Yemen Crisis Deepens: is it time for decisive action?

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.

The current state of Yemen Source: Wikipedia
The current state of Yemen
Source: Wikipedia

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 Its embassy in the capital Sana’a was withdrawn in February and, unsurprisingly, travel to the country is expressly discouraged.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.

Aden Protectorate Source: Robinson Library
Aden Protectorate
Source: Robinson Library

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.

Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes Source: BBC
Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes
Source: BBC

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.

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Saudi-Western Relations Since WWII: a modern foundation for a modern alliance?

Saudi Arabia has for some time been the crucial ally of the West in the Middle East. This despite its autocratic and illiberal monarchy, flagrant human rights abuses and covert sponsorship of Sunni fundamentalism in the region. Indeed, US-Saudi diplomatic relations date back to 1933, just a year after the Middle Eastern state’s official unification. British-Saudi relations can be traced back even earlier to the 1915 Treaty of Darin, in which Ibn Saud agreed to his lands being held as a British Protectorate in return for recognition of a fledgling Saudi state.

Ibn Saud - Saudi Arabia's founder and early ally of the West
Ibn Saud – Saudi Arabia’s founder and early ally of the West

Today, Saudi Arabia is taking part in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), which is trying to perpetuate an extremist version of Islam anathema to even the Saudis. Both Britain and the US have strong economic and commercial ties with the Kingdom, and have done so since the early exploitation of Saudi oil post-WWII.

It was the post-WWII period, in particular, that solidified Saudi Arabia’s strong relations with the West. The House of Saud was vehemently anti-communist and predominantly concerned with ensuring regional security so that its oil exports would remain stable. It opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War. Furthermore, it has remained a key military and security ally for recent Western engagement in the Middle East.

How supportive Ibn Saud was of the Allied cause during WWII, however, is open to conjecture. It is generally believed that despite officially remaining neutral (despite a token declaration of war in 1945), he was more sympathetic to the Allies than the Axis powers. Whether this translated into significant material support is not so clear. A British War Cabinet document from January 1942 is intriguing in this respect. Hoping to coax the Saudis into the war on the Allied side, a British diplomat in the Middle East put forward three proposals:

A) Negotiate a treaty of alliance between Britain and Saudi Arabia;

B) Encourage Ibn Saud to make an official declaration of war against the Axis powers;

C) ‘A simple declaration by Ibn Saud that he has reached the conclusion that every good Muslim should be on the side of the Allies against the powers of evil and that he is himself prepared to offer the Allies every assistance in his power’.

The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations
The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations

Unsurprisingly, the diplomat recommended Proposal C as the most likely to achieve success. It would provide both sides with the comfort they required in that ‘the facilities to be granted by him [Ibn Saud] need not be publicly defined, nor need any public statement be made regarding assistance which we were rendering to Saudi Arabia in return’.

Ibn Saud, therefore, would not be prey to domestic criticism and complaints amongst the Arab nationalists that their country was fighting on the side of the imperialists. Britain, on the other hand, could conceal the amount of money it was providing Saudi Arabia from its cautious and war-weary public, which had already endured many government-imposed hardships.

Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII
Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII

It is possible, then, that Ibn Saud accepted proposal C, providing local support for Allied operations that helped them claim victory in the Middle Eastern theatre. Perhaps it was this very modern-seeming piece of diplomacy that helped set the foundations for a lasting and pivotal global relationship. Either way, it is a relationship worth maintaining.

National Archives Reference

CAB 80/33