The Crisis in Yemen

Yemen is a very ancient land being the home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. Islam spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and as far as Spain in the West and Sindh in the East in the century following the death of the prophet in 632 AD. Islam subsequently fractured into two competing branches, Sunni and Shia, and these in turn comprise numerous sects, much like Christianity. The Zaidi sect was founded in present day Tunisia and became established in Yemen around 900 AD. The Houthi rebels in Yemen are a faction of Zaidis. Zaidis make out about 45% of the population of Yemen with the other 55% almost entirely Sunni.

Around 1517 the Ottoman Empire took control of Greater Syria and Egypt and acquired suzerainty of the Hijaz in the Arabian Peninsula which included the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. During the nineteenth century the Ottomans formally established Vilayets (provinces) the more southerly of which comprised part of Yemen. The Port of Aden had come under British control from 1839 and as the Ottoman’s established their Vilayets Britain declared a Protectorate over the part of Yemen not occupied by the Ottomans which meant, in practice, that though Britain had almost no presence beyond Aden they would oppose Ottoman expansion into the Protectorate.

This division of Yemen between the Ottoman Vilayet and the British Protectorate was to give rise to the two independent States; North Yemen after World War 1 and South Yemen in 1967. For the first several decades of independence North Yemen was ruled by a Zaidi monarchy — almost all Zaidis resided in North Yemen where they were a majority. From 1962 to 1970 there was a civil war in North Yemen as a Republican coup attempted to depose the Zaidi monarchy. At the outset Saudi Arabia backed the Zaidis (a fact which is laden with significance today) whilst Egypt send an expeditionary force in support of the Republicans. Thus North Yemen had become a pawn in the jostling for position of other Arab nations. The civil war finally ended in 1970 when Saudi Arabia recognised the Republic.

After independence South Yemen turned to the Soviet Union for support and remained nominally in the Soviet sphere of influence until 1990 when the Soviet Union dissolved. The end of the Cold War created the preconditions for the unification of the two Yemens which occurred on 22 May 1990.

A few months later Iraq invaded Kuwait and a coalition was formed to expel the Iraqi forces which was strongly supported by Saudi Arabia. The Arab States had secured the newly unified Yemen a seat on the UN Security Council but their President Saleh refused to support resolutions condemning Iraq. This angered the Saudis who then expelled some million Yemeni workers in the Kingdom whose remittances were Yemen’s main source of foreign exchange. Thus the unification of the two Yemens was stillborn economically.

In any country the authority of the Government depends on the economy and a failing economy invites dissent and breakaway groups. Thus in 2004 there was a breakaway Zaidi rebellion which has succeeded in establishing control in the areas where the Zaidis are in the majority which is a significant part of the former North Yemen.

The tragedy for Yemen is that outside States are once again interfering in it’s civil war as in the 1960’s though on this occasion the Saudis are opposing the Zaidis claiming they are the long arm of Iranian influence on the Peninsula. That the Zaidis are natural allies of Iran because they could be loosely defined as a Shia sect belies all historical experience. However, when they are boxed into a corner they are going to accept assistance from wherever it is offered, including from Iran as appears to be the case.

As this is one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters one may ask what is the way out. In my view a central Government has no hope of re-establishing central control without a strong economy and a strong economy cannot emerge from chaos. Thus any settlement should accept the status quo — that is that the Zaidis/Houthis are allowed to establish a de facto state, albeit not recognised by the UN, where they have control and the rest of Yemen a second state. Then the various outside powers should agree to pull back and stop arming their respective allies. This would allow some semblance of normal life to resume until a more permanent political arrangement could be agreed.

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