Yemen and the Lords of the Desert

Rifles and rifts: Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, December 2018
 Hani Al-Ansi / Picture Alliance / dpa / AP Images
Rifles and rifts: Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, December 2018. Hani Al-Ansi / Picture Alliance / dpa / AP Images

For years now, the tension, rivalry, and the fighting in Yemen refuse to see an end in sight. The brutal war has resulted in creating an unprecedented level of hunger in the country, which is merely getting worse by the day. Despite the continuity of humanitarian assistance, over 20 million of Yemenis are deprived of food and other essentials. Much has been said about the ongoing crisis in Yemen and the different sides that are involved in the war. However, the standardised mainstream analysis has not been able to provide a clear picture of what’s really going on in Yemen.

Foreign Players and their interests

Several foreign powers are actively involved in Yemen who are competing with one another via proxies. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Yemen was a British colony. However, after the so-called period of decolonisation, Britain continued to maintain a discreet role in Yemen exerting its imperial influence over the country. Several strategic and political issues currently shape the British foreign policy towards Yemen.

First, the issue of stability in Yemen directly impacts the British interests, not just in Yemen, but also within Yemen’s immediate neighbours — Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. For Britain, it is imperative to maintain its long-term political influences within Oman and the UAE, which results in providing Britain with unfettered access to energy supplies. It is also necessary for Britain to retain its non-political agreements (military and financial) with Saudi Arabia, but also the remnants of its political influence within the House of Saud.

Second, Yemen squarely sits within Britain’s colonial legacy; especially the country’s south poses huge significance. Therefore, Britain wants to continue in maintaining that legacy as it was undoubtedly one of the most prized possessions alongside Egypt and India for the British empire.

Third, Yemen’s geostrategic proximity to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which is a sea route chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea through which an estimated 6.2 million barrels of oil per day passed in 2018. Furthermore, it accounted for around 9 per cent of total sea-borne petroleum shipments in 2017.

Hence, maintaining stability in Yemen is crucial for British interests to survive, not just in Yemen but also within its neighbours.

As for Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, they are not independent states and have no imperial legacies or political will to make it on their own without possessing external support. These states are an artificial creation of the former British colonial empire. The reason for their creation was to keep them weak and divided with a contingent necessity. Before the British empire, these nation-states did not exist. When it comes to the rulers of these countries, they have one common objective, which is regime survival, i.e. maintaining their grip on power with all means necessary. For these Arab regimes to maintain their throne, they would have to relinquish to their patron’s interests on demand.

The British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in his well-documented book ‘War and Peace in the Middle East’ mentions that the secret to Britain’s success in the Gulf ( Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait) lays in 3 things. Its low profile, a small military presence, and above all a limited supply of arms to the former regimes in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq were designated as three axes of power by the British to maintain and secure its imperial interests in the region which kept the monarchs of these countries contingent on the British. This also helped Britain insulate the Gulf region from the penetration of other super or great powers.

The other foreign player in Yemen is the United States of America. For America, it has been a long term aspiration to reverse the Sykes-Picot designs, which is a colonial legacy left behind by the French and the British in the Middle East and North Africa. Although the United States has been able to remove most European assets in the Middle East, it still struggles to stabilize its political influence in the region, and this has been the case since 2003. Henceforth, owing to America’s numerous strategic blunders, it has not been able to alter the Sykes-Picot borders of the former European empires.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, American designs in the region started to become unstable as the people began to rebel against their governments across the region. However, it was not just the US that came under pressure but also the European powers like Britain and France whose architecture (whatever is left of it) also faced colossal turmoil. While America tried to maintain its interests in the Middle East, it also exploited the instability that the European powers were facing. The reason for this was to remove the remnants of their influence in the region entirely.

Thus, this brings particular attention to Yemen, where the brutal war has displaced numerous of lives, and where millions of children continue to suffer from starvation on unprecedented scales.

A Trap within another Trap

The government of President Hadi is backed by the British as Aden was and still is indispensable to Britain’s imperial interests. This is why the British Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the operation to reinstate “President Hadi and his legitimate government” and called for “non-military pressure” to bring the Houthis to the table.

On Feb 16, 2015, the then British Ambassador to Yemen Jane Marriott wrote in her article stating, “Yemen: the ball is in the Houthis’ court,” asserting that the future of the country and its stability were dependent on the Houthis. But Houthis refused; instead, they continued with their rebellion against the government of Hadi. Due to such circumstances, the UK brought in Saudi Arabia to intervene in 2015. “The Prime Minister emphasized the UK’s firm political support for the Saudi action in Yemen, noting that it was right to do everything possible to deter Houthi aggression, to support President Hadi and his legitimate government.”

Although, Saudi Arabia was built by the British almost 100 years ago in 1932. It wasn’t until America arrived in the Middle East where the British status quo took a turn towards a different direction. Today, America’s political influence on the Saud family is much larger than Britain’s in the current climate. The US political influence has been expanding for decades ever since President Franklin.D.Roosevelt secured the colossal Saudi oil fields in 1944–45. Therefore, the Saud family over the years has oscillated between Pro-British and Pro-American spheres of influence.

However, after Mohammed bin Salman’s internal purge, the US has been able to remove most of the pro-British influences within the family. Therefore, the current policies of Saudi Arabia are more aligned with American policies than they were ever before. Although the UK still possesses arms deals with Saudi Arabia, such agreements, however, don’t indicate strong political influence within a country, especially when a competitor like America is so prominent.

Due to the Saudi dilemma, Britain decided to also involve the UAE to reduce the Saudi footprint, especially in the South of Yemen, which remains a strategic imperative for Britain. The reason being is that Britain can no longer trust Saudi Arabia due to its proximity to the United States. The former point can be illustrated by the events that took place in Al-Mahrah.

Al-Mahrah is a part of Southern Yemen where Oman maintains strong links with the local tribesmen. When it comes to Al-Mahrah, the attempts of UAE were rebuffed in gaining stability owing to Saudi Arabia. According to the Sana centre, ”Saudi Arabia, however, has leveraged its way over the internationally recognised Yemeni government to force the replacement of uncooperative officials in al-Mahrah and the appointment of pliant replacements.”

If Saudi Arabia were aligned to British foreign policy in Yemen, then it would not try to force the British-backed government of President Hadi regarding the “uncooperative” officials and counter UAE efforts in the South. As for the “uncooperative” officials that Saudi wants to replace, they are the tribesmen which Oman utilises to maintain stability and safeguard British interests in the South of Yemen, which is part of Britain’s insulated architecture within the Gulf.

A few months ago, however, Anadolu Agency said that several tribal militants, opposing the Saudi military presence in Al-Mahrah, had intercepted Saudi forces before they arrived at the Shahn port in Yemen, adding that they had forced them to return to their camp in the Hat district. This illustrates that the UK is countering US-Saudi pressure through UAE and Oman.

All the former events illustrate that the US through Saudi Arabia is trying to limit UAE and Oman’s influence in Al- Mahrah, which is ultimately British influence. Vice versa seems to be the case with the British via Oman and UAE towards the Houthis and the Saudis (US influence). In summary, there is an ultimate struggle between America and Britain.

The same applies to the Houthis. America has used them multiple times against the British-backed government of Hadi. At other times the US supports the government of Hadi via Saudi Arabia to counter the British influence by attempting to penetrate the government of Hadi while simultaneously marginalising the Houthis. Thus, the US continues to use both cards; on one side, it tries to penetrate the Yemeni government. At other times, it uses the Houthis to undermine the Yemeni government. So the US is trying to balance out the two sides until it is successful in securing its control over the country.

Where it all Stands

As this political game of chess continues, Britain has the upper hand over the Americans due to their deep political connections throughout the lands of the Gulf. The other reason is that the British have always been cunning in their ambitions, which tends to exceed their grasp. The UK also continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia even though it cannot be trusted owing to its proximity to America. The reason for the UK selling a limited supply of weapons to the Saudis- who doesn’t even need as it already receives large amounts of the military from the US- is for purely monetary purposes. Hence, Britain is using both sides; on the one hand, it is trying to counter American efforts in Yemen; on the other hand, it is attempting to generate profit. So the UK is using both sides to maximize its benefits.

Due to Yemen’s geography and the strength of the Houthis as an opposition group, fighting skills and their territorial gains in the country, the United States would eventually increase its support for the Houthis in the future as it did under the Obama-Biden administration. During the Obama period, the senior US intelligence official Michael Vickers mentioned that intelligence had been provided to the Houthis for a long time. It is a strong possibility that under the Biden administration , a policy more reminiscent of Obama would be carried out towards Yemen to win the country.

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