As of the end of spring, the coronavirus crisis has not brought any noticeable easing to the conflict in Yemen. What is more, it would seem that the warring sides decided to take advantage of the confusion that befell the external forces and change the situation on the frontlines. Despite the already worsening humanitarian situation in the country and the UN calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic, offensive operations nevertheless continued. At the same time, the state of affairs in the south of the country has been deteriorating, with those in favour of self-determination again rearing their heads.
We should know by now that an epidemic is not going to stop the hostilities in Yemen. Not even the cholera outbreak that has affected approximately one million people in the country over the past three years is enough to make the warring factions lay down their weapons. In fact, with the cholera epidemic still raging and chronic famine in many parts of the country, the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of relatively few, has gone largely unnoticed. Both the warring parties and the population at large have come to terms with the constant threat of outbreaks of various diseases (cholera, diphtheria, measles, Dengue fever, etc.) due to the lack of basic infrastructure and centralized immunization plans.
What is more, the reality of the situation in Yemen is that those fighting on the front are more likely to survive an epidemic than civilians living in overpopulated cities, where sanitary conditions are truly awful. An estimated 17.8 million Yemenis were without safe water and sanitation in 2019, and 19.7 million did not have access to adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, those on the frontlines generally eat better and, unlike the civilian population, have priority access to medical supplies and personnel. Ansar Allah (Houthi) militants are even using the coronavirus crisis to recruit new soldiers, convincing young people that it is better to die a martyr in battle than to suffer an inglorious death from the virus.
It would thus appear that the Houthis are as determined as ever to win the civil war, or at the very least to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the forces that are loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition troops. Even after the coronavirus had hit the country, the Houthis resumed ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and also launched an offensive in Marib Governorate. Clashes also broke out near the strategically important Al-Hudaydah Port.
The Battle of Marib
Marib Governorate is considered the richest province in northern Yemen, with oil and gas fields, a strategically important oil refinery and the country’s largest power plant. It is also of no small importance that Marib is a stronghold of the moderate Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), which Saudi Arabia is backing in the conflict. Losing Marib will deal a serious blow to al-Islah’s positions, as well as to Riyadh’s interests in Yemen.
The pandemic provides the Houthis with an opportunity to carry out offensive actions, as the external sponsors of the Hadi government, and Saudi Arabia at the top of that list, are busy with their own domestic issues and cannot pay much attention to Yemen. There has been a noticeable drop-off in the intensity of airstrikes, for example, which has afforded the Houthis the opportunity to deploy both mobile units with light weapons and various armoured vehicles.
There is no doubt that the Houthi command is intent on capturing Marib, coordinating its campaign on the city on three fronts at once. At the same time, the main defenders of Marib are the militias of local Sunni tribes, who do not want to see a Houthi victory, but would likely be willing to work towards a compromise with Ansar Allah in order to avoid suffering endless losses. All the more so because the official armed forces exist primarily on paper and include the names of many phantom soldiers whose wages are divvied up among the commanding officers. The shortage of experienced higher-ranking personnel – a consequence of the fact that many officers do not want to cooperate with Hadi or al-Islah – has also proved detrimental to the combat capabilities of the government forces.
If the Houthis are able to capture Marib, then they will have control over almost all of northern Yemen, which will seriously weaken the positions of President Hadi. And this will open the door for further offensives in the south of the country, particularly the oil-rich Shabwah and Hadhramaut governorates, further down the line. Given the problems in southern Yemen (which we will expand upon below), the Battle for Marib may be seen as a turning point in the war.
While the coronavirus may not directly affect the military and political situation in Yemen, its economic consequences could be catastrophic for the country. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise even before the pandemic hit. According to the World Bank, between 71 and 78 per cent of the Yemeni population were living below the poverty line in 2019. And the looming global financial crisis only promises to make things worse.
For example, a global drop-off in energy prices and demand will hit government revenues, as the government had planned to increase oil production to 110,000 barrels per day and expand its exports of liquefied natural gas by the end of 2019. And energy exports accounted for approximately one-third of the country’s budget revenues in 2019. At the same time, there is a very real risk that Saudi Arabia could cut subsidies to the Yemeni government, which will greatly affect its ability to purchase food and other essential goods. Overdue wages to government officials and other state employees threaten to collapse the already weak public sector.
One of the most dangerous consequences of the coronavirus crisis has been the disappearance of remittances from abroad, as the lock-down measures introduced in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have crippled the ability of Yemeni migrant workers to make a living. What makes this situation worse is the fact that remittances are a key source of currency for the country as a whole and a means of survival for many Yemenis. In 2014, money transfers from abroad brought approximately $3.5 billion into the country, which is almost equal to the entire revenue side of the national budget.
Observers have also noted that a kind of conflict economy has emerged in Yemen that has paved the way for certain structures and people involved in the import of fuel and other vital goods to line their pockets, while others make money by redistributing humanitarian aid. The worse the situation is, the more these structures thrive, so they will continue to sabotage any attempts to restore normal economic life in the country.
Yemen is staring not only at a crisis, but at a complete economic collapse, with the paralysis of all public services, a new surge in unemployment, hunger and a fuel crisis brought about by the curtailment of imports.
The Mutinous South Has Risen Again
In addition to the onslaught of the Houthis and the collapse of the economy, the government also has to deal with the increasing fragmentation of the country. Less than six months after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, which was supposed to put an end to the separatist movement in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (more commonly known as South Yemen), the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has returned to its secessionist roots. On April 26, 2020, the STC announced it would establish self-rule in the south of the country, which should be understood first and foremost as a refusal to even formally submit to the Hadi government.
Observers see this step as a sign of worsening relations between the STC and Saudi Arabia, which had taken measures in the months prior to weaken former proxies of the United Arab Emirates. After the latter withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, it was the Saudis who were stuck with the task of integrating the STC, a staunch supporter of the UAE, into the state structures and ensuring that the militia forces of the southern regions were receiving money and supplies on a regular basis. Instead, they put the STC on short rations in the hope, it would seem, that the soldiers who were no longer getting paid would defect to units controlled by the government. Evidently, the STC decided not to wait for this to happen and went all-in while it still had control of Aden and serious military capabilities.
Riyadh’s Difficult Position
By early May, Saudi Arabia, as the main sponsor of the Hadi government, was facing a number of challenges. On the one hand, there was increasing military pressure from the Houthis, who were threatening to take Marib Governorate. Because the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces are so weak, the Saudis may have to increase their military activity in Yemen, a move that would be fraught with casualties and cause grave damage to the country’s reputation. At the same time, there is a risk that an armed confrontation with the STC could flare up in the south, most likely in Aden, where there is a small Saudi contingent guarding the Central Bank of Yemen building.
Saudi Arabia is effectively at an impasse. Riyadh can, if it so chooses, continue with a very costly war, thus creating a situation of controlled chaos. But it is a war that Riyadh cannot win in the short or medium term. In light of the coronavirus crisis, which will soon force a number of countries in the region to reassess their priorities and scale back their foreign policy ambitions, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia could step away from the war entirely. Admittedly, it may take a few more painful military defeats for this to happen.
Expectations and Reality
By May 2020, the position of the internationally recognized government and its external sponsors had become almost untenable. Nor do the dynamics of the regional cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in many ways dictate developments in Yemen, inspire optimism. While Riyadh appears jaded by the protracted war, Tehran, despite the coronavirus and despite the economic difficulties it is experiencing, is ready to continue an active policy and support its partners in the region.
Under the circumstances, it is extremely difficult to try and make any forecasts. That said, all of the above circumstances point to two likely scenarios. If Riyadh adopts a pragmatic position, then we can expect a substantive dialogue with the Houthis, which will lead to an honourable peace or a fairly long-term ceasefire. That is the first scenario. Under the second scenario, Saudi Arabia doubles down and fierce battles rage throughout the year, potentially leading to the death of the Hadi government and the ultimate collapse of Yemen.
From our partner RIAC
China Gains Political Clout in the Middle East at the expense of the US’s Indispensability
There is yet another détente in the Middle East, but it is neither between Israel and Arabs nor has the United States of America (USA) played an intermediary. For a change, Saudi Arabia and its archrival across the Persian Gulf, Iran, have agreed to resume bilateral ties severed since the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and in a rather surprising first, the peacemaker happens to be China. Auspiciously for Beijing, it was uniquely placed to broker a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran given its cordial relations with both countries — a feature that the “indispensable” USA lacked owing to its longstanding animosity with Iran.
Since the exponential rise in the significance of the Middle East owing to the discovery of oil, the USA has been an “indispensable” power player in the region. However, discernably fatigued by the decades-long military engagements in the region and adapting to a transformed global geostrategic environment, Washington underwent retrenchment from the Middle East in a bid to reorient its priorities to Asia-Pacific to counter China’s growing clout and recently towards Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, thanks to their lofty economic and technological ambitions, the gulf countries have been making overtures to China to further expand their already multifaceted relationship — a trend expedited by the frosty relations between the Biden Administration and some of the Arab monarchs.
During the past few decades, China made steady inroads into the Middle East under the garb of geo-economics. Beijing is the largest trading and investment partner of the Middle Eastern nations and buys more oil from the region than any other country. Furthermore, almost all the Middle Eastern countries have signed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and as the Arab Monarchs aim to diversify their economies away from dependence on oil revenues, they are heavily counting on China for crucial investments and technological upgradations.
The growing economic influence did yield China significant political clout in the Middle East but until recently, Beijing has been cautiously reticent to publicly venture into the political arena. Nevertheless, it has gradually been propounding itself as a standard-bearer of United Nations (UN) principles and a proponent of win-win cooperation with reiterated stress on “dialogue and diplomacy” to settle disputes. The mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the first employment of “dialogue and diplomacy” entirely sponsored by China. Reportedly, Saudis — skeptical of Iran — only accepted the deal after China signed as a guarantor, and economically debilitated Iran participated in the dialogue without preconditions after being granted immediate financial concessions besides the previous pledge of grandiose economic partnership. Needless to mention that Beijing is leveraging its economic clout to influence political happenings and more importantly, is no longer doing it behind closed doors; rather is advertising it as a momentous achievement of its diplomacy.
In the larger Chinese scheme of geo-economics outlined via BRI, the Middle East is among the most important geographical spheres, wherein it eyes grand investments in infrastructure, energy and technology. The acrimonious Saudi-Iran rivalry undermined China’s economic ambitions in the region and by brokering the détente, China aims to achieve not only its economic goals but has also announced itself as an influential political player in the region — an alternative to the “indispensable” USA.
Even though American officials welcomed the Saudi-Iran détente and have reportedly scoffed at the suggestion that the US influence in the Middle East is declining, in a zero-sum interplay between great powers, one side’s gain is always the loss of the other side. With the USA already engaged in bitter competition with China in economic, technological, and military spheres, diplomacy is just another frontline where Washington faces a supercharged Beijing vying to carve out its share of international diplomacy — previously dominated by the USA. Saudi Arabia and Iran resuming ties at Chinese mediation — while the “indispensable” USA spectated from the sidelines — bears evidence to the scale of Beijing’s political influence over Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular and all over the Middle East in general.
In addition, the diplomatic coup provides a clue about China’s political ambitions, which are not confined just to the Middle East. China — with frequent references to the UN charter and stress on diplomacy — has been trying to pitch itself as a peacemaker in various troubled zones. Just weeks before the Saudi-Iran mediation, China rolled out a 12-point position paper to bring an end to the hostilities in Ukraine. Although the plan did not receive a warm reception in the West, the message from Beijing couldn’t be less ambiguous: China is no longer reticent to shoulder political responsibilities and seeks to play a global political role by applying “Chinese wisdom”.
The bid to play as a mediator in conflicts stems from the view in Beijing that in contrast to the USA — involved directly or indirectly in conflicts, such as in the Middle East and Ukraine — China has stayed neutral and is, therefore, best suited to play the role of an intermediary. It is yet to be seen how successful Beijing’s push to field itself as a global peacemaker proves in the long haul; nevertheless, the USA’s indispensability, lately circumscribed to the diplomatic arena, has essentially been dispensed with.
This Distant Damascus
For the last 12 years, the war in Syria has been raging on. March 15, 2011 is considered to be the starting date of the conflict. At that time, the Syrian Republic was overwhelmed by mass protests following the havoc brought by the Arab Spring. As a result, a political crisis escalated into violent clashes, bringing external forces into the mix. Turkey, in particular, has been supporting the Syrian opposition. Initially, it was also supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Despite the cessation of large-scale hostilities, we cannot say that the Syrian conflict is frozen. There are still some clashes in the country, including those involving foreign countries.
The Syrian government now controls approximately 65% of the territory. Most of the northeastern governorates of Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, and the northern parts of Deir ez-Zor are controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting mainly of Kurdish militias. Part of Idlib is occupied by the radical Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham movement (outlawed in the Russian Federation). A number of areas in Aleppo, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah and Idlib are under the de facto protectorate of Ankara, which was established as a result of Turkish military operations: “Euphrates Shield”, “Olive Branch” and “Source of Peace”.
Syria is still a hotbed of terrorism. The posing extremist threat reached its peak in 2015, when ISIS (outlawed in the Russian Federation) seized numerous major cities. Although the organization’s main forces have been defeated, there are still sleeper cells in the Syrian desert. According to the UN, there are between 6,000 and 10,000 ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq, not counting the present representatives from other organizations. Additionally, there are thousands of terrorists in Syrian prisons (including those controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces), which are becoming breeding grounds for jihadist ideas.
Moreover, the risk of escalation between individual countries still remains. There is a U.S. military base, Al-Tanf, in the southeastern province of Homs, along the Iraq-Jordan-Syria border. Syria can also be described as a Russian stronghold in the Middle East. In 2015, Russia launched a military operation against ISIS after Damascus appealed to Moscow for help. The Russian Hemeimeem air base and the Russian Tartus naval base are both located in Syria. Iran also has significantly increased its presence in recent years. Turkey constantly warns about the possibility of launching another military operation in northern Syria against Kurdish militias.
With all things considered, the risk that tensions between Moscow and Washington may spillover into Syria remains high. However, the Syrian crisis may also demonstrate that Russia and the United States can find common ground even amid the difficult situation over Ukraine.
Another problem is Syria’s severe humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line. In 2022, the international organization allocated only 47% of the amount needed to implement humanitarian programs. Fuel shortages and high food prices are only exacerbating the existing humanitarian problems. This situation is further compounded by even more serious economic difficulties. The conflict is encouraging the expanding informal economy to play a major role in Syria due to high levels of corruption. The country’s civilian infrastructure has not yet been restored, and the sanctions imposed on Damascus by the United States and the EU in particular are hampering economic recovery.
Until 2022, a number of Russian companies were reasonably worried about doing business in Syria because of the risk of Western sanctions. However, now that many of the concerned organizations have fallen under the same sanctions themselves, the importance of this factor has diminished and Russia can expand its presence in Syria. This would allow Syria, a key ally of Russia in the Middle East, to manage its difficulties better.
The war in Syria has shown that a military solution to the conflict is doomed to fail, and establishing political peace seems almost the only probable way to resolve the conflict. However, the unresolved Kurdish issue remains one of the main stumbling blocks to a real settlement. The northeastern parts of Syria controlled by the SDF are demanding greater political and economic autonomy.
No progress can be made without an agreement between the government in Damascus and the Syrian Kurds on the post-war settlement of the country. The government’s willingness to find a compromise that takes into account the interests of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria could help resolve the crisis. The experience of Iraq, where the Kurds have been granted fairly extensive autonomy, could serve as an example of a successful solution to a similar problem.
Russia could act as a mediator between the Syrian government and the Kurds. Also, Moscow can guarantee the implementation of political agreements between the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. However, much of this will depend on Damascus’ flexibility and the Syrian political system’s desire for reforms.
From our partner RIAC
Making Sense of Iran’s De-escalation with Saudi Arabia
On March 10, 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement to resume diplomatic ties which had been severed for the last seven years triggered by the killing of a prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the latter. The agreement has been gaining special attention all over the world since two powers competing to gain strategic dominance in West Asia have agreed to come to terms, and even more so because of the agreement being brokered by a third country China which has gotten a step closer to deepening its presence in the region. However, this article intends to narrowly focus on the plausible reasons that led the Iranian regime to agree to reach this agreement.
Cementing Severed Diplomatic Ties
Following the visit of President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani visited Beijing on March 6, 2023, and had four days of intense discussions with his counterpart Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser Musaid Al Aiban to settle issues between their countries. This agreement, though as unusual an event it may be, is not very surprising after all. In his first speech after winning the elections, the incumbent President of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, stated that he is willing to restart diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and improve trade with neighbours under the policy of ‘Neighbourliness’.
However, it is not unusual in Iranian politics to say one something about its foreign policy approach without been meaning to do it. Moreover, the first round of talks started back in Hassan Rouhani’s term. Therefore, it would be unwise to give more credit than necessary to President Raisi’s policy of ‘Neighbourliness’. It is also important to notice that before Beijing came into the picture, Oman and Iraq were mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia and they had had five round of talks in Baghdad from 2021 to 2022 with no concrete result. The fast-changing regional dynamics and Iran’s internal situation have arguably played a key role in instrumentalising the agreement in March 2023.
Countering Regional Grouping
Given the fact that it is running proxy wars and supporting rebel groups in the region, Iran does not have many trusted allies in the region. There is an extent to which it can have sour relations with countries particularly in the neighbourhood since it may give rise to a regional grouping of countries against Iran. Post the signing of Abraham Accord, countries like Bahrain and UAE have already begun the process of normalising relations with Israel. Furthermore, backchannel talks have already been going between Saudi Arabia and Israel facilitated by the USA. Therefore, de-escalation with Saudi Arabia was in favour of Iran in the present especially because it would help undercut Israel’s efforts to isolate Iran in the region. In the light of these developments, Iran’s willingness to ease its years long rivalry with Saudi Arabia can also be seen as a policy of strategic hedging where Iran prepares for the worst by balancing Saudi Arabia by maintaining a strong military presence in the region but does not close itself from gaining whatever it can through constructive engagement.
Countering Internal Distress
Post the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in September 2022 in the custody of the Morality Police (Gasht-e Irshad), the anti-hijab protests raised some serious concerns for the regime. Although the protests have waned in recent weeks due to the brutal crackdown by the clerical regime, but even they have entirely died down. However, the protests that erupted were against the draconian hijab law but were not limited to it. They were also in response to rising inflation, high unemployment, corruption, lack of opportunities due to country’s isolation among others.
The anti-hijab protest draws inspiration from a series of protests which have marked the history of the clerical regime. Many Iranians, particularly the younger population, have been raising their voice against the use of country’s wealth to fund proxy wars in the region rather than using it for their own welfare. The slogan “Neither for Gaza nor for Lebanon; my soul is sacrificed for Iran” can be heard in every protest since the Green Movement of 2009. The ruling dispensation had not witnessed such a big protest since 2009. This may have brought to light the deep-seated unsatisfaction among the population which cannot go unaddressed for long. But to alleviate the economic hardships of its citizens, the government must have money in its disposal to fix the economy and to generate employment.
Saudi Arabia: A Potential Investor
Keeping in mind the sanctions put in place by the USA, the Iranian regime has been having a hard time getting investment into the country. If this agreement works out, the Iranians will be able to reduce their expenditure that they have been bearing for years for fighting proxy wars in the region. The Saudis are supporting the Yemeni government recognised by the United Nations whereas the Iranians are backing the Houthi rebels. By coming to an agreement with the Saudis about the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Iranians can save a lot of money and resources which can be diverted to strengthen their internal situation in the country. Moreover, Iran may also have a potential investor on their table.
Under the crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman, the diversification project, revolving around the aspirational document ‘Vision 2030’ has gained a momentum in order to decrease their reliance on oil as a means of state revenue. Therefore, the Saudis are looking forward for different ventures to invest. Given the low wage labour cost due to US sanctions, Iran could be a favourable investing site for the Saudis. In light of recent discovery of large reserves of lithium in Iran, 10 percent of the world’s total, rapprochement with Saudi may help in securing foreign investment and technology since energy and infrastructure costs are high for Iran to do it on its own and due to sanctions, Iran is unlikely to get big investors other than China and Russia. However, trade and tanks seldom go together. For getting Saudi Arabia to invest in Iran, de-escalation had to happen before in Yemen.
Through this agreement, the Iranian regime aims to strengthen its regional security through engaging with a strong neighbour to prevent a regional grouping against itself. Moreover, the regime is also trying to win the confidence of its aggrieved citizens by showcasing itself as responsible and pragmatic. The official statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that the agreement shows “determination of Iranian government to protect the interest of the Iranian people and Muslim, friendly and neighbouring countries” which was hailed by Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the government backed news channel in Iran. Some other conservative media outlets focused more on how this agreement signals the defeat of USA and Israel. As much as the Iranian regime may hail it in the media, one must be cautious while overestimating the outcomes of the agreement. Through supporting Houthis in Yemen, Iran has been able to build significant influence in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula and it looks uncertain if it would abandon it. The agreement may reduce tension in the region; however, it is unlikely to settle profound differences between them in the foreseeable future.
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