The US-Saudi Coalition Against Yemen: A Primer


Valerie Reynoso | Geopolitics | Analysis | February 8th, 2018



The ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to devolve into further calamity and chaos. Understanding the existing conditions of the region, however, means examining and grappling with the historical forces underpinning the current civil war. Most importantly, United States-backed actors, particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have vied for control of Yemen by any means necessary. Whether the incessant bombings of civilian infrastructure, or the targeting of innocent people themselves, the US-Saudi coalition has stopped at nothing to establish dominance. Through the billions of dollars of funding provided by the US, Saudi Arabia has inflicted wanton destruction on the Yemeni people with impunity.

From a national scope, the key actors in the conflict are the Houthis, Yemeni government forces, and al-Qaeda. The fall and subsequent breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 resulted in the formation of two Yemeni states, leading to conflict between southern nationalist groups and the Yemeni government, with both sides suffering numerous casualties. The Ottoman Empire lasted for over 600 years and by 1849, it had dominated significant territory in northern Yemen, including Sana'a, which further satisfied its interests in Mecca and Medina. Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire, a Zaidi Shia Imamate called the Mutawakaliat Kingdom governed the northern kingdom of Yemen and southern Yemen was still divided and governed by several local sultanates. Sultanate rule in southern Yemen came to an end as a result of British colonial rule, through which British colonizers founded their own southern, settler state named the Federation of South Arabia. The Republic of North Yemen was formed in 1962 and in 1967, the People's Republic of South Yemen was founded after British colonial rule ended. The People's Republic of South Yemen was a Marxist republic which was significantly reliant on support from the Soviet Union. The decline of the Soviet Union in 1990 had a grave impact on South Yemen. In addition to this, in 1989, the president of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the president of South Yemen, Ali Salim el-Beidh, met up and Saleh and the General People's Congress passed a key proposal to form a federation. Yemen was officially unified in 1990 with Sana'a as its capital; however, the newly-formed state was not equipped for an actual government nor means of distribution of power between the north and the south. El-Beidh believed that southern Yemen was being oppressed and he announced the new southern state, the Democratic Republic of Yemen. Despite this, Saleh defeated the southern rebellion in May 1994.

Although the rebellion failed, tensions remained high. Just under two decades later, in 2011 the Yemeni Arab Spring occurred, which consisted of protests by Yemenis demanding improved socioeconomic and political conditions as well as the resignation of President Saleh, due to his inefficiency in handling corruption and poverty. This was the same year that President Saleh signed a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) measure that gave him dispensation, and he shifted power to his former Vice President Hadi-an action that was also supported by the US, European Union, and the United Nations. In December 2011, the Houthis and the southern nationalist movement called the Hirak organized a Life March from Ta'iz to Sana'a in opposition to the GCC measure. Hadi officially became president in February 2012 through an election in which he was the only candidate. Subsequently, he granted immunity to 500 of Saleh's assistants. After making the unpopular decision of lifting fuel subsidies in July 2014, Hadi began to significantly lose support as a result of his attempt to appeal to the International Monetary Fund. The Houthis were outraged and demanded new subsidies and a new government, so in September 2014 they seized Sana'a, disintegrated parliament by January 2015, and sought to seize power in all of Yemen-resulting in Hadi fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led regional coalition initiated Operation Decisive Storm with the goal of recapturing Houthi-dominated areas and restoring the Hadi administration. The justification for this operation was that Gulf States believed that the Houthis were backed fiscally, militarily and ideologically by Iran. Saudi Arabia's chief ally, the US, also continued its "counterterrorist operations" in the region and had lines of intelligence to the Houthis. In February 2015, the Houthis created a new Revolutionary Committee and released a Constitutional Declaration; in these, they stated that the Committee would lead the government, that rights would be protected by it and that National Dialogue Conference protocols would be put in place by a transitional government within two years, before submitting the draft of the constitution for a referendum. Afterwards, the Houthis initiated what they considered revenge murders throughout Yemen, and they had Ta'iz by the end of February. To this day, the Houthis are still fighting pro-Hadi, Saudi-backed coalitions.

In regards to casualties and other demographics concerning the well-being and migrations of the Yemeni population, thousands have died in Saudi and US drone strikes, are starving, and have diseases due to poor conditions as a result of the war. As of 2018, at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the conflict and 7 million urgently need food assistance. The Geneva SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties stated that at least 716 human rights violations were committed against Yemenis in November 2017; said violations include murders, batteries, assault, unjust detentions, forced displacement, torture, and press censorship. Over 20 million people need immediate humanitarian assistance, with 11 million of these people being children. Over 400,000 Yemeni children suffer from life-threatening malnutrition. Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Office reported that of the Yemenis murdered, at least 1,184 of the victims were children, 3,233 of the total Yemenis killed were murdered by coalition forces, and an additional 8,749 people were injured. Each day, 130 Yemeni children die from severe hunger and disease. To put it another way, one child dies every 18 minutes. The International Committee of the Red Cross also reported that there could be at least a million cholera cases registered by the end of the year as a result of excessive force and bombings of civilian infrastructure. It is suspected that there are currently 913,000 cholera cases in Yemen, and at least 2,119 Yemenis have died due to the disease, as it spreads from lack of access to clean water and health facilities. Only 45% of the 3,500 health facilities are properly working in Yemen and at least 14.8 million Yemenis do not have healthcare. Moreover, two million Yemenis are displaced within the country and 188,000 have sought refuge in other countries nearby.

From a regional standpoint, Saudi Arabia is the key actor. Saudi Arabia has allied primarily with other pro-US Gulf states, pro-US Arab League states, and al-Qaeda to repress the Houthis, protect regional interests in Yemen and attempt to restore Hadi. Conversely, Iran allegedly supports the Houthis and opposes the pro-US Gulf states. Saudi blockades of Yemeni ports such as Hodeida, from which 80% of Yemen's food supply is imported, is the main cause of the famine and lack of medicine in the country. In addition to this, Saudi bombings of Yemeni water and sanitation infrastructure has led to the Yemeni cholera epidemic. Since the beginning of Saudi military intervention in Yemen in 2015, over 250 fishing boats were damaged or destroyed, as well as 152 fishermen murdered by coalition warships and helicopters in the Red Sea. According to emeritus professor Martha Mundy at the London School of Economics, there was significant proof that Saudi coalition strategy had the goal of destroying food production and distribution in Yemen, within the first 17 months of Saudi military invasion. Likewise, in 2015, Saudi expenditure increased by 13% to $260 billion with $5.3 billion of that amount being dedicated to military and security, particularly in regards to the current war on Yemen. Saudi Arabia spent around $175 million per month in efforts to restore former Yemeni president Hadi and repress the Houthis. Despite Saudi Arabia's claims that the motive behind intervention in Yemen is related to political restoration alone, one can readily see their interest in Yemen as a bridge and access point for numerous continents, as well as its many natural resources, fertile lands, water, and entry point to the Red Sea. Yemen is also geopolitically vital to the Bab-el-Mandeb oil route, and could serve as a substitute to the Strait of Hormuz with the building of an oil pipeline in the eastern region of Hadramawt-which would threaten Iranian hegemony and oil security, could block Iran from having access to the oil route, and could allow Saudi Arabia to possess a monopoly over it as a result of its geographic location. Given all this, it is clear that Saudi Arabia aspires to dominate Yemen in order to gain access to and ownership over its vast resources and strategic location.

Among Saudi Arabia's regional allies in the war on Yemen are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), al-Qaeda, Israel, Qatar, and Sudan. The Houthi forces who were in the Yemeni port of Mocha were ejected by UAE-backed Yemeni fighters in February 2017; the UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition to defeat the Houthis. Given the conflicts between the Houthis and Saudi-backed coalitions, al-Qaeda jihadists used the issue to their advantage by seizing southern Yemeni land and enacting fatal attacks, particularly in Aden. A leaked US diplomatic cable from December 30 th, 2009, from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reveals that Saudi Arabia is the main funder of Sunni terrorist groups globally and that private donors in Saudi Arabia and other pro-US Gulf states are the prime financiers of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, Saudi colonialism in Yemen empowers al-Qaeda, seeing that al-Qaeda uses US drone strikes in the region to provide a replacement for justice and to galvanize recruits. In 2014, anti-Hadi rebel alliance member Colonel Aziz Rashid stated that he believed that Israel fought with the Saudi-led coalition in order to bring Hadi back to power, and that Israel had initiated strikes against the rebel fighters. Israel has a military base in the Dahlak archipelago of Eritrea and Massawa, which is within the range of the Yemeni rebels' missiles as well as nearby the Iranian military installation in Assab, Eritrea. Additionally, although Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel as a state, they have fought together in a US-led campaign against Iran. Likewise, in 2015 approximately 1,000 Qatari Armed Forces soldiers were stationed in Yemen in alliance with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. That same year, Saudi Arabia obtained an allegiance from the Sudan Armed Forces to help fight the Houthis in Yemen. Sudan committed to Saudi Arabia in its coalition because of its weakened economy at the time as a result of US sanctions on the Sudanese central bank that have been imposed since 1997; these sanctions made it more difficult for Sudan to access global financial markets and hard currency. Sudan also lost a third of its land and most of its oil with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, resulting in the decline of oil prices. Due to this, Sudan sought financial assistance from its Gulf Arab allies and is paying for this aid by joining the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen. Sudan used to have a close relationship with Iran for several years, e.g. in 2008 when Sudanese and Iranian officials signed a military cooperation agreement, or in 2013 when Iran increased construction of naval and logistical bases in Port Sudan. In 2014, this changed, as Sudanese authorities shut down Iranian cultural centers throughout the country with the justification that Iran was supposedly trying to spread Shiism in Sudan; however, Sudan was also becoming more aligned with Saudi Arabia during this time.

Regional powers and their pro-US Gulf state allies receive support from global powers primarily in the West, including the US, United Kingdom, and France. The Obama administration provided Saudi Arabia with over $115 billion in weapons, military equipment and training, much more than any other US administration in the history of the 71 year US-Saudi alliance has given. The military aid was made in 42 distinct deals, and most of the equipment has yet to be delivered. The arms offers to Saudi Arabia under former US President Obama consists of assets such as small arms, ammunition, tanks, attack helicopters, air-to-ground missiles, missile defense ships, warships, and sustenance and training of Saudi security forces. In November 2017, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution which recognized the role of the US in the Yemeni civil war, such as mid-air refueling of Saudi-led coalition planes and target selection; however, the resolution was a compromise and has not been authorized by Congress yet.

The US is also involved in a network of 18 documented secret prisons based throughout primarily southern Yemeni territory, which are managed by the UAE and dominated by Saudi officials, in which tortures have allegedly taken place. Over 2,000 Yemeni men have reportedly disappeared in the prisons, and survivors have claimed that they experienced torture and sexual assault while imprisoned. In June 2017, US involvement in the secret prisons was confirmed by US military officials, but they denied taking part in the torture of prisoners. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as of September 2017, US airstrikes in Yemen have more than doubled under the Trump administration, in comparison to the end of the Obama presidency, with 93 airstrikes compared to 40 the previous year. The US carries out at least one airstrike every two days. On May 21 st, 2017, Trump voiced support for action against the Houthis in Yemen, and accused Iran of supporting "terrorists" in Yemen as well as in other nations. The US also still has "counterterrorist operations" and some lines of intelligence to the Houthis, which the US refers to as "anti al-Qaeda."

The UK has also backed US operations in Yemen, such as providing intelligence and operational support for drone strikes, and on-ground British assistance in choosing targets and managing drone strikes. In early 2017, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood stated that the UK is involved in the US targeted killing program and that UK intelligence agencies work closely with that of the US. In the first half of 2017, UK sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia reached £1.1 billion, according to figures from the Department for International Trade-which also showed that the UK sold £836 million of arms and military hardware to Saudi Arabia between April and June. British forces were also part of a presentation of the firestorm targeting systems utilized by the Saudi-led Gulf coalition forces in Yemen. The Yemen Data Project shows that 356 airstrikes have targeted farms, 174 targeted market places, and 61 targeted food storage places between March 2015 and September 2017. The UK also provided over £4.6 billion worth of fighter jets and arms sales to Saudi Arabia since 2015. UK military officers trained the Royal Saudi Airforce in the aforementioned targeted attacks. Aside from the UK, French President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France has formed relationships with all the Gulf states. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is one of the prime clients of the French arms industry, which is evident given that François Hollande allowed the sale of arms worth 455 million euros to Saudi Arabia, the majority of which would be used in the war on Yemen. While US imperialism is the primary reactionary force in the Middle East, the legacy of French and British imperialism in the region lives on, 100 years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

In terms of conflict resolution, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Security Council, and Human Rights Watch, have all made efforts to provide what they consider to be assistance to war-torn Yemen. The UN Human Rights Council conducted a report where they recorded the human rights violations of international humanitarian laws taken place in Yemen as of September 2014. They also have recorded civilian casualties due to coalition airstrikes. The Human Rights Council has advocated international investigation of what they consider to be a man-made catastrophe in Yemen. According to the deputy global director of Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, nations that arm Saudi Arabia have denied evidence that shows that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians and that nations that fund the coalition are complicit in these human rights violations. In September 2017, the Netherlands revised a resolution proposal to the UN Human Rights Council with the goal of gaining Saudi agreement to a UN investigation into alleged war crimes in Yemen. Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, UN human rights chief, has requested that the 47 member nations of the council start an independent investigation into the war on Yemen. Saudi Arabia insists that the coalition forces are fighting terrorists, but Zeid countered that the majority of casualties are in fact Yemeni noncombatants.

The UN Security Council drafted a political strategy for Yemen. Unfortunately, such measures internationally legitimized the Saudi-backed military operations, mainly due to diplomatic exertions by the ambassadors of the GCC and the Jordanian government, which was represented by its delegate, Dina Kawar. Abdallah al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, guided the compromises and stated that Resolution 2216 is notable for having founded the idea that if Arab countries adopt a unified position, the decision would be internationally recognized. With the exception of Russia, 14 states supported the resolution. The resolution was issued under Chapter VII, which obligates enforcement and would require the Houthis to disarm themselves of weapons they obtained from military institutions and to retreat from Sana'a. In Resolution 2216, the UN Security Council stated that all countries should carry out urgent measures to prevent the export of weapons to all Yemeni parties. The Security Council also emphasized that all Yemeni parties and factions should resolve their issues nonviolently. Despite its rhetoric calling for peace, the resolution has served to further empower the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, making it easier for them to seize territories and ports in the nation. Most glaringly, the resolution has failed to ensure that issues among Yemeni parties and groups are dealt with nonviolently, especially given the murder of Saleh by the Houthis in December 2017.

No signs point to any of the UN-led measures having a tangible impact. Tensions have increased in the country following the Houthi-led murder of Saleh. US funding of Saudi coalitions in Yemen has increased under the Trump administration. President Trump proposed $110 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in June 2017. Said arms proposal would include seven THAAD missile defense batteries, 104,000 air-to-ground munitions, four new aircrafts, and much more. An increase in military aid to Saudi Arabia would result in more casualties, famine, bombings of infrastructure, and seizure of land and ports in Yemen; this proposal could also result in more violent backlash from the Houthis and its supporters. The International Red Cross stated that the fighting between the Houthis and Saleh's forces has resulted in at least 125 civilian deaths within five days of Saleh's murder. Saleh's abrupt death may further enrage Saudi Arabia because of the possibility of an increase of Iranian influence in the region, which would further increase their bombing of Yemen in an attempt to repress Houthis.

In all of this horrific war, the Yemeni people's voices remain silenced. The only chance the country has of seeing peace is for the complete withdrawal of all coalition forces, from the Saudi Arabia to other GCC members. It goes without saying that this includes any and all US presence. While the UN has made clarion calls for peace, its actions have proved impotent at best, and disastrous at worse. Sanctions issued against Yemen have engendered further famine, death, and destruction. Thus, much as coalition forces must withdraw, so too must sanctions come to a close. If, and only if, these two actions come to fruition, then the Yemeni people might have a chance to bring about peace, on their terms. Anything short of this will lead to the existing cycle repeating itself in one form or another. The only hope for Yemen lies with the Yemeni people, without the encroachment of the West or its GCC puppets.


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