“Yemen is simple,” says a European diplomat working on a report for NATO on the war-torn nation. “The Saudis feed the Yemenis and the Iranians arm them. So, what is left for Yemenis to do, except chew qat and fight each other?”
Like all caricatures, this verbal caricature puts the aggrandizing lens on just one aspect of a complex situation, exaggerating its importance.
Today, Yemen is a tangled web of conflicts that, though they must be examined one by one, can’t be fully understood without reference to their collective context.
Since 2010, Yemen has been on a slippery slope towards becoming an ungoverned or semi-governed territory, an experience shared by many others at different times in their history. Right now, a number of countries, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and, of course, Somalia, are passing through the same experience in different degrees.
No nation is immune from suffering that fate. If the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not crushed it could turn four of Iraq’s 18 provinces into “ungoverned” zones. The phenomenon could spread from Syria and Iraq to their neighbors, notably Lebanon and Turkey. Some analysts include the so-called “badlands” of northwest Pakistan in the list of ungoverned zones. Parts of the disputed Kashmir and both the Pakistan and Iranian provinces of Baluchistan are also in danger of moving in this direction.
The disease, if one may call it such, is not confined to newly created states in the Third World. Vast areas of the United States became ungoverned territory during its Civil War. Spain had a similar experience during the Spanish Civil War. For much of the 1990s, Afghanistan was a vast ungoverned zone. More recently, ungoverned territories emerged in parts of the former Yugoslavia for almost a decade. Parts of Myanmar (Burma) are in that situation today.
Looking at the Yemeni crisis as an issue of regional—and to some extent even international—security, is therefore perfectly legitimate. Yemen’s crisis poses a threat to both Saudi Arabia and Oman, if only because it could produce a humanitarian catastrophe with vast numbers of refugees trying to cross the borders. The effective disintegration of governmental authority could also threaten the security of sea-lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, especially Bab El-Mandeb, one of the most sensitive chokepoints in global maritime traffic.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States feared that the Yemeni island of Socotra would provide the Soviet Union with a platform to project power across the Indian Ocean. Anarchy in Yemen today could mean the capture of Socotra and smaller islands in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea by terrorist groups like ISIS. We have already seen what piracy is doing in Somalia.
What is astonishing is that this growing danger is either ignored by the major powers or exploited for petty tactical advantage by regional rivals. In the latter context, Iran is pursuing a dangerous opportunistic gambit.
Tehran official media wax triumphant because a few Houthi demonstrators in Sana’a carried portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei. The daily Kayhan, published under Khamenei’s control, headlined a report on the entry of Houthis in Sana’a as “the victory of our Islamic Revolution.”
The paper’s editorialist couldn’t contain his excitement in narrating what he thought was the adoption by Yemenis of Khomeini’s version of Islam.
He ignored the fact that the Houthis’ army of around 10,000 gunmen can hardly control Sana’a, a city of some 2 million inhabitants, not counting the mass of recently arrived refugees. Those who know Sana’a’s countless labyrinthine twists and turns know that talk of any enforced control is nonsense, especially when the supposed controllers are not natives of the sprawling city.
Another thing the editorialist didn’t know is that the Houthis are reluctant to assume governmental responsibility, something for which they lack the most elemental preparation. Like almost all Yemenis, Houthis know how to use their guns. But they have no political program or administrative experience to offer.
In fact, no one can really control Yemen, or ever has. In Yemen, the question is one of the management of chaos rather than governance in the classical sense of the term. More importantly, Kayhan’s editorialist did not know that Yemenis with guns could always be hired but are never bought.
Iran is not alone in ignoring that fact. The United States, too, has been spending vast sums trying to buy various Yemeni factions, chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of an ever-elusive alliance. Though among the 10 poorest nations in the world, Yemenis still walk in the middle of the street as proud as Gary Cooper in High Noon.
Yemenis certainly don’t want, or need, either a Hezbollah or an Iranian-syle Supreme Leader, as Khamenei seems to believe. But nor do they want liberal democracy as some in Washington claim. This may shock some people, but Yemen, even under Imam Ahmad, presented as a medieval monster by many in the Western media, seemed to be happy. The reason was that the so-called Imam lacked the coercive instruments to frighten them, and did not have the resources to bribe them. He just left them alone.
The civil war of the 1960s was the result of outside intervention, notably by Gamal Abdel Nasser pursuing his dream of an Arab Empire. Khamenei’s dream of a Khomeinist empire is equally doomed.
Today, Yemen is on the edge of humanitarian tragedy. It is effectively divided into at least four segments: the north where Houthis form the biggest armed group; Aden and part of the south, where the secessionists of the Al-Hirak movement have most of the guns; the Hadhramaut, where jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda are on the rampage; and finally, a few isolated pockets where tribal chiefs still exercise some authority. The nation is dependent on foreign aid for 90 percent of its food and almost all of its medical needs. Almost all of foreign aid has now been diverted to emergency operations and, yet, the prospect of mass famine looms larger. What is needed are urgent efforts to create breathing room to prevent the tragedy of total systemic collapse. The United Nations should take the lead by calling on all concerned to at least stop pouring more oil on the fire.
Yemen can’t be anybody’s poodle but, if turned into a hungry wolf, it could bite many.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.