Yemen’s desperate civil war fuelled by imperialism and regional powers

Protesters in London demanding an end to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, photo by Alisdare Hickson/CC

Yemen, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, is the poorest of countries in the Arab world and has been ravaged by a continuing bloody civil war.

Conditions are barbaric, leading Unicef to report: “No place in Yemen is safe for children”, with at least one child dying every ten minutes.

Malnutrition is at an all-time high, with almost two million children acutely malnourished.

Figures published in 2018 by the United Nations (UN) highlight that at least 6,660 civilians have been killed, and that alongside the fighting a partial blockade has left 22 million in need of humanitarian aid.

All this has created the conditions for an outbreak of cholera, which has affected 1.1 million people.

‘Arab Spring’

Earlier, in 2011, inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings and movements throughout north Africa, there were mass street protests in Yemen against high unemployment, poverty and government corruption.

People were incensed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to remain in power.

In 2014, the government’s decision to slash fuel subsidies created a backlash, resulting in widespread protests.

The price of petrol increased by 60%, and diesel by 95%. Spiralling costs had knock-on effects, including farmers no longer ploughing their fields because of diesel prices, which led to sky-rocketing food prices.

In a country where almost 12.5 million people, more than half the population, were already living in poverty, it was estimated that the decision to cut fuel subsidies pushed a further 500,000 below the breadline.

Houthi rebellion

By September 2014 rebel Houthis had taken control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, forcing the government to flee.

Houthis are Zaidi Shiite Muslims and the Houthi movement began in the early 1990s to “promote a Zaidi revival” and oppose Saudi influence.

A former MP, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, became its leader and in 2004 led an uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh, but was soon killed by Yemeni government forces.

Shiite Muslims are the minority in the Islamic world and Zaidis are a minority of this minority.

Initially, the Houthi were greeted with optimism by many Yemenis. However, as they began to consolidate their regime by the use of brutal repression, the situation in Sana’a has become desperate.

The Economist reports that Houthi militia have closed cafes, where men and women used to freely mix, and private primary schools have been told they must enforce the segregation of boys and girls (state schools already did).

Also, on a weekly basis, civil servants, university lecturers, and police are required to attend cultural sessions, where they must swear their allegiance to the Houthi movement. Failure to do this convincingly can lead to being sent to indoctrination camps.

Yemen, like other Middle Eastern countries, has been subject to shifting patterns of alliances, and is awash with contradictions.

In an attempt to regain power that he had lost as a consequence of the 2011 Arab Spring, former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, opportunistically sided with the Houthi rebels, who he had previously opposed.

This unity was fragile. In a later televised speech, in a bid to make peace with Saudi Arabia, Saleh called on Yemenis to rise up against the Houthi. This resulted in him being attacked and killed by Houthi fighters.

In 2015 Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of Arab states to defeat the Houthi and restore Yemen’s government. This coalition has both weapons and intelligence supplied by the US.

Hypocritically, the UK government (the port city of Aden was a British colony for 130 years until 1967) boasts of being a major aid donor to Yemen, but is also the second largest exporter of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.

It has been estimated by the UN High Commission for Human Rights that Saudi-led air attacks account for almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths.

Role of Saudi Arabia

The chaos created by civil war has been exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s involvement. Yemen’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse, and many Yemenis are too poor to access the centres which remain open.

According to the UN many deaths are hidden, because very few families report home deaths.

Also, it has been estimated that over three million Yeminis have been forced out of their homes, seeking asylum elsewhere in the country, and a further 280,000 have fled the country.

Aljazeera news reported that those who are internally displaced are faced with wholly inadequate supplies of food and shelter.

To further add to this misery, Saudi Arabia has pressured aid groups to leave rebel-controlled areas of Yemen, citing the safety of aid workers.

Yet in 2016 the Saudi regime’s bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders was responsible for 15 deaths, including staff members of the charity.

US imperialism also casts a long shadow across the Middle East, and since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the region has been in turmoil.

In Yemen this has been exacerbated by US operations within their borders against both al-Qa’ida and Isis.

Alongside air attacks the US has admitted to deploying small numbers of troops on the ground within Yemen.

Adding to this toxic mix, in September 2019 al-Qa’ida forces in Southern Yemen seized control of a district in the Abyan province, which is the home town of the exiled Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Al-Qa’ida has also launched attacks on Houthi rebels whom it regards as infidels.

Currently, Iran has been accused of arming Houthi rebels. Despite evidence to support this claim Iran denies this, but has suggested it is willing to send military advisors to support the Houthis.

Regional ‘cold war’

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, events in Yemen are regarded as part of their ‘cold war’ with Iran.

Last year’s drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil refinery were claimed by the Houthi rebels. But the US and UK governments, and the Saudi regime, say Iran’s revolutionary guards were behind the sophisticated attacks.

For Yemenis, the civil war has brought misery and despair. They face attacks on all sides, and should not put their trust into any of the current key players who all have their own imperialist or sectarian agenda.

Ultimately, for the working class and poor, there is a need to build their own forces to cut across religious, tribal, and other sectarian divides.

This needs to be done in their local communities, within trade unions, and with the development of a mass workers’ party which fights for a socialist programme which can begin to develop a way forward for the masses.

Presently, such developments, amid the carnage of an ongoing civil war, may seem to be an impossible scenario.

However, in 2017 over 100 security guards protested outside the parliament buildings demanding more than one year’s unpaid wages.

They had been employed by energy giant Total and G4S prior to these companies abandoning most of their economic activities in Yemen in 2015.

Their campaign was supported by the Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network in Britain, and by the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Moreover, the spark for future changes could swiftly develop on the back of future revolutionary waves across the Middle East, building on the 2011 Arab Spring.

This has occurred in countries such as Lebanon, which had previously endured 15 years of civil war, but today is seeing youthful, non-sectarian mass protests against a rotten and corrupt capitalist establishment.

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February 2020