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The War in “Arabia Felix”: Five Years of “Restoring Hope”
On the night of the 25th of March 2015 a multinational coalition consisting of 150,000 people, led by Saudi Arabia, started a devastating war in Yemen.
In the five years of armed conflict, the structure of the Yemeni front has been defined by its mobility, volatility and by the temporary lines between the combatants.

On the night of the 25th of March 2015, under the code name Asifat Al-Hazm (“Decisive Storm”), later changed to operation “Restoring Hope”, a multinational coalition consisting of 150,000 people, led by Saudi Arabia, started a devastating war in Yemen. Its declared purpose was to stop the rebellion of the secessionist group Houthi and restore the leadership of the president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, removed from power after the Houthi militias took over the capital, Sanaa, and the presidential palace. Initially, the coalition led by the Riyadh monarchy was comprised of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and Sudan, and the operation was supported by the USA, Turkey, Senegal, Mauritania, Somalia and Djibouti.

Why?

The conflict between the Houthis and the gerontocratic regime of the Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, was but a resumption of the various conflicts between the factious Shiites in the northern part of the country, at the southern border of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the governing regime. This time, however, the “Decisive Storm” was one of those of the “Arab Spring”, which was the main reason the Saudis decided to take immediate extreme measures and start their military aggression in Yemen.

  • We are first referring to the fact that the operation initiated by the Saudis was conceived as a measure to prevent the “Spring’s” revolutionary flow from reaching the Wahhabi kingdom. To the Saudi monarchy, but also to the other monarchies in the Arabian-Persian Gulf, which orbit, just like satellites, around influential Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring represented a major threat to the survival of the traditional conservative regimes in the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
  • During Abdallah Saleh’s 30-year-old governance, Yemen was led by a consensus between the General People’s Congress, a secular republican party, and by the Islamic movement The Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the “Islah” Party (no longer in the good graces of the Riyadh monarchy) – Jihadism’s spiritual and ideological leader, and supporter of the “dream” to rebuild the Muslim caliphate, which would remove the Saudi monarchy from the self-claimed position of keeper and manager of Islam’s holy grounds and the centre of the global Muslim community.
  • We are finally referring to another element, maybe the most important, which was the needed incentive for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, that is the fact that by being part of the Shia Zaydis – a branch called the Fivers, separated from the Iranian Twelvers, the Houthis benefited ever since the beginning from massive military, logistic and financial support and so on from the theocracy in Tehran. Related to the fierce conflictual competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, this particularity turned the internal Yemeni conflict into a proxy war between two of the greatest regional powers in the Middle East, between two expansions, two Muslim confessions, both as belligerent in the area as well as outside it.

The Present Day

After five years of war, excessive bombings and use of the most sophisticated equipment, and far from restoring legitimacy and hope in the old “Arabia Felix”, the campaign led by Saudi Arabia has caused huge material damages, loss of innocent human lives, cholera, famine, chaos and the change of this country into an “Arabia Infelix”, reduced to a state that the United Nations described as “the most dramatic humanitarian crisis in modern history”.

In opposition to the initial optimism of the attackers, the Houthi rebels seem more dynamic now than in any of the other stages of this civil war, exerting more and more pressure on the Yemeni forces assisted by Saudi Arabia. A Saudi Arabia that lately, more specifically since the end of the month of Ramadan, in June, has been thinking of sensibly getting out of this conundrum, without finding itself in a situation where it has to admit to its political failure and to that of the one who started this war – the belligerent and ambitious royal son, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, nominated on the 21st of June 2017 as the heir to the throne.

Analysts believe that since the beginning of the intervention the coalition hasn’t managed to achieve any of its declared goals, especially “restoring legitimacy” by reinstating the official government of the president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, overthrown by the Houthi rebels in September 2014, a failure caused mostly by the erosion and break-up of the initial coalition. The first split that affected the unity of this alliance took place in June 2017, when, as a result of its conflicts with the Saudi monarchy, Qatar was expelled – by Saudi veto – from the Gulf Cooperation Council and from the expeditionary coalition. Almost 1000 Qatari soldiers were withdrawn from the front, as well as their weapons and equipment. In October 2019, the Sudanese interim government announced its withdrawal from the alliance. In the beginning of 2020, out of the 40,000 Sudanese soldiers mobilised in 2015, only 657 were left, in case of need. The United Arab Emirates followed suit; they had engaged the 15,000 men in arms only to achieve their own purpose – that of maintaining a permanent presence in the island of Socotra and supporting the Yemeni armed forces in Aden that fight to restore the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Under such circumstances, and despite several failures of the Saudi strategy, the decision makers in Riyadh have been looking more and more insistently lately for an “honorable way out” of the Yemeni hive, a way out that could, first of all, cover Saudi Arabia’s political failure and especially that of the initiator of this campaign, heir to the throne and minister of defense Muhammad Bin Salman. It is difficult to see the course that meets the desires of the 80-year-old Saudi monarch. This is because on one hand the Houthi rebels are well positioned on the domestic front, and on the other, one may say that they are at a point where the civil war has become an overtly implacable war between Wahhabi Sunnism and Iranian Twelver Shiism, a war where the supporters of Imam Khomeini wish to prove at any cost the superiority and infallibility of the Islamic Revolution, not only in its confrontation with the Saudis but also with the “Great Satan” from the other side of the Atlantic.

Muhammad Bin Salman

At the end of 2019, after missiles deployed by the Houthis struck the oil facilities of Saudi colossus ARAMCO, Saudi Arabia sent out the first signals regarding its intent to withdraw from Yemen. Thus, the front has seen a progressive decrease of air raids and the Saudis have officially expressed their willingness to sign a ceasefire preliminary to a peace treaty. The initiative was welcomed by the international community, but it was categorically dismissed by the Houthi rebels. Furthermore, earlier this year, Riyadh’s peace intentions were shattered by a powerful offensive organised by the rebels in northeast Yemen. Nevertheless, the Saudis reiterated their intentions of peace, announcing on the 9th of April a complete ceasefire during the entire sacred month of Ramadan. The Houthi rebels offered an even bolder counterproposal – a global peace treaty with Riyadh. The proposal was rejected, because it meant taking out of the equation the Yemeni official government led by Mansur Hadi, and recognising the fact that the Yemeni war is a war waged between the separatists and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Thus, the peace talks in the Yemen have been postponed indefinitely, in anticipation of another round of political negotiations. Meanwhile, military operations have gone on even more ardently.

A Mosaic of Belligerents

In the five years of armed conflict, the structure of the Yemeni front has been defined by its mobility, volatility and by the temporary lines between the combatants. At present, with the exception of some scarce and insignificant enclaves where several jihadist elements are still active – what is left of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and of the Islamic State – the territory of the Yemeni front is divided into what one might call “military regions”, each under the control of one of the parties on the front of operations.

  • I am firstly referring to the National Army of the government led by the president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi that controls parts of the western half of the national territory, based in the strategic city of Ma’arib, and in the territories in the south-east and south-west with the centre in the Ta’izz governorate.
  • The rebel militias control the capital Sanaa, the northern governorates along the border with Saudi Arabia, and a part of the Ta’izz governorate.
  • The southern Yemeni secessionists, politically represented by the Southern Transitional Council, and mostly supported by the United Arab Emirates, control the former territory of South Yemen, and are based in the port-city of Aden.
  • A fourth belligerent party is represented by the militias referring to themselves as the National Resistance Forces, which share control over the coastal cities of Mokka and Hodeida with the Houthi rebels and are made up of combatants from forces established and commanded by the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Saleh.

It is considered that out of all these armed groups, the least effective and least organised is the National Army. Besides, it has been affected by disagreements between the factions that come from the Islamic entourage of the Muslim Brotherhood and those made up of soldiers from the national army under the command of the former president, Saleh.

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For five years the Yemenis have been waiting for the legitimacy and hope they had been promised. So far, none of the attempts to bring the belligerents at the same negotiating table have managed to open the door towards peace. The supply chain of weapons and money that the regional powers have kept open for the “franchises” fighting in Yemen, will have an effect none other than that of an even more dramatic split between what is left of the Yemeni society. And the “Arabia Felix” of old will helplessly continue to observe today’s killer misery, waiting for reason to awaken and bring the promised hope back to life.