Yemen: still no victory for Saudi Arabia

Supporters of the Houthi-led resistance in Sana'a protest against the Saudi bombing of their country

Following increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia, a ceasefire agreement and plans for peace talks brought a pause in the war on the people of Yemen at the end of November 2018.

More than three years into the Saudi-led coalition’s war, the tenacious resistance of its Houthi-led opponents has prevented any decisive progress. Ansar Allah – the Houthi-led movement – still controls most of the country’s populous and strategically important areas. The western media and their opponents continually assert that the movement is funded and armed by Iran – however there is no evidence of this. Attempts by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other coalition partners to defeat the Houthis and reinstall their hand-picked President – Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi – have devastated the country. This war, largely neglected from media and political attention since it began in March 2015, attracted new attention after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is widely held responsible for the killing, and the war in Yemen has also been one of his projects. Khashoggi’s death coincided with an intense assault on the important Yemeni Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. Saudi Arabia’s economic and social crisis, and its fear of a declining role in the region at the expense of rivals such as Iran and Turkey, are at the heart of its drive to war and will not be solved by a ceasefire.

Saudis under pressure

Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October drew the world’s attention to the international crimes of the Saudi government. Initially, diplomatic and media outrage over the killing avoided focus on the Yemen war, but recognition grew that the country’s most brutal crime could not be ignored. On 22 October Austria began a push for an EU ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. On the same day Germany and Norway declared a suspension of sales until Khashoggi’s death was ‘ex­plained’ – no explanation is apparently required for the deaths of an estimated 56,000 Yemenis (The Indepen­dent, 26 October 2018). Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Greece have also suspended sales. These countries, however, sell relatively few weapons to the Gulf states, and such a PR move comes with limited economic consequences. France was Europe’s largest exporter of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2015/16, and French President Macron stated on 26 October his intention to continue arms sales. He argued that there is no link between arms sales and Khashoggi’s death, calling the suspensions ‘populist demagoguery’. In February, a French official had put forward the convoluted argument that weapons being sold to the Gulf states by France ‘weren’t meant to be used’. Britain, Europe’s largest overall arms exporter to Saudi Arabia, also refused to suspend its shipments arguing that its sales complied with all international rules. Massive arms sales to the Gulf states make the war in Yemen possible, and research by Middle East Eye has shown that since the war began Euro­pean countries have sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE worth 55 times the value of the humanitarian aid they have given to Yemen (12 November).

Pressure from the US and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s key allies, came belatedly as the details and consequences of the murder could no longer be downplayed. On 31 October US De­fence Secretary James Mattis called for a ceasefire ‘within 30 days’, and Houthi leaders criticised this as a green light to the UAE and Saudi Arabia for a month-long onslaught on Hodeidah. Fighting in Hodeidah in­tensified with 600 killed in early November. On 10 November the US military announced it would be suspending in-flight refuelling of Saudi planes involved in the war. The following day US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Bin Salman to engage in peace talks. On 13 November British Foreign Secre­tary Jeremy Hunt visited Riyadh for what he described as a ‘frank and difficult’ meeting with Bin Salman in which he pushed for such talks. This led to the Saudi announcement that it would allow 50 injured Houthi fighters to be transported to Oman for medical treatment – a precondition for the Houthis to participate in peace talks. The attack on Hodeidah was halted on 15 November. Britain has been the official ‘penholder’ on Yemen for the UN Security Council, with responsibility for drafting any motions on the war. It has used this role to block earlier calls for a ceasefire. On 19 November, Karen Pierce, Britain’s Ambassador to the UN, finally put forward a resolution calling for a ceasefire and a peace process.

Strategy for starvation

It will take more than a ceasefire to reverse the desperate humanitarian situation in Yemen. The UN World Food Programme announced on 8 Novem­ber that it would be doubling the amount of food aid it provides in the country to cover the needs of 14 million people. Hodeidah is the entry point for more than 80% of Yemen’s imports, and the attack on the city, led by UAE troops trained by Israel, has intensified the crisis. Starvation has been a strategy by the Saudi-led coalition on areas controlled by Ansar Allah. A recent report by the World Peace Foundation* has documented the attacks on food production and distribution by the Saudi-led coalition, concluding that this strategy is a war crime. It argues that the coalition chose military targets in the first six months of the war, when it expected a speedy victory. However, once the strength and popularity of the resistance had been demonstrated, the coalition massively in­creased its airstrikes and shifted to a strategy of targeting civilian sites – particularly those associated with food production.

Protests against the Saudi Arabian and Emirati occupation of Al Mahrah in the east have begun. The region, far from the Houthi-controlled areas, has seen intensifying protests which have been met by live fire from the Saudi military. Protests have prevented the establishment of Saudi military bases and continue to grow.

Regional conflicts

The war in Yemen is an expression of regional fault lines and conflicts which any peace agreement will not be able to resolve. Yemen is strategically crucial to control of the region, due to its location, ports, and population density. The UAE is attempting to secure different objectives from Saudi Arabia, including developing a breakaway region of south Yemen it can control. One of its local partners, the Southern Transitional Council, called for a popular uprising to re-establish the state of South Yemen following protests against the Saudi-backed Hadi government’s handling of the economic and humanitarian crisis (Middle East Eye, 3 October).

Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis, driven by the global crisis of capitalism, is impelling it to expand its access to regional resources and strategic control. Yemen has major oil and gas reserves, as well as important arable land and fisheries. The longstanding Saudi-Iran rivalry is also reflected in the war. Saudi Arabia is keen to secure an oil pipeline through Yemen to the Indian Ocean, which would bypass the Straits of Hormuz and prevent Iranian threats to shipping. However, a war that has cost it around $200m a day for three years has failed to achieve these objectives. Despite the brutal fiasco in Yemen, Saudi Arabia will continue to be good a customer for the world’s major arms manufacturers for some time to come.


Having announced that it was unilaterally pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018, the US imposed sanctions on Iran to coincide with the 5 November anniversary of Iranian students taking 52 US diplomats hostage in the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. President Trump declared that ‘We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction.’ His Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, wrote, ‘Our goal is to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero as fast as possible.’ However, the US granted six-month waivers to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy, Greece and Turkey to buy some Iranian oil. These eight countries account for about 75% of Iran’s oil exports.

The US wants to overthrow the Iranian state or at least seriously weaken it and to remove Iranian influence from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. It says it wants a better nuclear deal.

France said that it would defy the US and go ahead with plans for a special financing channel to keep trade with Iran flowing and that it would seek to boost the role of the euro in international trade to defy US efforts to play the world’s ‘trade policeman’. The European Commis­sion said that it would move to denominate energy supply contracts in euros. Iran relies on oil exports for 80% of its revenues from abroad. China buys a third of Iran’s exports, mainly oil.

The European Union, Russia and China have no interest in seeing the US impose its sanctions unilaterally and successfully on Iran. If the US forces Iran to yield to US demands, it will increase US influence in the Middle East and globally at their expense. If the other countries defy the US, and Iran does not yield to US pressure, US influence will further diminish.

Toby Harbertson

* Martha Mundy, ‘The strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen war: Aerial bombardment and food war’, World Peace Foundation, 9 October 2018.


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