In the past month, both the United States and Germany have grudgingly supported Saudi Arabia in their struggle against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although Western leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel have promised to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, they have continued to approve weapons deliveries.
Why do the US and its allies find it so hard to stop weapons deliveries to the Saudi coalition? A major factor is money. War is a big business, and the US alone stands to lose $2 billion in sales if it were to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Fighting in favor of an internationally recognized government, Saudi Arabia aims to restore the Sunni Muslim government in Yemen. However, another power in the Middle East, Iran, seeks to increase its influence in the area by supporting the Shiite Houthi rebels. The conflict in Yemen is part of a far larger struggle between the regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Trapped in this struggle are many innocent Yemenis, caught in the crossfire between the Saudi Arabian backed government and the Iranian backed Houthi rebels.
The war in Yemen greatly resembles the proxy wars of the 20th century Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. What most proxy wars have in common is that one state supports an unpopular government with massive amounts of money, weapons, and manpower against a popular rebel group receiving less direct support from another, rival state. Saudi Arabia is struggling with Iran for regional dominance in the Middle East, trying to flex their military muscle with their costly war in Yemen.
In order to wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia spent about $70 billion in 2017 expanding, upgrading, and maintaining its vast inventory of US guns, cannons, planes, tanks, and ammunition. The Saudi-led coalition also heavily depends on Western weaponry, making use of German guns, French missiles, Spanish trucks, and English cannons. Without the support of European and North American arms sales, the Saudi coalition would be unable to continue fighting the war with sophisticated Western technology. The delivery of arms to the Saudis and their allies can be used by the US and its allies as leverage in order to halt the fighting in Yemen, and relieve the humanitarian crisis.
The Rise of the Houthis
A Shia Muslim group founded by Hussein al-Houthi, the Houthis came to existence in northern Yemen, mainly in the Saada province, for several reasons. For starters, they were religiously opposed to the corrupt Sunni government of Yemen. They also felt that they were not properly represented in Yemen’s government and did not get a fair share of subsidies. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Houthis fought for political power within the system of the government rather than against it. However in 2004, the Houthis began resorting to violence, battling against government forces.
After the death of Hussein al-Houthi in late 2004, the Houthis were slowly forgiven by the government. However, the Houthis would occasionally resume clashing with the government, and resort to terrorist attacks against Yemenis, as well as tourists.
In 2014, the Houthis would gain support from former President Salih, and resume their fight against government forces. The Houthis would defeat government forces and rival tribes, and capture the capital city of Sanaa by September. The government of Yemen, represented by President Hadi, would flee to the most populated city in Yemen, Aden. The Houthi government in Sanaa would be led by Salih and his political party.
Due to the quick advance of the Houthis towards Aden, the northern Sunni neighbor of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, would lead a coalition to fight the Houthis. In turn, the Iranians would give material support to the Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabian and Iranian Intervention
Saudi Arabia’s coalition includes states such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. Pitted against the Houthis, the modern armies of the coalition are having difficulty re-gaining territory in Yemen.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations
Bordering Yemen, Saudi Arabia has a large interest in keeping the government of Yemen in control of Yemen, and out of the hands of the Iranian backed Houthi rebels. Similar to the situation in 1950’s Korea, Saudi Arabia, like China, will fight hard to keep enemies away from its borders. Instead of committing ground troops to the fight, however, Saudi Arabia has chosen to fight the Houthis with its modern fleet of American F-15s and European Typhoon fighter jets. However, some of the coalition states, such as the United Arab Emirates have committed ground troops to the conflict. Although there are foreign soldiers fighting in Yemen, they are limited in number (only about 1000 Emirati special force soldiers have been deployed to Yemen), and unlikely to have a large impact.
Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival in the Middle East, seeks to gain as much leverage against Saudi Arabia as possible. Iran has been supplying the Houthi rebels with weapons, in the form or assault rifles, machine guns, and explosives. Although armed with less advanced, Western weaponry than the Saudi Arabian coalition, Iranian AKs, .50 caliber machine guns, and RPGs can be used to great effect, such as what had happened in Vietnam. The determined Houthis are bent on establishing an Islamic Republic in Yemen, and give Iran an upper hand in Middle Eastern politics.
Why Are Iran and Saudi Arabia Rivals?
A majority Sunni Muslim nation, Saudi Arabia has major differences with the Shia Muslim Iran. A divide that has existed for centuries, Shia Islam and Sunni Islam differ in how the leader of Islam should be chosen. Shiites believe that only descendants of the founder of Islam, Mohammed, can be leader, while Sunnis believe the leader does not have to belong to Mohammed’s bloodline.
Beyond differences in religion, Iran and Saudi Arabia have competing regimes types: the Iranian theocracy versus the Saudi monarchy. The people and the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia are at an ideological impasse, resembling the one between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 20th century.
The rivalry began in 1979, after Iran’s revolution placed a religious Supreme Leader in power. After the Arab Spring, in which protesters in the Middle East and North Africa demanded reform in government, Saudi Arabia and Iran sought to expand its influence in the countries going through this upheaval. Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals, competing for regional dominance and control, aiming to spread their ideologies.
Ending the War
The US and its European allies play a major role in supporting Saudi Arabia and its coalition by providing the weapons they need to wage war. Similarly, Western sanctions have had a crippling effect the Iranian economy. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran heavily depend on Western nations economically.
The West has enough political economic power to stop the bloodshed in Yemen. If the United States and its allies are interested in saving the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Yemenis, they can threaten to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and offer to remove sanctions on Iran. The United States and its allies, through threats and promises, have the power to remove international forces from intervening in Yemen.
However, to form a stable government in Yemen, the fighting between the Houthis and the government must end. Afterwards, a new government must take place of the old Yemeni government, with sanctions to prevent a regime reliant on foreign aid. Internationally monitored, free and fair elections must be held in order to give legitimacy to the new government.
Furthermore, the Houthis must gain representation in Yemen’s government. The government of Yemen must give amnesty to the Houthis so they can more easily forgive and forget this marred part of Yemen’s history. The Houthis must be able to form a political party in order to get representation within the system. Although this may not solve the poverty in Yemen, it may be one step towards a lasting peace.
Pressuring both Saudi Arabia (and its coalition) and Iran to halt support of either side in Yemen would be a hard choice to make, but one that would save countless innocent Yemenis. While it would cost Western nations billions of dollars, it could save tens of thousands of lives and help stem the increase of refugees coming from Yemen. The United States and its allies must bring foreign powers out of Yemen, in order to promote the formation of a new democratically elected government.
Featured Image Source: Associated Press