Smoke cloud over Sanaa after an airstrike.

Yemen and the Biden administration
"After the war, Yemen will no longer be a sovereign state"

At the beginning of his term, U.S. President Joe Biden said the war in Yemen must end because it had led to a "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe". Yet, according to Said AIDailami, the war continues with unabated feroctiy because the warring parties have not yet achieved their political and economic goals. Interview for Qantara.de by Claudia Mende

Mr AlDailami, the new administration in the USA announced its intention to end the war in Yemen. Are there any signs of imminent peace? 

Said AIDailami: Biden's inauguration has had little impact on the situation in Yemen. Although the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is no longer as close under the Democrats as it was under Trump, it is still business as usual. The halt in arms shipments to Saudi Arabia was only imposed to review the fine print. The resumption of arms deals was only a matter of time.  

The basic constellation won’t change much. The tripartite alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel will continue to enjoy American support in the Middle East. For Yemen, this means the war will continue until the warring parties have achieved their political, geostrategic and economic goals. We are returning to "under the table" support, as was successfully practiced in the decades before Trump.  

Why?  

AIDailami: Because the UAE and Saudi Arabia have clearly chosen the anti-Iran camp in the power struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. Anyone who takes a stand against Iran is welcomed by the U.S. into the anti-Iran alliance with open arms and can basically count on full support from the States. Regardless of who is now in power in Washington, for the USA Iran remains the number one arch-enemy in the region.  

The U.S. relationship with the Gulf states is also about economic interests. This applies not only to armaments, but also to gigantic investment projects such as the newly emerging ecological showcase city of Neom. Here, the two Gulf states are beckoning with projects worth billions that no Western state can resist. Biden has also approved the sale of fighter jets to the UAE, which was agreed before he took office.  

Houthi rebels in Sanaa (photo: Getty Images/AFP/M.Huwais)
With Iranian support, the Houthis are retaliating for 30 years of deprivation under the Salih government. They want power in Yemen but have neither suitable personnel nor a clear strategy. "The Houthis bring a bizarre understanding of Islam that is alien to the plural Islam that has been practiced in Yemen for centuries," says Said AlDailami in an interview with Claudia Mende. "This crude influence is at least as tragic and worrying as the war itself. With each additional day of Houthi rule in Sanaa, it becomes increasingly difficult to rid young people of these radical thoughts"

In Tehran’s interests 

What role is Iran really playing in Yemen?  

AIDailami: The Yemen conflict proved a good opportunity for Iran to stand up to the Saudis along one of the latter's borders. When the Houthis found themselves with their backs to the wall in the face of Saudi Arabia's military superiority in 2015, they gratefully accepted the offer of support from Tehran.  

Contact between the Houthis and Iran existed even before the war. There were visits by senior clerics from Yemen to Iran, scholarships were regularly awarded to Yemeni students and charitable projects were funded in the country.   

So, the spread of Iranian influence has been gradual?  

AIDailami: Yes, since the beginning of the 2000s and it gained significant momentum with the Saudi war from March 2015. The Saudi military alliance's war against Yemen, which violated international law, once again offered Iran the opportunity to side with an "oppressed Arab people". For the Houthis, this help came in handy, as they were largely isolated at the beginning of the war. North Yemen, which is predominantly controlled by the Houthis, is likely to maintain and further develop a strategic alliance with Iran even after a possible end to the war. 

What would have to happen to defuse this conflict?  

AIDailami: The problem is that the Yemenis have become stooges of external powers. On the one hand, there is the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, which is based in Riyadh and tries to run the affairs of state largely from exile: it is nothing but a puppet of the Saudis. The appointment and dismissal of ministers, the major projects in southern Yemen, the exploitation of Socotra Island, the laying of Saudi pipelines through Yemen: everything is controlled by Riyadh, and the Yemeni government-in-exile rubber-stamps every project. The same applies to the UAE, which is also able to implement its strategic projects in Yemen, e.g., on the island of Perim and in the port city of Aden, with the approval of the government in exile. 

A refugee camp north of Marib (photo: Nabil Alawzari/AFP/Getty Images)
It is primarily the civilian population that is suffering in the Yemen war, as here in a refugee camp north of the city of Marib. Why, then, is it not possible to bring peace to this terrible conflict, as Joe Biden announced when he took office? "The war will continue until the warring parties have achieved their political, geostrategic and economic goals," says Yemen expert Said AlDailami. "The basic constellation will not change much. The tripartite alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel will continue to enjoy U.S. support in the Middle East"

On the other hand, there is the Houthis' strategic alliance with Iran. They are dependent on Iran because it supplies them with funding and weapons parts; Hezbollah fighters support them with advice and action on the numerous fronts in the country.  

The war can only end if the regional powers involved, above all Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, hold talks and agree on how they want to divide the cake among themselves. The sovereignty of the Yemeni state territory is currently no longer given.

"After the war, Yemen will no longer be a sovereign state" 

Does this mean that Yemen as a country is no longer capable of action?  

AIDailami: Yemen will no longer be a sovereign state after this war. It will be divided into at least two, if not three parts. The north will then be dependent on Iran, the south and parts of eastern Yemen will be remotely controlled by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Acknowledging this reality may bring us closer to a solution. 

The initiators and warmongers in this conflict are to be found outside Yemen. Saudis and the UAE get most of their weapons from the West. The supply of arms must be stopped immediately.  

Nevertheless, despite the war being in its seventh year, the Saudis have not managed to achieve their goals. Why not?  

AIDailami: Militarily, such asymmetrical wars cannot be won against home-grown militias. We have seen that in Afghanistan. But that is only the military side of the coin. There is also an economic and geostrategic side to this devastating war: neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis are interested in ending this war.

 

Under the guise of fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates can continue to pursue their actual ambitions: control over the Bab el Mandeb strait and the offshore islands.  

The Emirates, which see themselves as a future maritime power in the Middle East, are particularly interested in the latter. Saudi Arabia can push ahead with its pipeline projects and show the world that it has a ready army capable of military operations in the region: yet all this takes time. The approximately 250,00 victims, the suffering and the rampant famine in Yemen are subordinate to these aims. 

What role do the Houthis play in the conflict?  

AIDailami: They come from a marginalised region in the north of the former North Yemen. Now they are taking revenge for 30 years of discrimination under the Salih government. They want power but have neither suitable personnel nor a clear strategy. That is why there is now a lot of anarchy in Sanaa, because the Houthis are not capable of running a sensible government. 

Said AlDailami (photo: private)
Said AlDailami was born in 1978 in Sanaa, Yemen, and came to Germany with his family as a child in political exile. He holds a doctorate in social science and is the author of "Yemen: The Forgotten War", published in German by C.H. Beck. From 2014 to 2020, he headed the office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Tunis. Today he works at the foundation's headquarters in Munich

The Houthis introduce Islam à la Iran 

In northern Yemen, the Houthis are not particularly popular because they are increasingly restricting people's freedom. They have introduced gender segregation from the first year of school. Women are only allowed to appear in public spaces to a limited extent, and a kind of morality police à la Iran now controls public spaces. 

They bring with them a bizarre understanding of Islam that is alien to the plural Islam that has been practiced in Yemen for centuries. This crude influence is at least as tragic and worrying as the war itself. With each additional day of Houthi rule in Sanaa, it becomes increasingly difficult to rid young people of these radical thoughts.

The country is gradually losing the much-appreciated warmth, plurality and openness of its people that used to fascinate many visitors to Yemen. The brutalisation of this Yemeni social culture is another major damage and a direct consequence of this terrible war.

The Emirates have finally pulled out of the war. Was the political price too high for them?  

AIDailami: Officially, the UAE has pulled out, but they have long had their allies on the ground and are pulling strings behind the scenes. According to estimates, the UAE maintains an army in the south of Yemen that is more than 70,000 strong.  

Saudi Arabia is a different story. Politically, on-the-ground deployment is still worthwhile for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He can score foreign policy points and say that he has stood up to Iran, which is a winning argument in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, his charm offensive is on the rise: women have been allowed to drive since 2018 under certain conditions, parties and concerts have been permitted.  

Are there any actors in Yemen itself who could contribute to reconciliation?  

AIDailami: Only a few; the fronts are hardened. The political parties that traditionally shaped the political picture in Yemen are at odds with each other. Now, no one is advocating an overall solution because the gap between North and South Yemen has become so wide that there is no longer a common denominator to build on.   

The old poles of power from before 2011 – Saleh and the tribal leaders – were swept away by the revolution (Arab Spring); the current balance of power has not yet been finally clarified. Everyone is fighting for influence and legitimacy. Today, there are no actors in the country with a social base in Yemen. Apart from the external warlords, there are no influential actors left. The repressive political climate in both parts of the country (North and South Yemen) and the devastating humanitarian situation in the country have decimated the role of civil society.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende 

© Qantara.de 2021 

Said AlDailami was born in 1978 in Sanaa, Yemen, and came to Germany with his family as a child in political exile. He holds a doctorate in social science and is the author of "Yemen: The Forgotten War", published in German by C.H. Beck.

From 2014 to 2020, he headed the office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Tunis. Today he works at the foundation's headquarters in Munich.

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