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Located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula lies Yemen, a coastal nation plagued by a war that erupted four years following the Arab Spring in 2011. The Yemeni war has been broadly framed for years by the media as a sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and Shi’a (the two sects of Islam) and, therefore, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran (predominantly Sunni and Shi’a, respectively).
This analysis, however, is an oversimplification of the war on Yemen, emphasized by the recent deal that Saudi and Iran, mediated by Beijing, reached in March 2023. After almost seven years of suspended diplomatic relations, the two nations have agreed to resume their ties. Ironically, media coverage has focused on the restoration of Saudi-Iran relations while underreporting the role both countries have in the Yemeni war. The former deal raises the question of whether the intentions for the war on Yemen were simply a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran or whether there were other foreign objectives.
The Saudi-Iran proxy analysis partially explains what has been happening in Yemen. It largely disregards Yemen’s strategic location and geopolitical significance in the region and, in turn, neglects many nuances ingrained in the conflict. In that sense, Yemen’s strategic advantage and geopolitical significance were crucial aspects of the war on Yemen by Saudi and Iran, on the one hand, and the U.S., China, and their allies, on the other. It is important to not entirely negate the sectarian and proxy factors embedded in the war but to oppose the media’s depiction that it is a war solely fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Mainstream Analysis
In recent years, there is no doubt that Iran has aided the Zaydi Houthis but not to the extent that they are Iran’s puppets. The Houthis follow Zaydism, a branch of Shi’a Islam owing allegiance to Zayd bin Ali, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The Houthis, as an Iranian diplomat put it, “are fiercely independent…they might choose a policy that could backfire on Iran without us having played a role in it. That is dangerous.”
Why has the media framed the war as a solely Saudi-Iranian proxy war? It resulted from Riyadh’s decision to launch “Operation Decisive Storm” against Yemen in 2015, alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and the United States. The coalition publicly stated that their motives were to “return [former Yemeni President] Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to power, crush the Houthi movement, and curb Iranian influence in the country.” The former reasons are not a wholly false portrayal of the coalition’s reasons to attack Yemen. They aimed, on the one hand, to geopolitically secure, and most importantly, to control the influx of global maritime trade. On the other hand, attacking Yemen was a tool for global powers to practice their dominion on the Yemeni land.
That said, Yemen “is cursed by its geography” and fell prey to power-seeking nations aiming to enhance their “naval capabilities by acquiring as many overseas and coastal possessions as possible.” It is, therefore, necessary to thoroughly examine Yemen’s strategic and geopolitical significance to its Gulf neighbours and beyond, which made their intervention in 2015 justified and more appealing. The alliance did not share the same objectives in Yemen, per se, but attacking Yemen and securing its strategic locations fell in each nation’s self-interested agenda.
Yemen’s Strategic Location
Geographically, Yemen is at the crucial intersection of the Red Sea (southeastern end) that connects the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal in Egypt, to the Indian Ocean by the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea is linked to the Indian Ocean through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Its importance drastically increased upon the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, leading to growth in the volume of international maritime trade. Bab al-Mandab is a critical maritime waterway and one of the world’s busiest chokepoints, shared by Yemen and Djibouti on both shores. It has also been made a crucial passage following the beginning of oil flow in the Gulf. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “an estimated 6.2 million barrels of oil and petroleum products flowed through the Strait … daily in 2018,” making up “9% of all maritime transported petroleum.”
Additionally, there are many other reasons that different nations would want to secure the Strait, such as securing U.S. and allied ships that pass through the Suez Canal and stabilizing the economy of Egypt, which highly depends on profits made from the Canal. Therefore, any hostility in Yemen could destabilize the Suez Canal and the daily oil flow through the Red Sea.
Yemen’s strategic location further shows that the war on Yemen is not just between Saudi and Iran, but a geopolitical war between global superpowers and their allies to gain control over Yemen’s strategic locations. The former point has been highlighted through actions and allegations by foreign nations to justify their presence in Yemen. For example, the Yemen U.S. Integrated Country Strategy (ICS), which articulates the “U.S. priorities” in a designated country, alleges that “Yemen’s strategic location along essential maritime routes, its position next to important U.S. allies, and the existence inside Yemen of terrorist threats against the U.S. homeland make stability in Yemen a key U.S. national security interest.” The U.S. iterates this claim to validate its constant support to Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s military attacks in Yemen, and its permanent military presence on the Strait from the Yemeni and the Djibouti shore.
That said, Djibouti, a country that has been made a base for foreign military force bases, shares the Strait with Yemen. In 2017, China established a permanent military base there, following the footsteps of the U.S., Japan, the U.K., and France. This feeds into China’s greater motive for the “Belt and Road,” or the New Silk Road project. China is also securing its trade with the Arab World, which has grown by about 20% per year. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Yemen is crucial for China’s economic and future strategies.
As soon as the Saudi-led coalition attacked Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE quickly extended their control over vital and strategic areas on the Yemeni land, such as the Perim Island (located in the Strait), the port cities of al-Mukha and al-Khawkhah, and Socotra (a Yemeni island in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 340 km off the southeast coast of Yemen). The UAE took control of the former areas in 2015, securing an economic hub on Yemen’s most strategic islands. It was not until 2019 that the UAE substantially removed its forces following a more “diplomatic rather than military” approach in Yemen, despite leaving UAE-trained Yemeni forces alongside Saudi Arabia to take over their former occupied lands.
The mainstream media has constantly portrayed the Yemeni war as a proxy conflict between Saudi and Iran—a distorted understanding. The allied nations that stormed Yemen in 2015 have justified their economic intentions by framing the war solely as a war against the Iranian-backed up Houthis, significantly emphasizing Iran. Many nuances ingrained in the conflict become disregarded, such as foreign countries prioritizing strategic locations in Yemen that mainly offer economic gains. While this has been the case since 2015, the recent deal that Saudi and Iran have reached in Beijing further demonstrates that regional alliances are shifting. The former deal could bring significant changes to the diplomatic and geopolitical objectives of the Yemeni land and, on a global scale, an alteration of the status quo in international affairs with China taking the lead.
Edited by Majeed Malhas