Misadventure in Yemen

Print edition : September 02, 2016

A Yemeni man near the grave of a relative in Sana'a on July 6. The conflict in Yemen has left more than 6,500 people dead and 30,000 wounded since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP

Supporters of the Houthi movement during a demonstration in Sana'a on July 28. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) arrives for peace talks in Kuwait on June 26. Photo: AP

Saleh al-Sumad, the head of Yemen's Houthi movement's politburo. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen. Photo: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP

The Saudi-led coalition has been fighting a losing battle in Yemen, and Riyadh’s own economic problems make a long-running war there unsustainable.

It has been more than 16 months since the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched a war on Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arabian peninsula. The other members of the military coalition are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and Kuwait. Most of the bombing raids are being conducted by Saudi planes these days. The UAE Air Force, which was very active in the earlier phase of the campaign, is now only playing a limited role. The UAE forces on the ground are concentrating their firepower on the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Daesh (Islamic State). The unjustified war unleashed on the hapless people of Yemen has the full support of the United States and key Western nations such as the United Kingdom and France.

The Barack Obama administration had given the Saudis the green light to attack Yemen to salve the bruised ego of the Saudi monarchy. The Saudis were deeply upset when it became clear that Washington was on the verge of inking the nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran has been certified as the main enemy of the Saudi monarchy. Israel too has identified Iran as the main threat to its existence. Top Saudi personalities have been openly meeting with Israeli officials. Prince Turki bin Faisal recently met with the former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chiefs.

This was followed by a visit to Israel by retired Gen. Anwar Eshki. Eshki is known to have close links with the Saudi military and intelligence apparatus. The Saudis have been alleging that Iran has been militarily propping up the Houthi-led coalition that was on the verge of consolidating its hold over the country. Tehran so far has only given diplomatic support to the Houthi-led government.

Meanwhile, Western countries, the U.S. and the U.K. in particular, have been making handsome profits by replenishing the Saudis and the Emiratis with armaments, which include precision-guided munitions and banned cluster bombs. Britain itself has sold weaponry worth more than $3.8 billion to Saudi Arabia since April last year. The U.S. has sold more than $100 billion worth of arms to the Saudis since 2010. The Obama administration took a belated decision in May this year to stop supplying cluster bomb munitions to the Saudi-led coalition, but the U.S. has continued with its political and military support for the war on Yemen despite growing evidence that it is the civilian populace that is bearing the brunt of it.

More than 6,500 people have been killed so far and the infrastructure of the country is devastated. According to reports by the United Nations and human rights groups, air strikes are responsible for more than half of the casualties. Earlier in the year, a Saudi air attack on a crowded market in north Yemen killed more than a hundred civilians. Americans are helping the Saudis pinpoint targets besides providing Saudi fighter jets mid-air fuelling and logistical support. U.S. military personnel are also on the ground in Yemen, ostensibly to target the AQAP. The group has exploited the instability in Yemen to expand areas under its control in the south of the country. Hospitals, markets, factories and schools have not been spared in the Saudi-led air operations.

A UNICEF report released in the first week of August stated that 370,000 children were in urgent need of food. Otherwise, the report said, they faced the risk of starving to death. More than half the population of 16 million is facing imminent starvation. Some two million people have been rendered homeless and could join the wave of refugees heading towards Europe and other parts of the world.

At the beginning of the war, the Saudi-led coalition, with the help of the U.S., imposed an economic blockade on the country. Even ships carrying humanitarian aid were not allowed to dock at Yemeni ports. U.N. flights and shipments to Yemen have to be cleared by the Saudi authorities. The Saudis have banned international media from covering the conflict. Only a few intrepid journalists have managed to smuggle themselves into the country. The humanitarian situation in Yemen is numerically even worse than that in Syria. Last year, the Netherlands tried to get the U.N. to conduct an independent inquiry into war crimes committed in Yemen by all sides. The Saudis were able to scuttle the inquiry with the help of the Americans and the British.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. Security Council in the first week of August that the Saudi Arabian-led coalition must address “very serious concerns” about the killing of children in Yemen. The U.N. had originally put Saudi Arabia on its children’s rights violators’ blacklist in June after a U.N. report titled “Children and Armed Conflict” concluded that the Saudi-led military coalition was responsible for 60 per cent of the casualties involving children in Yemen last year. The report said that the Saudi-led forces had hit schools and hospitals. The U.N. Secretary-General was arm-twisted into removing Saudi Arabia from the list of children’s rights violators after the government in Riyadh threatened to cut off its generous funding to U.N. aid organisations.

Ban Ki-moon, after years of being forced to backtrack on key issues, may have decided to finally stand up to the bullying by the big powers as his term in office winds down. Last year, the Israelis, with the help of the U.S., had seen to it that their name did not figure on the infamous list despite the recommendations of senior U.N. officials. Israel had resorted to wanton targeting of children during its last large-scale military operations in Gaza.

The U.S. had earlier prevailed on Ban Ki-moon to withdraw an invitation he had extended to Iran to attend a U.N. conference on Syria. The Moroccan government virtually forced him to apologise when he described Western Sahara as “occupied territory” during a visit to the area earlier in the year. The U.N. recognises Western Sahara as a “disputed area”, but Morocco has the full backing of France, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. After Palestine was admitted into UNESCO in 2012, the U.S. suspended its annual funding of $80 million to the cultural organisation.

Ban Ki-moon was furious with the Saudis and publicly blamed Riyadh for putting “unacceptable pressure” on the world body. He told reporters that he was warned that the U.N. would lose financing for humanitarian operations in Palestinian territories. He said that if countries threatened to defund U.N. organisations, then there was a possibility “that millions of children would suffer grievously”.

In the first week of August, the Secretary-General told the Security Council that the review of Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the annual report on armies that kill and maim children was still ongoing. He said that the Saudis had provided new information “to prevent and end grave violations against children”. The Saudi-led coalition has acknowledged “some shortcomings” on two of the eight cases they have investigated. The U.N. Secretary-General has warned member-states involved in conflicts to “protect children” if they want to protect their image.

Three months of peace talks in Kuwait, brokered by the U.N., ended inconclusively in the second week of August. A shaky ceasefire that the warring sides had agreed upon is now in danger of collapsing completely. The so-called “legitimate” government backed by the Saudis has adopted a tough stance. Its president-in-exile, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is refusing to accept the compromise formula under which a coalition government will be installed in the capital, Sana’a, under a new interim President. He is insisting that his government should be put back in place and that the Houthis should disarm and return to their bases in the north of the country.

The Saudis had already started escalating air strikes even as peace talks were going on in Kuwait City. The Houthis, on their part, have announced the formation of a coalition government with the General People’s Congress, the former ruling party, led by former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Cabinet posts are to be divided equally between the two parties. After the breakdown of the talks in Kuwait, the chief negotiator for the Houthi-led coalition, Nasser Bagazgooz, accused the U.N.-appointed special envoy on Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, of siding with Saudi Arabia and its plans to impose a military solution on Yemen.

As of now, the Saudi military adventure in Yemen has been deemed as a failure. The Saudis had failed in the past to bring the Yemenis to heel. In 1991, the Saudi government expelled more than a million Yemenis working in the kingdom after President Saleh refused to support the first Gulf war against Iraq. The remittances of the workers, estimated at $350 million a month, were crucial to Yemen’s struggling economy. The Saudis followed it up by cutting all financial aid to Yemen. Financial ties were restored only after a decade.

The resilient Houthis are now once again on the offensive despite the efforts of the Saudis and their local allies to crush them for decades. After having captured Sana’a in 2014, they were successful in building a broad-based coalition and seemed to be on the way to consolidating their hold on the entire country. The precipitate Saudi military intervention has changed the political and military situation. In the territory now controlled by the Saudis and their local allies, they face serious threats from the AQAP, the Daesh and southern separatists. Many Saudi and Emirati soldiers have been killed by the AQAP and the Daesh in recent encounters.

It has proved to be an expensive war, both in terms of money and human casualties, for the Saudis and their allies. Oil prices have been between $30 and $40 a barrel for more than a year. Saudi Arabia recorded a budget deficit of $100 billion in 2015, which is projected to be even higher this year. Factories are being closed and foreign workers are being laid off in droves without being fully compensated. A long-running Saudi war in Yemen is an unsustainable proposition.

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