The Arabian Peninsula is going through a chaotic transition since the American invasion of Iraq. During the last two decades, the strategic culture of the Middle East witnessed twofold transition. The first fold has been reflected in the form of controlling and toppling of regimes through foreign interventions, specifically the American series of interventions. The second fold that has almost become a dominant part of the Middle Eastern strategic culture is proxy warfare. In fact, proxy warfare is the new reality of the said region. The epicenters of this proxy warfare are Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Great powers like the US and Russia, regional players such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel etc. and some corporations have redefined the security architecture, strategic choices and political culture of the region. This redefining of security architecture began to emerge after the so-called Arab Spring.
Among these, the volatility of the Yemen crisis needs special attention as the war and its effects have only increased manifolds, and its spillover is affecting the whole region. The crisis emerged from the ashes of the Arab Spring after 2011 and the Spring’s spillover, coupled with a crippling economy, ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. With Saleh, the country had gone through an anarchic period which eventually resulted in the taking over of power by Mansour Hadi. This political transition aimed at bringing political stability, sadly could not be materialized because of the political vacuum created by a dilapidated economy and militancy that was reigned in Yemen due to the emergence of the Houthi uprising.
On 8th of October, 2016 the Arab coalition’s air bombing on Sanaa resulted in 140 causalities and injuries of five hundred people. Since 2015, at least 7,025 civilians have been killed and 11,140 injured in the fighting with 65% of the deaths attributed to Saudi-led coalition air strikes.
The Houthis of Yemen took over the country’s capital Sanaa and compelled President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia in 2015. It should be remembered that the Houthis belong to the Shia faction of Islam and because of this reason Saudi Arabia has blamed Houthis to be a proxy of Iran against Saudi interests in Yemen. Hence, Saudi Arabia with the help of Sunni states of the region started air strikes on the strongholds of Houthis. On 8th of October, 2016 the Arab coalition’s air bombing on Sanaa resulted in 140 causalities and injuries of five hundred people. Since 2015, at least 7,025 civilians have been killed and 11,140 injured in the fighting with 65% of the deaths attributed to Saudi-led coalition air strikes. An international group tracking the civil war believes the death toll is far higher. The US-based Armed Conflict ‘Location and Event Data Project’ estimates that more than 67,650 civilians and combatants have been killed since January 2016, this data was based on news reports on every incident of violence.
Yemen’s political crisis has turned into a chaotic quagmire and the civil war has taken the shape of the worst humanitarian crisis. According to UN reports, since the war, 8.4 million people became victims of extreme starvation and about 22.2 million were in need of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, approximately half a million children were faced with acute malnutrition and Yemen has three million internally displaced people; the adverse situation persists to date.
Moreover, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Daesh and other militant groups that have made their strongholds in Yemen, serve as the real fodder of the proxy war and add to this anarchic situation. Now, Yemen is looking like an area of extreme crisis, filled with political instability, civil war, terrorist outfits, sectarian clashes, humanitarian crisis, foreign interventions and continuous arms supply. Therefore, either the prevailing of this situation or its worsening, both will have serious security implications for the region. The spillover of Yemen crisis will be regionalized if it is not settled through political means. The probability of regionalization of a spillover from Yemen is extremely high due to Yemen’s geographical location. On one side, it has maritime influence over strategic chokepoints like the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and other parts of the Arabian Sea and on the other, sectarian dimension of prolonged Iran-Saudi rivalry will increase the volatility of the region. Besides, Yemen’s long border with Saudi Arabia is another escalating point as any infiltration inside Saudi Arabia will result in bloodshed on Yemeni soil.
According to UN reports, since the war, 8.4 million people became victims of extreme starvation and about 22.2 million were in need of humanitarian assistance.
If we observe the transitioning behavior of foreign states in Yemen, particularly that of America than it becomes obvious that the derivatives of American influence over the Middle East are also in transition. Previously, specifically post 9/11 Middle East, the derivatives of American influence were its military presence in the region but now the derivatives have reached the use of proxies such as; the banned outfits (AQAP and Daesh) and some other states, to intervene in Yemen. The ground on which proxies are playing is filled with unthinkable numbers of arms and ammunition. Surprisingly, not a single group is running out of arms, in fact, billion-dollars arms deals (like the Saudi-US and Russia-Iran arms deals) have been signed and tonnage of new arms are being supplied through these banned outfits. What does it mean? It means conflicts and disputes will be fought through local proxies rather than direct military presence. Perhaps therefore, the Iran Nuclear Deal has been withdrawn, escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been intensified and the military withdrawal from Syria may be a strategic move in the same backdrop. It is being speculated that this is re-transitioned in order to ensure US relevance and to their maintained influence in the region, specifically in Yemen.
These are the precursors of the new derivatives for foreign powers, specifically for the US. Among these, the epicenter of ignition is Yemen. Now, it is a test for conflict ridden Middle Eastern states, to resolve their issues through political means and diplomatic engagements. And if they let this situation prevail, the flames of the fire will catch them in due course of time.
Khaqan Ahmad has done M.Phil in International Relations from the National Defense University, Islamabad. His areas of expertise are Indo-Pacific region, Middle East, European Affairs, International Political economy, Foreign Policy of USA, China and Russia, Philosophy, Theories of IR and Artificial Intelligence. Currently, he is working as a Research Associate at the CSCR.