Yemen – Saudi Arabia

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    Latest developments

    The nearly decade-long war continues, but it is illuminated by some glimmers of hope. Although the six-month ceasefire mediated by the United Nations officially expired in October 2022, since then both parties have refrained from significant escalation actions, and hostility levels remain low. Peace talks between Saudi officials and the Houthis, mediated by Oman, resumed in April 2023, accompanying ongoing mediation efforts by the UN. However, as estimated by the Global Conflict Tracker in its latest report, no concrete progress is seen. The first official visit of the Houthis to the Saudi capital since the beginning of the war on September 14, 2023, produced only optimistic statements.

    The talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in April 2023, mediated by China, have fueled hopes of a political solution and led to an agreement to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies of both countries, a development that could accelerate efforts to renew the expired ceasefire. While hostility between the two conflict parties remains low, political violence by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has increased compared to 2022. In August 2023, AQAP killed a military commander and three soldiers of the Security Belt Forces with an explosion, a group loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a Yemeni separatist organization. Also in August, it killed five soldiers of another force affiliated with the STC. The recent use of drones by AQAP in southern Yemen is considered an attempt to reaffirm declining influence. The presence also concerns the United States.

    According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), in the first two months of 2023, suspected attacks by US unmanned aircraft killed two high-profile leaders of AQAP in the Yemeni governorate of Marib. One of the group’s top explosives experts, a Yemeni citizen named Hassan al-Hadrami (also known as Husayn Hadbul), was killed on January 30. The head of media and leader of the group’s Shura Council, Saudi citizen Hamad al-Tamimi (also known as Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Adnani), was assassinated on February 26.

    What are they fighting for

    Among the reasons for the ongoing conflict, Yemen pays the price for its deeply strategic position, sandwiched between the Indian Ocean and the passage to the Red Sea through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
    Whoever controls this strip of sea and the Gulf of Aden effectively governs the passage of hydrocarbon shipments from the Strait of Hormuz to the Suez Canal. A tempting prize for all regional and international powers (USA, UAE, Turkey), which over the years have positioned their naval bases on the opposite shore, particularly in Djibouti.
    The instability of Yemen is therefore a great opportunity to also occupy the southern coast of the country and have a privileged position on the sea, a possibility already seized by the Emiratis who have occupied Aden and the island of Socotra.
    Although this conflict tends to be interpreted as a proxy war, minimizing its local significance, Yemen remains an ideal battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran. The former sees the country as its potential backyard, much like Iraq is for Iran; Tehran has an interest in preventing this scenario and does not hinder the advance of its local Houthi allies at the regional competitor’s land border, even to test Riyadh’s vulnerability with armed drone strikes.
    Both regional powers are interested in seizing control of the Marib Governorate, rich in oil, and the ports on the western Yemeni coast of Mokha and Hodeida, very close to the Saudi maritime borders.

    Country overview

    The conflict in Yemen started in 2014, but the conventional start date is the night between March 24 and 25, 2015, when the Saudi-led Arab League aviation began bombing the capital Sana’a. The “Decisive Storm” war campaign, which was supposed to be short and surgical according to the formal intentions of the Yemeni central government that requested it from its allies, lasted for years. The objective was supposed to be the military elimination of the Houthi Shiite militias, who had occupied the capital Sana’a since August 2014, overthrowing the government of President Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee.

    The reality is that the military campaign contained and diminished the Houthi’s advance (who had managed, also with the financial and strategic support of Iran, to occupy the country up to the southern tip, in the city of Aden), pushing them back towards Taiz, their southern stronghold. However, “Decisive Storm” was neither short nor surgical, and it effectively divided the country into a north firmly in the hands of the Houthis and a south still under government control but with much turbulence, uncertainty, and influence from separatist groups, from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to a small presence of the Islamic State (Wilaya Sana’a).

    The current situation in Yemen is the result of the instability following the 2011 revolution when the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood party, Islah, managed to channel protests against the thirty-three years of dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh into a transition that was supposed to lead to the drafting of a new constitution, elections, a new parliament, and a new government.

    The National Unity Conference, which worked for eighteen months inside the Movenpick Hotel in Sana’a, with delegations representing all the tribes of the country, political parties, civil society, youth, and women around the table, failed to reach a quorum on three points: disarmament of the tribes, federated state, and above all, amnesty for former President Saleh and his family members exiled from the country (sanctioned and with frozen assets). Opposing this were the two major separatist groups in the north (the Houthis) and the south (al-Hiraki), the most active and uncompromising local actors in this conflict. The Houthis not only boycotted the Conference but also organized to form a convenient alliance with Saleh, who ruled alongside them until they assassinated him in December 2017.

    Key figure or organization – Hamad Al-Tamimi

    The killing on February 26, 2023, of Hamad bin Hamoud al-Tamimi, also known as Abdel Aziz al-Adnani, by a drone strike on his residence in the central province of Marib, was a severe blow to AQAP. Moreover, it was the second blow to the organization in just over a month. On January 30, a U.S. drone had struck three al-Qaeda operatives, including the well-known explosives producer Hassan al-Hadrami. Elisabeth Kendall, an expert on terrorism and a lecturer at Girton College, University of Cambridge, told Arab News that al-Tamimi’s death was a significant loss for al-Qaeda: “He was talented and prolific and operated in the dual sphere of jihadist media and jurisprudence. He led media initiatives such as the video interview with leader Khalid Batarfi in November 2021.” The latter has been leading AQAP since February 2020, replacing Qasim al-Raymi after his death.

     

    FOCUS 1 – Al-Qaeda and Yemen

    Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also known as Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, is an Islamist terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda that operates primarily in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is a jihadist Salafist group formed in 2009 from the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda. AQAP, in Yemen, is essentially in conflict with all local actors. Its leaders have been pursued and killed by US drones, with a targeted attack campaign starting in 2009: among the leaders targeted were Nasir al-Wuhayshi, assassinated in June 2015, and Qasim al-Raymi, killed in January 2020.

     

    FOCUS 2 – Houthi and Gaza

    At the end of October 2023, while Tel Aviv and Gaza are engaged in yet another conflict, the sirens of alarms also ring in the area of Eilat, southern Israel, for the “intrusion of a hostile aircraft.” These are unmanned aerial vehicles launched by the Houthi in Yemen as retaliation for the first Israeli airstrikes on the Strip. “These drones belong to the State of Yemen,” confirmed the Prime Minister of the Houthi Government, Abdelaziz bin Habtour, when questioned about it. Those aircraft in the sky of Eilat have raised fears of an escalation of the conflict in the region. The same fear applies to other countries near the war zone.