hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Yemen and the Gulf: Where the West's Interests and Values Collide

“The war in Yemen is not a war that we wanted – we had no other option. There was a radical militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah that took over the country. It was in possession of heavy weapons, ballistic missiles and even an air force. Should we stand idly by while this happens at our doorstep, in one of the countries in which al-Qaeda has a huge presence? So, we responded, as part of a coalition, at the request of the legitimate government of Yemen, and we stepped in to support them”.[1]

Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubier, Foreign Minister, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 


The October 2018 disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has only added to the tension at the heart of the West’s complex relationship with Saudi Arabia and could have profound strategic and political implications.  In that context this brief article explores the regional-strategic and geopolitical implications of the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States through the prism of the war in Yemen, its origins and geopolitical implications and asks a simple question – are the Wests interests and its values compatible?  Indeed, as Riyadh’s reaction to an August 2018 official Canadian Tweet expressing concerns about human rights in the Kingdom attests, supporting Saudi Arabia comes at a price.  At some point the West will need to confront the contradictions that afflict both American and European policy and the profound questions they raise about the extent to which the West and its constituent elements are prepared to sacrifice its values for its interests, and to what if any extent influence can be brought to bear on its Gulf allies in the conduct of the war in Yemen.
Before any consideration of geopolitics, the human cost of the war in Yemen must be paid due respect.  The cost is high, even if figures for those killed and wounded are very hard to substantiate.  According to the Washington Post, British charity Save the Children estimated some 130 children died each day in 2017.[2] The Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that some 66% of the deaths have been inflicted by Saudi-led air strikes, although it also accuses the Houthi movement of committing atrocities during the siege of Taiz.  The UN Security Council claims that 22.2 million Yemenis of a 27.5 million population are in need of humanitarian assistance.[3]

A small country far away?

In 1938, on the eve of World War Two, former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once said of then Czechoslovakia it was “…a small country far away about which we know little”. The rest, as they say, is now history. The same could now be said of Yemen. The August 2018 sight of Yemeni children allegedly killed by a Saudi-led coalition air strike returned the ghastly reality of war to Western consciousness. Rightly so. It was poor intelligence at best, bad target acquisition or at its worst rules of engagement completely indifferent to the suffering of civilians. And yet, beyond the suffering, the war in Yemen is not just about Yemen but the geopolitics of the Middle East and quite possibly beyond. 
The war in Yemen is a very twenty-first century form of geopolitics and yet reeks of the nineteenth century when values had no place in the pursuit of interest.  Alliances are fluid, often temporary and conditional between states that whilst aligned harbour deep suspicions about each other. At its core and most simplistic the struggle is for regional supremacy between a US-backed coalition of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) allies on one side, and Iran with implicit backing from Russia on the other. And yet Yemen’s war is far from simple, as Moscow good relations with Riyadh would suggest. What is clear is the danger the war now poses well-beyond Yemen. The Syrian War is seemingly in its final Assad-confirming stage, and in spite of Turkey’s efforts, a possible bloodbath in Idlib could be imminent. Thus, the power struggle for the Middle East and beyond which is implicit in Syria’s tragedy could well shift to Yemen as it finds itself on the front-lines of the twenty-first century.

Mackinder revisited?

A mere glance at a map explains why the struggle for Yemen has geopolitical implications. Yemen sits at the mouth of the Red Sea, guarantees access to the Suez Canal and lies not far from the Persian Gulf passage to which Iran effectively controls.  Iranian control over both the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden would effectively strangle oil exports from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.  The implications for the wider world would be profound. Saudi Arabia remains by far the world’s largest oil exporter and in 2017 by far the biggest importers of crude oil were the European Union, followed by China, the US and India.[4]

Yemen itself is split very roughly into three contesting groupings which on the face of it are also a microcosm of wider struggles across the Middle East.  Iranian-backed Shia Houthis control roughly a third of the country to the west, including much of the land around the capital Sana’a and the strategically-vital shipping artery at the Bab El Mandeb Strait. A mix of Saudi-backed Hadi tribes and local militias loyal to the government control a swathe of land in the centre and to the east of Yemen.  Critically, a huge swathe of the centre of Yemen is nominally under the control of forces loyal to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).

If the war in Yemen is complex it also captures the dilemma of contemporary Western policy. The reason is precisely because for much of the West the securing of interests is inextricably linked to the promotion of values, so much so that the tension between the two can create paralysis of action.  For example, much of the focus of Western debate has been about the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen and the sale of Western weapons to the Saudis and their allies, much of it from European states and most notably Britain, France and Germany.[5]

Equally, Western capitals, with Washington, London and Paris to the fore, see the Saudis and their GCC allies as a bulwark against expanding Iranian, Russian and possibly growing Chinese influence in a region still vital for the flow of oil to the West and as bases for Western influence into the region. The 2016 agreement between China and Djibouti has led rapidly to the establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in the Horn of Africa with the clear intention of projecting Chinese power into the region. As Andrew A. Michta writes in an excellent piece in  The American Interest, “A wealthier and more geo-strategically assertive China is staking ever-bolder claims to a sphere of influence in Asia and is leveraging its growing wealth to gain influence in Australia, Africa, South America, and, increasingly of late, Europe”.[6]
A dangerous moment in a dangerous place

With the war in Yemen now in its fourth year, it may well be entering a new phase.  The re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration is likely to intensify efforts by hard-liners around Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to foment regional instability. The West has palpably failed to stop the Russian-led, Iranian-supported regime in Damascus from committing a legion of atrocities on its way to crushing the Syrian opposition. The failure of the West and its loss of influence and prestige, for that is what has happened, could also see renewed and purposeful instability spread across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
Back to the map. With Iran soon to be successfully freed from its destabilisation of Syria Tehran will likely seek to extend its proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The economic disruption caused by renewed US sanctions could well lead to further adventurism by the regime in Tehran as it seeks to shore up its faltering domestic position. With the Assad regime in Syria little more than a client state and Iraq split down a Sunni-Shia divide that has enabled Iran to keep Baghdad politically off-balance, the Iranians clearly feel emboldened to further complicate the situation in Yemen for the Saudis and its allies. If successful, Iran would force Riyadh to face instability and uncertainty on three of its four sides. Thus, whilst Persian Shia Iran is unlikely ever to exert direct control over Sunni Arab Arabia it is well-positioned to further destabilise the Kingdom, the sheikdoms and emirates of the GCC. Such an outcome would not be in the Western interest.

Yemen’s perpetual war?
In many ways, Yemen has been lost deep in a chasm of geopolitics for much of its contemporary history.  Indeed, if one looks beyond the confessional religious divide that stretches across the Middle East, it has been geopolitics that has driven conflict for over a century and looks set to continue to so do. The Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916 eventually led to the creation of many Middle Eastern states which were designed at the time by the two European Great Powers to ensure their control over them, but perpetual instability at the same time.

Yemen’s recent history has been one of almost permanent and perpetual strife fuelled by external forces. Between 1962 and 1970 the Yemeni Civil War in Northern Yemen between Republican and Royalist forces led to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic. Riyadh only reluctantly recognised the new regime after having backed the losing side.  It was a struggle that was further complicated by fading Britain’s November 1967 withdrawal from strategically-vital Aden after London came dangerously close to being sucked into the civil war.  In the wake of the civil war, South Yemen established the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen with Soviet backing that also led to further conflict with the Saudi-backed North.  
In 1990 Yemen was re-unified. However, Saudi-Yemeni relations deteriorated rapidly soon afterwards because of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s close relationship with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and Yemen’s use of Iraqi military advisors. This was in spite of the fact that Sana’a was economically dependent on the Saudis and the rest of the GCC, particularly remittances from Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia. In the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the bulk of these workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia. 

Then came the 2004 Houthi rebellion. Between 2004 and 2011 President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in office since 1978, launched six Saudi-backed wars against the Houthi tribes, part of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia sect. At the time he was also fighting the Salafists of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).  A fragile peace was finally brokered in November 2011 when President Saleh stepped down in favour of his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, the armed forces were deeply divided over this agreement after a top general who defected to the rebellion was in part inspired by the Arab Spring, which alarmed Saudi and Gulf leaders. Today, President Hadi remains in office rather than in power in a Yemen as deeply-divided as ever along tribal, economic, social and along confessional lines and in which political power depends by and large on patronage.
A further complicating factor in what has long been a complicated Saudi-Yemeni relationship is the presence in some strength of AQAP, a group which emerged from Saudi Wahhabi or Deobandi Salafism. Cue coalition air-strikes. Saudi-led air-strikes in Yemen, as well as US drone strikes against AQAP, have reinforced a sense of grievance in an already grievous situation. Such strikes also reflect the nature and scope of an increasingly regional-systemic, geopolitical struggle in which Yemen’s internal strife and the fundamentalist threat posed by AQAP is becoming steadily more entangled with the struggle for regional supremacy between Iran and other (Sunni) actors.  Interestingly, Islamic State has been less successful in gaining a significant foothold since their 2015 appearance in Yemen.

An ever less proxy war
In my 2017 book The New Geopolitics of Terror William Hopkinson and I wrote, “…that the current struggle between Middle Eastern…states and what might be termed anti-state elements, could be but the curtain-raiser to a wider Middle East war between states, fuelled and intensified by mistrust between elites and peoples, the mutual hatred of Shia and Sunni factions, between Iran and many Arab states, and possibly between Israel and Iran, or another Iranian-inspired, proxy-led coalition. Such a war would have profound consequence for the region and the world. Europe is particularly vulnerable to the loss of energy supplies from the region, and to further major attacks upon its societies and infrastructure by AQ and ISIS-inspired Islamic fundamentalism.”[7]

The real and present danger from the war in Yemen is that the current proxy war between Iran and the Saudis will become less and less proxy and its strategic implications ever greater.  The capacity for the war to escalate and rapidly is clear. Whilst Yemen’s Zaidi Shia community differ fairly fundamentally from the Twelver Shia of Iran the Houthi movement have publicly supported Iran, particularly over its hostility towards Israel and the West. The Sunni kingdoms surrounding Yemen are firm in their belief that the Houthis are backed by Iran and claim the Houthis have received arms and training from Hezbollah and the Iranian Qods Force and thus pose a threat to them.  Whilst the alignments are nothing like as firm as the blocs that in 1914 triggered World War One in Europe the war in Syria has demonstrated how quickly competing regional-strategic and grand strategic powers from within the region and beyond can instrumentalise internal conflicts in the Middle East.
What options the West?

Faced with the threat of growing Iranian, Russian and possibly Chinese influence, as well as the threat posed by AQAP in the region allied to the continuing dependence of Europe in particular on Saudi and Gulf oil it would seem that the West has little option but to hold its nose and support the Riyadh-led coalition.  However, there must be three caveats:

First, a ‘Western’ policy worthy of the name must be agreed between Washington and its European allies. One of the many paradoxes of the West’s engagement with the contemporary wars of the Middle East is that whilst Europeans are far less engaged than the US they are far more vulnerable to the consequences, especially if oil exports are disrupted.  The Trump administration’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear deal, and re-impose sanctions on Tehran shows how hard it is for Americans and Europeans to agree these days on a joint course of action in the Middle East.  

Second, Western powers must collectively find ways to exert some pressure, albeit discreetly, on the Saudis and their allies to improve the conduct of the war in Yemen to limit civilian casualties and to modify Saudi behaviour. In other words, the situation in Yemen, the Gulf and the wider Middle East are one of those strategic tipping points in which no easy alignment of the West’s values and its interests is apparent.  Emphasise values and the West will lose influence over partners that remains vital to its interests. Should that happen there can be no question that other powers will move rapidly to fill the influence vacuum that emerges with the demise of the West in the region. 

Third, if Saudi complicity is established in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi the West together must not be afraid to condemn Riyadh for it. Nor should the West refrain from publicly rebuking the Saudi-led coalition if large numbers of Yemeni citizens are killed due to indiscriminate use of force. Of course, it is precisely on these issues that the West's values and interests collide. The language used by the West and any possible sanctions will need to be carefully crafted. However, that is precisely the challenge statecraft exists to meet.
However, for such a delicate policy and strategy balance to be struck the West will need a far more granulated and nuanced understanding of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Since King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud ascended to the throne in 2015 and his son Crown Prince Mohammed took on responsibility for national strategy the Saudis have been much more assertive than hitherto over what Riyadh regards as critical Saudi interests.  It is also clear that whilst Riyadh leans towards the West it does not do so exclusively as Russian-Saudi relations attest. Therefore, given the continued vital importance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the strategic economic and security interests of the West, any criticisms/advice will need to be muted and discreet if they are to have any effect in what is a very conditional set of relationships.

The West must understand something else. At the centre of this conflict is the relationship between Riyadh and Sana’a. Saudi policy towards Yemen is complex. On the one hand, the Saudis seek to prevent Yemen ever becoming a military threat to the Kingdom, whilst on the other hand, Riyadh wants to prevent Yemen’s complete economic collapse for fear of a migrant surge.  At one point the Saudis even began work on a fence along the Saudi-Yemen border to prevent irregular migration. Therefore, Americans and Europeans would do well to engage together in search of a political solution between the government in Sana’a and the Houthis. If successful such a settlement would help block Iranian ambitions and detach the Saudi-Iran conflict from that between the Saudis, the West and AQAP.  Encouragingly, the Saudis have been holding secret talks in Oman with the Houthis in an effort to find just such a solution. And, in September 2018 the UN made another effort to re-start stalled peace talks in Geneva in search of a ‘framework’ for peace. 
If this article reads like an attempt to balance policy on the head of a strategic pin that is because it is. However, Yemen sits at the crux of contemporary geopolitics.  And, as long as the war in Yemen continues the wider region will continue to be de-stabilised and whilst that might be in the interests of Iran, Russia and possibly even China, it is not in the interests of either the GCC or the West. For that reason, like it or not, the West and its Saudi and GCC allies are locked together for the foreseeable future and no amount of posturing will change that hard and very strategic reality.

Julian Lindley-French

[1] “Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Cold War of Islam”, by Susanne Koelbl, Samiha Shafy, Bernhard Zand, Der Spiegel, 9 May 2016,
[2] See Kareem Hafim, “The deadly war in Yemen rages on. So why does the death toll stand still?” The Washington Post, 3 August 2018
[3] See Al Jazeera, 15 March 2018 “Saudis in Secret Talks with Houthis to end Yemen’s War: Report”.
[4] Source: CIA World Factbook 2018
[5] See “Germany quintuples arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Europe”, Deutsche Welt, 14 November 2017.
[6] See Michta, Andrew A. (2018) “The Revenge of Hard Power Politics” in “The American Interest”, October 2018,

[7] Hopkinson W & Lindley-French J. (2017) “Demons and Dragons: The New Geopolitics of Terror”. (London: Routledge)

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