Normalisation and the Turmoil in Yemen

In this new era of Israeli-Arab normalisation, Israel has an even more direct interest than it always had in the outcome of the decades-long civil conflict in Yemen. Two of the main players on the ground are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is an original signatory of the Abraham Accords and, if the grapevine is to be believed, Saudi Arabia is an imminent prospect.

At the start of 2020 the unhappy war-torn state of Yemen was split four ways. Not only were rival governments – one backed by the Saudi-UAE coalition, the other by the Iranian-supported Houthis – fighting for control of the country as a whole, but South Yemen had seceded from the north and declared self-rule. To further complicate the situation, the south Yemen separatists were supported by the UAE ‒ which was odd, because the UAE was also battling the Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s government led by President Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi, which condemned the separatist move as “catastrophic and dangerous”.

Israel has never involved itself directly in the conflict, but those elements of the media none too friendly toward Israel maintain that it has been providing logistical support for the coalition established by Saudi in 2015 to counter the Houthis’ effort to take over the country.

The Middle East Monitor also maintains that when Houthi forces seized the Saudi Arabian embassy in the capital Sanaa, documents were discovered revealing US intentions to establish a military base on Yemen’s Perim Island near the Bab El-Mandab Strait, “to protect [America’s] interests and ensure the security of Israel”. The Bab al-Mandab Strait is the narrow gateway out of the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden, and in fact the strategically important island was wrested from the Houthis in 2015 and has remained under the control of the coalition ever since. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the Strait as of key strategic importance in ensuring access to the Indian Ocean and beyond. All consider it vital to prevent the Strait falling into the hands of Iran’s proxy, the Houthis.

South Yemen’s unilateral declaration of independence did not come out of the blue. For more than 20 years the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen was an independent Marxist–Leninist one-party state, supported by the Soviet Union. Relations between the two Yemens deteriorated, and in 1972 they took up arms against each other. In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union imminent, South Yemen united with the north to form the Unified Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had been president of North Yemen since 1978, was proclaimed president.

It was an uneasy marriage. After only four years, the south tried to break away again.   A short civil war ended with the south being overrun by northern troops.

Saleh became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. He gave up the keys of office to Hadi with a very bad grace, and allied himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power. Supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat them back. Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh’s house in Sana’a was besieged by Houthi fighters. Attempting to escape, he was killed.

Once ignited, the yearning for self-determination is not easily extinguished. South Yemen’s aspirations for a return to autonomy remained strong. In 2017-18 south Yemen leaders tried again. Hadi had re-located his internationally recognised government to Aden. But Aden is the focal point of south Yemen, and Aden’s governor was a strong supporter of the southern separatists. When Hadi sacked him, he promptly joined the rebels and helped set up the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a body designed to administer Yemen’s southern provinces.

The UAE could not continue to run with the fox while hunting with the hounds – supposedly supporting Hadi in re-establishing the national government of Yemen, while at the same time supported the STC in seeking to establish South Yemen as a separate state. In September 2019, following substantial military gains by the southern separatists with UAE support, Saudi Arabia put its foot down. The two sides negotiated. On October 25, they announced a power-sharing agreement, which was signed in Riyadh on November 5.

It was on the basis of that agreement that a power sharing government was formed a year later, on December 18, 2020. It contained 24 ministers selected on equal basis between northern and southern provinces and included five ministers from the STC.

Sworn in on December 26 in Riyadh, four days later most of the new cabinet, including the prime minister, boarded a plane to fly to Aden. A large crowd gathered to greet them. As the passengers began to disembark, massive explosions were heard followed by gunfire emanating from armoured vehicles. At least 25 people were killed and 110 others injured. Most of the casualties were civilians, including airport staff. Although no group has claimed responsibility, the coalition later said it had shot down an explosive-laden Houthi drone that was targeting the presidential palace.

That incident was closely followed by another. On New Year’s Day a projectile exploded at a wedding held in the port city of Hodeidah, 160 miles north of the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Five women were killed and seven wounded. A UN representative called it “an odious crime committed by the Houthis against civilians”.

As long as Iran’s malevolent involvement persists, no end seems in sight to Yemen’s civil conflict. A determination to frustrate Iran’s aspiration to dominate the Middle East is one element uniting Israel and the Arab signatories to the Abraham Accords.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."