Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Keeping score in Yemen

Yemen isn’t a country generally integral to geopolitics. It’s a hot, arid and barely coherent, but it is the newest stage for a hegemonic battle raging between the Arab and Persian power bases and that makes Yemen important.

The last country on the peripheral southern end of the Arabian Peninsula is once again immolating but while the fighting is scorching the country, perhaps more significant for its long-term stability is that it has almost no fresh water resources to douse the flames.

Yemen is experiencing acute water scarcity defined as 500 cubic metres of water per person, per year. Its 24 million population currently lives on 88 cubic metres of water per person, per year. This is an essential fact in understanding the present conflict in the country and what to expect.

The current rebel offensive in Yemen is a continuance of the Arab state’s hyper-fragmentation. Since the establishment of a republican polity in 1962,

Yemen has existed in a tenuous fusion of tribal, sectarian, religious, geographical and ideological forces. The Arab Spring of 2011 collapsed this façade of stability and returned the country to its natural state of “balancing weakness” where no single group or entity can attain supremacy.

Presently, militiamen of the al Houthi rebel movement – affiliated with the Zaidi sect of Shi’ism found in northern Yemen – along with supporters of the ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh are fighting against the forces of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi for control of the country. The militiamen have pushed deep into Aden in the south where Mr Hadi’s forces are fortified. Last week, a number of bold attacks by regime forces capitalised on the overstretched al Houthi forces by slicing the rebels supply lines near the Aden airport.

That move was likely only made possible because of a concerted air campaign conducted by Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries against the rebels. The rebel’s momentum has been curtailed significantly, although not until they almost threatened to push regime forces into the sea.

The inclusion of Saudi fighter jets above Yemen striking al Houthis equipment brings this conflict into the wider strategic context. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia and for years has been an unstable neighbour harbouring militants and al Qaeda forces. Riyadh has chosen not to directly intervene against these groups over the last decade. However the threat of the al Houthis is changing the Saudi’s calculus. Not because the militia group threatens Saudi Arabia, but because the group is Shia and rumoured to be supported by Iran.

Iran’s pending rapprochement with the United States over the former’s nuclear programme has led Tehran to make some belligerent moves over the past few months. Iran may not have direct control over the al Houthi campaign in Yemen, but even limited Iranian influence on Saudi Arabia’s border is unacceptable to the House of Saud.

The Yemen conflict is not only a Sunni-Shia conflict. It is certainly part of the realities of the Yemen geography, resources and fragmented people groups. It is also crucially a test of resolve for both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Should the al Houthis succeed in removing Mr Hadi, this may not alter the security of the region drastically. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - al Qaeda’s local affiliate – is growing stronger amidst the chaos and will need to be dealt with again.

The US can shoulder that burden. Where it will matter is in showing how the region’s power dynamics may play in the future. With the US military sitting on the bench for this conflict, the question of how much control Saudi Arabia truly can leverage over its near abroad will become crystallise. Hopefully, for Riyadh’s sake, in a beneficial direction.

Iran risks less in this fight. To whatever extent Tehran is assisting the rebels, the militia is largely on its own. Iran will be observing closely how competently the Saudi military and intelligence services operate in Yemen. Both countries are sending signals about how far they’re willing to go. Yemen will continue struggling with incoherency and a growing water scarcity problem, and it will remain a proxy battlefield in the wider power conflict.

The takeaway: the Yemeni condition represents a broader trend of instability within the Arab world as old foes carve out influence. This dynamic could become much bloodier and is certain to expand into the foreseeable future.

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