The UN is warning of yet another potential humanitarian crisis in the Middle East as the citizens of Yemen become the innocent victims in the Saudi-led air campaign attempting to halt the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels, who now control large swathes of the strife-riven country. Complicating matters is the division within the Yemeni Army. Whilst some troops support the ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, others are in favour of the Houthi insurgency, whilst further factions still are fighting for the return of former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Added to this is the Iranian support for their fellow Shiites, whilst the US and other Gulf states have taken the side of Saudi Arabia and Hadi. The US, whilst not directly involved in the military intervention, is providing logistical and diplomatic support to its participants. Taking advantage of the conflict and confusion is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), at this time the most formidable branch of the terrorist organisation.
But where is the UK in all of this? Its embassy in the capital Sana’a was withdrawn in February and, unsurprisingly, travel to the country is expressly discouraged. But should the UK being playing a greater role given its history in the region?
The southern port city of Aden is currently the battleground between Houthi/Saleh Shia forces and the Sunnis loyal to Hadi. Between 1839 and 1963, Aden was a British possession, first as part of the Raj and then as a Crown colony. Surrounding it was the Aden Protectorate, effectively the southern and eastern parts of Yemen now controlled by either Hadi loyalists or AQAP.
In 1963, the crown colony and the protectorate merged to form the the Federation of South Arabia, part of the Commonwealth. On independence in 1967, the Federation became the People’s Republic of South Yemen, subsequently the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Meanwhile, the northern part of the country, centred on Sana’a, experienced an altogether different history. Formerly an Ottoman enclave, it gained independence as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen after the First World War. Its religion was strictly Shia Islam and it was ruled with an iron fist by the monarchs Imam Yahya Hamid ed-Din (1918-1948) and Ahmad bin Yahya (1948-1962). On the latter’s demise, the state became known as the Yemen Arab Republic.
North Yemen, as it was commonly called, fell under the dictatorship of Saleh in 1978 and in 1990 he helped orchestrate a merger with the south to form modern Yemen. An attempted secession by southern militants in 1994 resulted in the Yemen Civil War, which the North quickly won, despite Saudi support for the secessionists.
As with many of its former colonies, Britain has remained detached from subsequent events in this country that it helped forge.
At the moment, there does not seem any logical reason why the British Government would get militarily involved in Yemen, particularly during election season. Whereas the US has made the mistake of tentatively supporting the Saudi-led campaign – despite the participation of detestable governments such as Sudan and the dreadful humanitarian crisis the bombing seems to be creating – the UK has steered clear.
However, the justification for intervention in Libya was predicated on the protection of civilians. Were there a viable way to safeguard innocent citizens from the overspill of conflict, an unprecedented opportunity may now be available to prevent the worst excesses of the Iranian-backed Houthis, destroy AQAP and tip the balance of power on the Arabian Peninsula towards pro-Western states.
The UK has a long history in Yemen that few in the country are aware of. The country now become a critical staging point for the proxy-battle of the Middle East between the Saudi/Sunni and Iranian/Shia axes. Sooner or later, the West will have to get more directly involved if this conflict is not to spread globally. If not in Yemen, it will be somewhere else.
Now might be the time to show some fortitude and strike for a peace that, quite frankly, few people can envisage.