali Abdullah Saleh retained the support of the Houthis-Yemeni Shiites. The conflict between Saleh and Hadi has aggravated due to a number of reasons. The internal conflict in Yemen has not been settled. 

Mehmet Kiliç Bey, a well-known Turkish expert in economy and political science, compares the internal conflict in Yemen with other bloody conflicts in the Muslim world – the war between Iran and Iraq, civil wars in Afghanistan and Algiers, bloody skirmishes in Indonesia and the Philippines. In a report issued before the first term of President Bush, Jr., the US Intelligence National Council’s experts listed the Yemen as a country facing the highest risk of conflict along with Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The geopolitical risks engendered by the internal confrontation that has been lasting for many years and exacerbated by outside interference, especially from Saudi Arabia which wants Yemen to go under its control and become a zone of Saudi’s exclusive influence. A confrontation with Iran is not the only implication of Saudi’s policy. The goals pursued by Saudi Arabia go much farther than the neutralization of Yemeni Shiites. The kingdom wants to become a leading nation of regional NATO, the role to be played by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. 

The escalation of Yemeni conflict to the international level was used by the United States to its advantage as leverage at the talks held in Switzerland between the «Big Six» group and Iran on the Iranian nuclear program. In its turn, the framework agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran with US blessing will become a trump card for a presidential candidate running on the Democratic Party ticket in the 2016 presidential race. Washington tries to take advantage of the situation and engage Iran in transatlantic projects as an instrument in the energy war waged against Russia. The Yemeni crisis reflects the whole range of contradictions in the Middle East. The conflict influences the events far beyond the region’s boundaries. 

(To be continued)

Strategic Culture