The Dangerous Dance of Diplomacy: Repairing a Broken Yemen Amidst Regional Rivalries

Photo: BBC

“A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Yemen, as millions flee their homes to escape a devastating conflict” -UNHCR

By Sydney Fernandez

Prelude: Escalation

The increasingly disastrous Saudi-Led military campaign in Yemen, initially intended to quash the Iranian-Backed houthi rebels and restore the Saudi-sanctioned government, has devolved into a full-blown counter-insurgency operation in the heart of the world’s most conflict-ridden region. Meanwhile, the tangible, human suffering of the people of Yemen has achieved critical mass, with tens of thousands at risk of starvation and millions classified as “food-insecure”

Meanwhile, the United States and her Allies, notably Great Britain and other European Nations, seem content to sit idly by and ensure the Saudis have a constant supply of expensive, precision munitions (1) to wage their newest proxy war against their regional rival, the increasingly ambitious and resurgent Iran.

In the near term, the Saudi-led coalition should recalibrate their military operations to end blockades, facilitate humanitarian endeavors such as the provision of food and medicine, and alleviate the all-too-real human suffering occurring in Yemen. In the long term, repairing Yemen’s broken government and eviscerated agricultural sector will require a durable solution to the Saudi-Iranian rivalry before peace can be restored, a hefty endeavor which will almost certainly require American diplomacy.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Foreign Affairs
Photo: Asharq-Alawsut

Old Foes, New Landscapes

From the Saudi perspective, operations in Yemen are simply an extension of a decades-old rivalry with their hostile neighbor Iran, a rivalry that began following the 1979 Iranian revolution which ousted the American backed-Shah and saw a decidedly firm shift towards strict Shia fundamentalism in Iran’s political and cultural Milieu. With Saudi Arabia increasingly fearful of Iranian consolidation of power across Syria and Iraq, where elite troops from the Islamic Republic of Iran train both Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Shia militias in Iraq, Saudi’s fear is the loss of control to their rival in a region in which they once exerted tacit but firm influence. With Iran now supplying sophisticated weapons to the Houthi tribesman of Yemen, Saudi now fears for its southernmost flank. Indeed, SCUD missiles supplied by Iran and launched by the Houthis have killed several Saudi civilians within their territory over the past year, (2) increasing internal fears of further attacks. In a recent incident that caused Saudi anxiety over Yemen to skyrocket, a relatively sophisticated Houthi surface-to-surface missile was narrowly intercepted over Riyadh. (3) A Houthi strike this close to home not only stoked fears of a tangible impact on day to day life in the nation’s capital, but also cemented evidence of Iranian involvement, as it is highly unlikely that the Houthis developed such a weapon on their own.

Saudi Arabia has suffered further setbacks in its increasingly vietnam-eque war in Yemen recently; including the death of long-ruling Yemeni leader Ali-Abdullah Saleh (4) a charismatic autocrat who ruled Yemen with Saudi backing from 1978-2012 until he joined the Houthi alliance in the face of waning Saudi support. In recent months he had embarked on a campaign to normalize relations with the Saudi Kingdom, prompting his execution by Houthi gunman in the first week of December 2017. It is likely that with him died the possibility of Saudi-Houthi reconciliation in the near term, deepening the crisis and ensuring Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in their disastrous campaign for the near future.

Iranian ambitions have remained functionally similar for over a decade now: expand control and influence throughout the Gulf and the Levant by any means necessary. This broad, loosely defined objective with multiple acceptable outcomes gives Iran flexibility in how it approaches foreign policy, a huge advantage over their increasingly defensive Saudi rivals. When local instability in Yemen pitted the predominantly Shia Houthi political movement of Northern Yemen against the Saudi and US-backed regime of Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi Iran seized the opportunity to further encroach on the once unassailable fortress the Saudi Kingdom had built for itself in the Persian Gulf.

Photo: Al-Jazeera

“As Saudi Arabia and Iran intensify their power struggle across the region, the terrain on which they fight is increasingly human”

Path to Stability

As Saudi Arabia and Iran intensify their power struggle across the region, the terrain on which they fight is increasingly human, and the true victims of their rivalry are the millions of Yemenis who now lack access to fundamental human aspects of dignified living such as water, food, shelter, education, and safety. With 17 million people, 70% of the population, requiring humanitarian assistance and over 4 million acutely malnourished, (5) the situation in Yemen bears haunting similarity to the food crisis of Somalia during the early 1990s, when a shocking 300,000 people died helplessly of famine caused entirely by conflict. The Saudi-led blockade on Yemeni sea ports which began on November 5th has had disastrous humanitarian implications, with the UN sounding the alarm that a famine is imminent. (6) The disastrous implications of the weaponization of hunger will be most deeply felt by Yemen’s already-suffering civilian population. In a move that indicates waning global support for Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump called for an immediate end to the blockade, a stark indication that global public opinion is turning against The Kingdom.

In order to immediately end the suffering in Yemen and prevent the starvation of millions of innocent people, the Saudi coalition must significantly shift their operational spectrum from seek-and-destroy missions against evasive Houthi insurgents to a humanitarian mission that will return food security to Yemen. Focus must be on destroying Houthi blockades that prevent the delivery of critical aid, ensuring the proper functionality of hospitals for the endless streams of those injured by coalition and Houthi munitions, and above all, stopping the indiscriminate use of aerial weapons platforms that have killed thousands of civilians since the conflict intensified in March of 2015.

In order to return Yemen to a peaceful state and truly begin the process of conflict development and post-conflict resolution, a long term plan to reduce the intensity of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry must be introduced. In this regard, American diplomacy will be crucial, as the United States has substantial diplomatic sway with both of these nations: with the Saudis through oil and other economic investments, and with the Iranians in the form of sanctions relief. Common ground, such as a unified campaign to eradicate ISIS, should be expanded, and ambitions of regional domination should be tempered in the interest of economic vitality and security for the region as a whole.


With the conflict in Yemen well into its third year and thousands of lives lost, all eyes are on the international community for their response. The world has been made well aware of the severity of the situation unfolding before us: our social media feeds are saturated with well-meaning calls for funding from Save the Children and others. However in order to truly resolve the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the solution must not only protect civilians immediately, but must also target the root cause of the conflict: a rivalry, petty in nature in contrast to the value of the human life it has exterminated, between two regional powerhouses. Doing so is a monumental task that will require unprecedented diplomatic patience and global unity, but the cost of not doing so is too awful to bear: an entire nation, countless souls, lost to unending conflict.









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