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Saudi Arabia and the War of Legitimacy in Yemen

[A Yemeni child at Mazraq IDP camp in 2009, displaced from his home in Saada during [A Yemeni child at Mazraq IDP camp in 2009, displaced from his home in Saada during "Operation Scorched Earth." The camp was bombed by Saudi Arabia five days after Operation Decisive Storm began in March 2015. Image from Paul Stephens/IRIN.]

On 21 April 2015, the Saudi-led war coalition of Arab states announced that “Operation Decisive Storm,” the military campaign against Yemen that started on 25 March, had transitioned to a new, more peaceful phase, codenamed “Operation Restore Hope.” Shortly thereafter, Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi delivered his first speech to the nation from exile in Saudi Arabia, repeating many of the same accusations against, and ultimatums to, the Houthis. The bombing resumed mere hours after the coalition’s announcement and, more than a week later, it shows no signs of slowing. It seems that little has changed except for the branding of the war.  But what this new phase has confirmed is that any of Saudi Arabia’s attempts at “peace” in Yemen—whether under the guise of “Operation Restore Hope” or otherwise—will likely be more violent and permanent than its current war.

Saudi Arabia has used “Operation Decisive Storm” (and now “Operation Restore Hope”) to mark a new chapter in its own history as a military and political power. There is little doubt that the kingdom plans to secure a regional hegemonic position similar to, if not in place of, that of the United States. From the quickly cobbled together “coalition of the willing” (and the bribed) and the hyperbolically named war campaigns to the daily press conferences that could be mistaken for NATO briefings on Afghanistan, it is clear that Saudi Arabia has modeled itself and its military persona on that of the United States. Perhaps what most conspicuously highlights its attempt to appropriate the US voice of hegemony in the region is that it has masked its aggressive and unilateral militarism in the language of righteousness. Just as President George W. Bush waged his war on Iraq in the name of “democracy” and “freedom,” so too have King Salman and his son Mohammad, the twenty-eight year old Minister of Defense and deputy crown prince, deployed the language of “legitimacy” to justify their brutal actions in Yemen. 

The very notion of “legitimacy” has become such a central trope of the war that the day the bombing began, the spokesperson of the Saudi-led coalition proclaimed confidently, and mystifyingly, that Saudi Arabia “continues to coordinate with legitimacy.” With the preposterousness of the statement largely unchallenged, the crudeness of the propaganda did not seem to undermine its claims. Within hours of the launch of “Operation Decisive Storm,” it became clear that Saudi Arabia had the power to dictate the narrative of the war. The kingdom used the language of “legitimacy” to disguise the politics of power, to impose binaries that have become all too familiar since the onset of the “global war on terror”: legitimate vs. illegitimate, state vs. terrorists, right vs. wrong, Saudi Arabia/Arabs vs. Iran, Sunni vs. Shi‘a, and us vs. them. In so doing, the Saudi rulers have forestalled any possibility of an alternative political discourse that would reject both Hadi with his Saudi partners and the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and of a return to the project of establishing a more just and representative state.

While Saudi Arabia has proclaimed its leadership and legitimacy on the international stage, the regime has also invested heavily in the war justifications at home. As in other countries of the war coalition, the Saudi regime has used a heavy hand to protect its domestic mantle of righteousness. Saudi Arabia has imposed significant fines and a twenty-year prison sentence for any Saudi national who criticizes the war. Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and potentially other coalition states quickly followed suit.

Yet the coalition countries are not alone in seeking to shore up support, or at least acquiescence, from their populations. Hadi and his exiled government, the Houthis and their supporters, and every other faction with a stake in Yemeni politics have been central players in a longer war for legitimacy that has been taking place in Yemen; one that predates “Operation Decisive Storm” and has created the political conditions that have made such a war possible.

The Houthi Movement: From Saada to Sanaa

Ansar Allah, the movement better known as the Houthis, have their own claims about legitimacy. When the revolution started in 2011, they had already been engaged for almost a decade in an active rebellion in the north against the regime of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet they eagerly dropped their weapons and rushed to Sanaa in busloads of men and women to join the nonviolent movement in Change Square. They, along with other protestors, demanded the resignation of Saleh and the reconfiguration of the state along more equitable lines. The post-revolution period first featured the single-candidate election of Saleh’s then-vice president Hadi—who continued to rule after his two-year term ended in February 2014—followed by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The NDC was a transitional process that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered and in which representatives from each of Yemen’s major political factions were invited to participate, although several leaders of the southern secessionist Hirak movement boycotted the NDC from the start.

By the time the NDC reached its conclusion, two Houthi representatives at the conference had been assassinated and the youth movement that had started the revolution was virtually silenced. Both the Houthis and southern secessionists denounced the outcomes of the NDC. The political opening created during the 2011 revolution to transform the government into a more just and representative one seemed to have passed. The political institutions that Saleh created to perpetuate his authoritarian rule emerged unscathed and Hadi himself appeared to spend most of his time in office accumulating massive amounts of wealth. The Houthis, who seemed deeply invested in the outcome of the revolution, were right to worry about the restoration of a status quo in which they were marginalized politically, economically, and culturally. 

The 2011 revolution and its rejection of Saleh’s rule created the conditions in which the Yemeni population felt justified in, and capable of, challenging an authoritarian political system. Saleh’s ouster and the revolution’s promise of a truly democratic state gave Yemenis of all walks of life—not only the traditional political elite—a sense of ownership of, and expectation from, their political system. It created a critical opportunity for a break from the status quo for the better. But the post-revolutionary period saw the remnants of Saleh’s regime—including Saudi Arabia’s proxies—manage a transitional process that intentionally obstructed the goals of the revolution and reinforced the power structures of the ancien régime. It is not surprising then that the Houthis, among others, proclaimed the transitional process, the Hadi presidency, and his government, illegitimate.

The Houthis’ experience as a marginalized group and their initial willingness to negotiate compromises and forge political alliances during the revolution and in the immediate post-revolution period should have lent credibility to their claim on political leadership. But any semblance of such a political opening dissipated as soon as they seized power. That the Houthis have ruled mainly through violence and repression since they marched into Sanaa in September 2014 has instead been a boon to the legitimacy of, and support for, “Operation Decisive Storm” and the Yemeni president. Hadi has otherwise been universally reviled as a corrupt and ineffective leader, but nevertheless one who occupies a public office that people respect. The Houthis, on the other hand, are widely seen to have illegally seized control of the state with their militia, backed by factions of the military still loyal to Saleh. They have since cracked down on critical media outlets; arrested, kidnapped, and tortured political activists; fired live rounds on peaceful demonstrators; executed political and military opponents; imprisoned nearly half of the leadership of the Islah Party and dozens of youth activists; and waged a ruthless war in Aden that has brutalized the civilian population and is rendering the city to rubble. They have crippled state ministries and dismantled other state institutions in a fierce anti-government response to corruption. They have created a climate of political exclusivity dominated by the whims of individual Houthi leaders. Most unsettling to many Yemenis, the Houthis have also championed the idea of a righteous political leadership that rules in the name of God and religion and calls for the return of the imamate. Whether this, like the Houthis’ slogan of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse upon the Jews, Victory to Islam,” reflects a real political goal or mere rhetorical flair is subject to debate, but its effects are nonetheless real.

The crime that the Houthis are most consistently accused of is that they have substantiated their sectarian rhetoric by marginalizing Sunnis and empowering the Zaydi Shi‘a in all facets of the state and military apparatuses. There is no doubt that they have targeted their political opposition, which happens to be predominantly Sunni, including Hadi and his government, the Islamist Islah Party, and al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is also clear that they have promoted to power their own men, who unsurprisingly happen to be Zaydi. But the history of the Houthi movement is a history of the tribes of the Saada governorate, and not of the Zaydis of Yemen. It is a story of political, economic, and cultural oppression not dissimilar to the stories emanating from Yemen’s other regional peripheries, including South Yemen, Hadramawt, and the Tihama. Saleh developed unique forms of repression for each of these populations. He specialized in pitting one region or social group against another so as to obscure their shared grievances. The Saleh regime accused the Houthis of being “agents of Iran” and dismissed their legitimate grievances as being merely a power grab for the imamate. The millions of dollars deriving from Saudi Arabia that were spent supporting Salafi proselytizing efforts throughout Yemen—especially in the far north—were acutely felt by Zaydis in Saada, particularly against the backdrop of a brutal military campaign against them and the growing political power of the Islamist Islah Party and AQAP. So while one cannot doubt the sharp increase in sectarianism in Yemen over the last few years, and certainly since the Houthis marched into Sanaa, one wonders the extent to which the Houthis view their actions as a consolidation of power into the hands of the families and tribes of their supporters rather than as an ideologically driven and sectarian campaign. Because tribal favoritism has become a banal form of corruption that almost all of Yemen’s ruling elites have employed, it is most likely the discursive challenge to the Sunni status quo that Yemenis find so alienating and inflammatory.


 [Map of the governorates of Yemen. Image from Golbez/Wikimedia Commons.]

The Yemeni Government in Exile

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world, among them citizens of the countries that are part of “Operation Decisive Storm,” can barely understand the complicated and shifting tangles of Yemeni politics. They have proven a receptive audience for the narrative that “Houthi” can be substituted for “Iran” and that the war is nothing more than a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran—or worse, a renewal of a medieval dispute between the Sunnis and Shi‘a. Hadi and his government, or whatever is left of it, have been the most eager proponents of this “proxy war” narrative. On 12 April 2015, Hadi published an op-ed in the New York Times placing all fault for Yemen’s crisis squarely on Iran. The story he tells, and which the Saudi regime supports, is that he is Yemen’s “legitimate,” democratically elected president. According to this narrative, the Iranians, as the Houthis’ puppet masters, toppled Hadi’s government in an attempt to control Yemen, a country that shares a long and unsecure border with Saudi Arabia and whose strategic location on the strait of Bab al-Mandab provides control over all traffic to the Suez Canal. Moreover, he argues, “Operation Decisive Storm” is a legally and morally justified campaign that was initiated only at the invitation of Yemen’s “legitimate” government. That the ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the tens of thousands of Yemeni soldiers who are loyal to him have provided crucial support to the Houthis—in a recent and unexpected alliance—does not fit neatly in the “puppet of Iran” narrative, but it is certainly fodder for the argument of the illegitimacy of the Houthis.

As of this writing, Hadi continues to “rule” from Riyadh. He has done so via Facebook edicts to the “public” and the feeble exercise of the presidential power to shuffle cabinet appointments among his supporters who have found their way into exile in the Saudi capital. While the Yemeni public laughs and cries at the impotence and ineptitude of Yemen’s “legitimate president,” Hadi and his deputies have without a doubt played a critical role (at least initially) in developing the military and political strategy for “Operation Decisive Storm.” It is curious that Saudi Arabia and Hadi’s government have not more emphatically highlighted the support provided by Yemeni military men in Riyadh, chief among them General Ali Mohsen. Given that the military campaign that has relied so heavily on the “invitation” and involvement of Yemen’s government to deflect accusations of illegal unilateralism, this elision is perhaps best explained by the degree to which Saudi Arabia is keen to demonstrate that it can fight wars by itself.

The Violence of War and Peace

The military campaign is now in its second month and it has caused a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has targeted critical infrastructure—airports, roads, factories, and power stations—in a country that can hardly afford to maintain such infrastructure, let alone rebuild it. Civilian targets, including a refugee camp, an Oxfam humanitarian supplies warehouse, gas stations, schools, and residential buildings, have been attacked, resulting in significant casualties. The campaign has imposed a sea and air blockade on a country where over half the population is food insecure and a majority of its food, including almost all of its rice and wheat supplies, is imported. The embargo has caused a fuel shortage that has brought almost all forms of transportation to a standstill. It is also crippling access to water, and threatening a complete telecommunications blackout.

In spite of the mounting civilian casualties and a daily life that is becoming increasingly untenable, a surprising number of Yemenis support “Operation Decisive Storm.” Many people, particularly those who have experienced the war with the Houthis in the south, are politically pragmatic in their support of a military campaign that targets their political rivals. But many others take a less cynical view of Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen. Some see Saudis as “brothers” in a long history of cultural, religious, and economic exchange, and Saudi Arabia as the “Arab” bulwark against Iranian influence. The less sentimental argue that Saudi intervention is benign relative to other foreign interventions (namely, Iranian), because at least Saudi Arabia is interested in regional peace and stability, if only for its own policy interests.

The degree of Iran’s involvement in Yemen in general, and its influence on the Houthis in particular, has been the subject of much debate. While the Saudi rulers have relied heavily on the Houthi-as-puppets-of-Iran narrative, journalists and representatives of other governments, including the United States, have expressed a more skeptical perspective on the degree to which Iran actually calls the shots in Sanaa. Regardless, the debate on the degree and effect of Iranian involvement in Yemen remains irrelevant to a critique of the Saudi military campaign. Worse still, it serves to intentionally divert attention away from over half a century of Saudi inference in Yemen that has had a far more detrimental effect than the intervention of any other foreign power. Even the NDC, meant to be a product of a revolution that captured the hearts and hopes of people across Yemen, was used as nothing more than a tool to delay the process of change while Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen consolidated their power and bolstered the authoritarian institutions erected under Saleh. Yet there is no debate whatsoever on Saudi Arabia’s decades-long intervention in Yemeni affairs and its bankrolling of Yemeni politicians from all parties—including those in the highest levels of office. The humanitarian crisis that exists today was not borne out of the military campaign, but rather out of an economic and political regime that Saleh created, Saudi Arabia and the United States sponsored, Hadi perpetuated, and the Houthis exacerbated. Well before the first bomb fell on Yemen, it was facing an insurmountable water crisis, a paralyzed economy, a bankrupt central government, and a looming famine. Saudi Arabia’s role in crippling the economy and maintaining a corrupt and ineffective political regime was not insignificant. That Saudi Arabia’s unilateral military campaign is premised on helping the Yemeni people, protecting Yemen’s sovereignty, and combating “foreign intervention” in its affairs is thus all the more ironic—and tragic.

Saudi Victory, Yemeni Loss

While Saudi Arabia likely began “Operation Decisive Storm” with the expectation that its shock and awe bombing campaign would elicit a rapid and decisive surrender from the Houthis and their ally Saleh, the campaign has already undergone its first rebranding. Meanwhile, the Houthis remain unyielding. It is not yet clear if Saudi Arabia will emerge from Yemen “victorious”—notwithstanding their proclamation of victory at the commencement of “Operation Restore Hope.” Perhaps Saudi Arabia will emerge fatigued and beaten back. Or perhaps more ominously Saudi Arabia’s campaign will follow in the footsteps of its namesake, the original “Operation Restore Hope,” a US military campaign in Somalia that was cloaked in the righteous language of “humanitarian intervention.” Like Saudi Arabia today, the US government sought to use “Operation Restore Hope” as an “example” of its aggressive military leadership, but US troops became mired in the conflict and the campaign ended badly, leaving Somalia in ruin and the United States with another military fiasco.

Approximately fifty years have passed since Saudi Arabia and Egypt last invaded Yemen to (re)install a regime of their choice. That war of the 1960s culminated with the defeat of the Saudi-backed Zaydi imamate, the triumph of a republican regime in North Yemen, and the re-affirmation of the political and military supremacy of Nasserist Arab nationalism (however short-lived that victory would be). Power and alliances have shifted over time, but the impetus for intervention remains the same. After decades of fueling political Islam as a bulwark against Nasserist Arab nationalism and other ideologies of the left, Saudi Arabia has emerged the powerful victor. Instead of secretly hatching political deals behind closed doors, bankrolling local proxies, or dispatching armies of religious and cultural missionaries and emissaries, today Saudi Arabia tells the world that it asserts its power unequivocally and with an authority that only “legitimacy” can confer.

If Saudi Arabia can claim “victory” in this campaign, the control of Yemen that it has held in the last few decades, and that it has sought to maintain in the post-2011 revolution period, will be reinforced with a belligerence, entitlement, and “legitimacy” that it never had before. Saudi Arabia is already looking ahead to a “Yemen Marshall Plan” and the prospects of allowing Yemen into the GCC as payback for the destruction of its current military escapades. The authoritarian system that Saudi Arabia has long supported and which it sought to salvage in the transition process will be entrenched in ways that Saleh’s regime never was. While the prospect of petrodollars and GCC jobs may sound alluring to a country that is starving and beaten by war, “Operation Restore Hope” is yet another reminder that Saudi Arabia has never been an honest broker of peace and prosperity in Yemen, and is instead often lurking in the shadows of Yemen’s most debilitating struggles. In the best case scenario, when the missiles have stopped launching and the ceasefire negotiations in Oman or whatever “neutral” locale have ended, Yemen will have to grapple with the consequences of trading in an unpopular, out of control rebel militia for the heavy hand of an imperial power that has always done everything in its power to subordinate and weaken the Yemeni state. And as always, the price of power will be paid by the people, with their hopes and their lives.

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