01/25/2022, 00.00
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Yemen, regional tensions inflame forgotten conflict

by Dario Salvi

In recent days, the Houthis have launched missiles towards the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh responds - though officially denying it - with a bloody air raid that hit a prison, causing dozens of victims. Conflicting alliances and interests complicate truce attempts. Oil and trade routes the key to a war that is starving the Yemeni people. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - The missiles launched by the Houthi towards the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a new target in addition to Saudi territory, and the massive response of the Arab coalition led by Riyadh with bloody air raids have refocused global attention on the war in Yemen, one of the forgotten conflicts of the Middle East region. The war has long since disappeared from the international news - except for rare appeals to denounce a nation, and a people, in hunger - but it recently returned to the forefront. The consequences of protracted conflict have been devastating, especially for the local population, one of the poorest in the world, where in January alone 17 children died as a result of the bombs, while those who have died due to a chronic lack of food or disease beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, such as malaria, are no longer counted. 

Air raids in response to  missiles

In the early hours of yesterday morning, the Emirates' warning systems intercepted two drones (or missiles) fired by the Houthi towards Abu Dhabi, in an attack that caused no casualties or damage due to the prompt response of the defence shield. Nonetheless, a certain amount of anxiety is beginning to spread among the population after the country had long been spared from violence or attacks and could be considered a sort of happy island compared to other regional realities, such as Saudi Arabia itself. Shiite rebels also targeted the Wahhabi kingdom, launching a ballistic missile that exploded in the industrial area of Jizan, a coastal city in the south-west, injuring two people. The attack took place in the evening of 23 January and preceded the one in the neighbouring Emirates by a few hours, raising the immediate condemnation of the Arab League. 

The missiles were a response to the bloody attack launched by the Saudi-led Arab coalition - although Riyadh has denied involvement - on Saada prison, which killed 86 people and wounded more than 260, some seriously.  Msf's head of mission in Yemen Ahmed Mahat said the 21 January attack was 'the latest in a long line of unjustifiable [Saudi] attacks on places like schools, hospitals, markets, wedding parties and prisons'. Since the beginning of the war, he added, 'we have often witnessed the terrible effects of the coalition's indiscriminate bombing, and our own hospitals have been attacked'. 

From Federation to fragmentation

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, born from an internal clash between pro-Saudi government officials and Shiite Houthi rebels close to Tehran, who for several months had demanded - in vain - certain recognitions and guarantees from the authorities in Sana'a. These included the inclusion of 20 new members of the Houthi government in the country; 20,000 members within the armed forces; the allocation of a quota of ministries and the inclusion of some disputed territories within the Azal region. This last point was part of a broader plan to reform the Yemeni Republic from a unitary state to a federated nation, which failed. A way to resolve the marked economic, religious, historical and political divisions between the different areas, especially north and south. The Federation of Yemen shouldhave smoothed out the controversies and tensions that have crossed the nation since the first days of unification in 1990, at least on paper . 

However, the process failed and the conflict escalated from internal confrontation to open warfare with the direct intervention in March 2015 by Riyadh at the head of a coalition of Arab nations, which has claimed more than 130,000 lives in recent years. According to the UN, it has caused the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world", on which the Covid-19 has had "devastating" effects; millions of people are on the brink of starvation and children - 10,000 of whom have died in the conflict - will suffer the consequences for decades. There are over three million internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of them living in conditions of extreme poverty, hunger and various epidemics, not least cholera. 

Almost eight years after the beginning of the violence, the situation on the ground remains unresolved: the Houthi, thanks to the support received so far from Iran, control the capital Sana'a and the western sector; the southern governorate of Aden, former fiefdom of the internationally recognised president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is under the control of the Transitional Council.

There is also a group of loyalist-splitters linked to the Emirates operating in the south-west and a conspicuous presence, in the centre, of militiamen linked to al-Qaeda (AQAP, Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen). Attempts made in recent years to establish ceasefires limited in time or steps towards a broader general ceasefire by the UN and Arab countries have proved unsuccessful. Not even the hundreds of airstrikes - more than 500 of them - by Houthi militiamen towards neighbouring Saudi Arabia and, since a few days, also towards the Eau, yet another violent and bloody drift in the war, have helped to change the fate of the conflict.

International diplomacy

In the background of the conflict are the great divisions and the games of alliances and contrasts that animate the region, exacerbated by the change in the US administration with the rise to the White House of Democrat Joe Biden, victorious over outgoing President Donald Trump. During his term in office, Trump had sponsored a rapprochement between Israel and some of the Gulf nations, including the Emirates themselves and Bahrain, within the so-called "Abrahamic Agreements". A success, at least partial, for Republican diplomacy and the Trump family (son-in-law Jared Kushner was in the front row in the negotiations), but one that failed to embrace Saudi Arabia as well, which has always maintained a cautious wait-and-see attitude so as not to rock the boat too much in Sunni Islam. 

The Houthi, declared a terrorist movement by Trump, were "rehabilitated" by Biden who exempted them from sanctions that prevent bank movements and relations with humanitarian NGOs. In February 2021, the rebels took advantage of a brief truce to launch an attack on the regular army in Marib, a strategic area for the control of the largest oil fields, and it is here that much of the last act of this conflict will be played out. In addition to crude oil, Yemen boasts a strategic position between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea through the Strait of Tears (Baab al Mandab) and whoever controls this area - along with the Gulf of Aden - has in fact in his hands an essential corridor for international trade.

Another strategic player is Iran, which in recent months has been facing a crucial double challenge for its economic, political and strategic future on the Middle East chessboard: talks on the nuclear issue resumed some time ago in Vienna, following the Trump administration's withdrawal from the agreement reached in 2015 (the JCPOA) by Barack Obama and which the current presidency is trying to relaunch, amid ups and downs. In recent days a European source has expressed cautious optimism for a possible positive solution, but the unknowns remain and it is not possible to make predictions due to the many variables at stake. 

The atomic bomb of the ayatollahs is combined with contrasts between allies - on paper - for economic supremacy. The reference, in this case, is to the relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, united in the war against the Houthi in Yemen but distant, if not divided, in many other dossiers: from the struggle to grab industries and multinationals in the region, to their respective moves on the diplomatic chessboard with Abu Dhabi weaving a web with Israel and the Wahhabi kingdom opening up to the ayatollahs after the rupture in relations following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016, provoked by the previous execution of a Shia leader by the Saudis.

These variables are complex and difficult to interpret, encompassing economic, commercial, diplomatic and institutional interests that are often intertwined, without forgetting the great question of supremacy in Islam between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The only certainty is that these tensions, these conflicts are consumed on the skin of a people, the Yemenis, who are increasingly enslaved by hunger and despair. 

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