From the Heart of Ancient Arabia to a Battlefield


“Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world” – UN

 Behind this statement, there is a whole world to discover and understand. The ongoing conflicts in Yemen, which are completely devastating the country especially in the last decade, have deeply rooted origins. It is not only about political reasons or land interest but social and religious differences which instead of merging, they came into conflict. Yemen has always been a separated and harshly contended country, within its population, the middle-east surrounding countries enacting a proxy war, and all the western powers, which colonized and deeply interfere in the politics and outcomes of the country. That is why the conflict in Yemen is a story and a war of global involvement.

Until 1990, when Yemen became a Republic, the country was divided in two. The North was part of the Ottoman Empire since the 19th century, while the Southern part was under the influence of the British since 1839. In 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, North Yemen became an independent republic while the South stayed under the control of the UK.

In 1978, when ‘Ali ‘Abd Allah Saleh, became the first President of the North independent Republic, troubles started to raise.                                           

What is interesting to observe, is how some very rooted beliefs and values of a population could be at the origins of a discordance.   

The population of the North, mainly located in the actual province Saada, was composed of followers of Zaidiyyah, which follows a different branch from the Twelver Shia Islam (dominant practice in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon).

Zaidis take their name from Zaid ibn’ Ali, the grandson of Husayn ibn’ Ali and the son of their fourth Imam Ali ibn’ Husain. This makes us understand how the conflict with President Saleh, starts from here, in the roots of Zaidis. Zaid ibn’ Ali is known and proclaimed as a leader who fought against a corrupt regime, passing the message to his follower that is a religious duty to fight against unjust rulers.

After this brief description of what is going to become the so-called Houthi movement, a bitter relationship with President Saleh, started when in the early ’80s, accepted and sustained the installment of Salafi institutes in the North of Yemen. Zaidis felt marginalized and decided to give guidance to Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, which founded the Houthi movement in 1992 with the main intention of arousing their religion, culture, and values.

They got their main notoriety during the war in Iraq of 2003 in which the Houthi movement opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. From this moment on, their relationship with President Saleh became extremely dangerous and delicate. The President started criticizing and attacking the Houthis while Hussein Baddreddin al-Houthi defined Saleh as a “US-backed dictator”. A lot of anger and Houthis’ visceral instinct of fighting the corruption brought them to the start of a series of military attacks and the decision to occupy the capital Sanaa. In response to that, Saleh ordered the kill of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, which happened in 2004. After his death, became the leader of the Houthi movement, his brother Abdul Maliki al-Houthi.

Now, what is interesting to analyze are the two powers Iran and Saudi Arabia which officially started taking positions. Iran decided to back up the Houthis, nonetheless the religious differences. But why? Because Saudi Arabia was backing the government.

At the end of 2010, the coalitions established an agreement to stop the war between each other. But in 2011 the explosion of the Arabian Spring triggered a new series of revolts and Saleh was dismissed. ‘Abd Rabbin Mansun Hadi was so proclaimed as the new president of unified Yemen.

Here it is a clear point of situation:

  • Supporters of the ex-President Saleh started rebelling for him to come back to power;
  • An ongoing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both keeping following their independent agendas influencing the various conflicts happening also in Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Important to remember that each of these countries is supporting a respective faction in Yemen. Iran supporting the Houthis as said above, Saudi Arabia sustaining the Government of Yemen, Qatar the Yemeni Congregation for Reform and the United Arab Emirates the Sothern Transitional Council (STC) and Joint Forces;

  • Meanwhile, the US backing Saudi Arabia and willing to use this situation to attack Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen (AQAP);
  • The Daesh (ISIS ) movement started taking advantage of the socio-political.

 In 2015 some game-changing facts happened. The Houthis tired of the crisis going on from a long time and the threatening Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia and the US decided to ally with is sworn enemy, former President ‘Ali ‘Abd Allah Saleh. He still had military loyalty, which they could have used against the government while this coalition was beneficial for Saleh as it was an occasion to come back to power.

Once the Houthis arrived in Aden, where President Hadi was living, he was forced to leave the country and move to Riyadh, receiving support from the Saudi Arabian government, which formed a coalition to restore the Yemeni government to power. The coalition was composed of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (excluded Oman), Egypt, and Sudan, with the support of the UK and the US (giving millions of dollars worth weapons).

Saudi Arabia started setting up both air and sea blockade. They started bombing with the use of drones and according to the Yemen Data Project, one-third of the targeted strikes where non-military areas, causing the death of thousands of civilians.

These harsh attacks led ex-President Saleh to propose to stop this war. In a TV address, he said: “I call on our brothers in neighboring countries… to stop their aggression and lift the blockade… and we will turn the page” and condemned the Houthis for a “blatant assault” on members of the General People’s Congress. As it is predictable, Houthis did not take well this speech. Just 48 hours later, Saleh was found dead.

Saleh’s death signed the start of new rebellions. His supporter parties started roughly attacking Houthis while at the same time the US kept going on with his attacks against Daesh and Ansar al-Sharia.

Meanwhile, the UAE, Saudi Arabia ally, was maintaining and helping the Major General Aidarus Qassem Abdulaziz al-Zoubaidi, a Yemeni politician and Southern Resistance supreme commander (involved in January 2018 in the Battle of Aden against the Yemeni government). But why? For its oil interest.

All the coalition members just kept going on with their agendas and as reported in a letter dated 27 January 2017 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations” The conflict has seen widespread violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict”.

This never-ending and continuously game-changing wars going on in Yemen affected and caused irreparable damages.

Oil, terrorism, territory interest, and will of supremacy of one over the others is what brought to become, according to the World Bank Ranking, one of the poorest countries of the whole Arabic World.

In the “Yemen: 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview” published by the UN on the 14th of February 2019, (and reconfirmed also in 2020 update), it has been reported that: “An estimated 80 percent of the population – 24 million people – require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need”.

Yemen turned into a battlefield and hunger is not the only problem: the lack of clean drinkable water. Sanitization of the water and accessibility is something for which humanitarian organizations are fighting for years. Limited water has been a direct cause of death for a long time now and in many ways. It “helped” on the process of cholera which outbroke in 2016, and the ongoing pandemic of coronavirus.                                                             

Another very important point to analyze is the strong addiction of Yemenis to the qat, which is a flowering plant and it causes euphoria, gives energy, and loss of appetite. As reported in the article “The drug that is starving Yemen” by the Economist: “Men spend far more feeding their addiction than their families” and also “Cultivation of qat is said to be increasing by 12% a year”.

Since the trigger of the Arab Spring, the UN is still trying to help, create initiatives, and spread awareness about the Yemeni situation. In these last years is finding help from other local peacebuilding organizations. Even though to act in a country in which there is not a unique hegemony and sphere of influence is complicated.

St John Simpson, Curator of the British Museum and responsible for Ancient Arabia and Ancient Iran, referring to the Yemeni situation says: “It’s seen a population trapped within its borders, with bombing from the air, naval blockade, naval shelling and ground troops. And with conflict, there also comes a cultural impact”.

This statement demonstrates how all the Yemeni inhabitants have been and still are deeply affected by this intrigued mixture of socio-religious-political-economic wars and how it sadly turned from being the “Felix Arabia” to a battlefield.



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