What the hell is going on in Yemen?

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March 26, 2015 by Nash Riggins

5437209582_f4902839b0_bIt seems like Yemen is always on the brink of disaster. Let’s be honest: when was the last time a fluffy human-interest piece came out of Sana’a? Apart from the odd al-Qaida plot and drone strike, Yemen doesn’t get much press coverage at all. I guess that’s why it’s a bit confusing to wake up and find that Saudi Arabia is about to lead an invasion force of 150,000 troops into this tiny spec we hardly ever hear about.

So, what’s got Yemen’s neighbours so worried? And more importantly, why should we care?

In order to explain what’s happening today, we’ve got to take it back a couple of years. Do you remember that whole Arab Spring business? The inspiring democratic movement saw a proverbial mix bag of popular uprisings against a colourful cast of autocrats and dictatorships around the Middle East. From Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to the flamboyant Muammar Gaddafi, the purge removed a series of cruel dictators and plunged an entire region into anarchy.

We have yet to figure out how to sort out the bloody mess it caused in Libya, and the crisis in Syria hit breaking point at least two years ago. But where were we? Ah yes, Yemen.

The Arab Spring reached Yemen, too. Demonstrations in the capital of Sana’a somehow convinced a besieged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after some 34 years in power. But long before the dust even had a chance to settle, the ousted president began to make trouble.

In Saleh’s place, we saw the rise of the US-backed Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He’s proven a huge asset to President Barack Obama in war on terror, and quickly transformed Yemen into a proverbial drone petrol station. Unfortunately, Hadi (a Sunni) didn’t really make an effort to heal the societal wounds that were torn wide open by the Arab Spring, and so his popularity at home has been plummeting since day one.

Cue the Houthi rebels and an unlikely alliance. The Houthis (who prefer to go by Ansar Allah) belong to a branch of Shia Islam called the Zaidi sect, which nobody else on the Arabian Peninsula seems to like very much. The Iranians, on the other hand, love the Houthis – but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The group began as a theological movement based upon principles of tolerance and peace. Yet a few protests against the US war in Iraq got out of hand, sparking clashes with government forces and a whole lot of bad blood. Consequently, the Houthis decided to militarise and have been heading an insurgency against Sana’a since about 2004.

Ok, so remember that Saleh guy that got overthrown in 2012? Well, apparently he doesn’t like life on the B-list, and so he’s decided to make amends with his old Houthi enemies. He’s given the rebels his full backing, swelling their numbers with his old supporters. Rumour has it Saleh is doing this all so that he can install his son as Yemen’s new president once the dust settles, but it doesn’t look like that’ll be happening any time soon.

Unfortunately, even the backing of a US president hasn’t been enough to keep current leader Hadi in power. American forces have since gotten the hell out of Dodge. Last September, the Houthis waltzed into Sana’a and swiftly overpowered the city’s negligible defences. Hadi was placed under house arrest in the presidential palace and forced to write out a resignation letter in January.

Don’t worry, we’re almost there.

Somehow, that wily fox Hadi escaped, and fled to the southern city of Aden. Troops still loyal to the Yemen’s latest former president have been doing their best to retake some lost ground, but they’re just too weak. Everybody seems to think that the Shia government in Iran has been sending the Houthis plenty of expensive and lethal gadgets in order to help them along. By all rights, the rebels should have already overwhelmed Hadi’s forces and finished this war by now – but they’re very poorly organised. Apparently all the Iranian rials in the world can’t buy good leadership.

It’s been rumoured that Hadi has since fled the country. After all, until this week, his defeat (and probably a gruesome death) was all but guaranteed. Then Saudi Arabia called in the cavalry.

The royals of Riyadh rarely intervene in the sordid affairs of their messy southern neighbour, but they’re always watching with worry and disdain. In essence, Yemen is to Saudi Arabia as Cuba is to the US. It just pisses them off for some reason.

Well, this time Saudi Arabia has decided that enough is enough. The Sunni nation is afraid of what might happen if this Iranian-backed riffraff of anarchists gain full control over Yemen – and so they’re launching a major offensive against the Houthis. Early reports suggest a coalition including the likes of Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan are committing up to 150,000 troops and 100 warplanes to eradicate the rebels. The bombs have already started to drop, and it looks like things are about to get pretty messy.

The question you’re probably asking yourself is: why should I care?

First and foremost, the price of oil has shot up in the past few hours because of this huge offensive – but that’s neither here nor there. The reason this fight matters is that it’s effectively becoming a proxy war between major regional powers. Saudi Arabia and Iran are about to kick off a high-stakes game of chess in Yemen, and it very well may ignite a wider conflict. That will do a whole lot more than raise the price of oil.

Western attempts to combat terror groups like ISIS depend entirely upon the stability of regional allies that actually know how the Middle East works. When they’re at odds with one another, this war on terror we’ve been hearing about for the better part of a decade amounts to little more than a blindfolded game of darts. Distractions like this will only give terror cells a chance to consolidate and regroup.

At the end of the day, this conflict in Yemen is bad news for everybody. It’s hurting business, giving terrorists a much-needed breather and heating up a cold war between two very different and very dangerous neighbours. That’s why you might want to keep a close eye on what’s going on down there. The events unfolding in Yemen over the next few days very well may impact the stability of the Middle East for generations to come. And no matter how this plays out, there are going to be a whole lot of losers.

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