As more civilians die the Yemen tragedy can only get worse

The Saudi-led coalition enters the fourth week of its aerial bombardment of Houthi positions in Yemen and the death toll among civilians stands at more than 1,000, writes Abdel Bari Atwan. With no imminent prospect of dialogue to reach a negotiated settlement, the situation can only get worse.

There have been two major developments over the past days:

• First: The Saudis and Egyptians are close to agreeing joint military manoeuvres following a lightning visit by Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the Saudi Defense Minister, and son of King Salman Ibn Abdel Aziz, Chairman of the Cabinet, to Cairo for talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

• Second: The UN Security Council passed a resolution on Tuesday imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis and calling on them to withdraw from the areas they have seized, including the capital, Sanaa.

The resolution also blacklisted Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni President’s son, and the Houthi leader Abel Malik al-Houthi. The two men face a global assets freeze and travel ban. President Saleh and two other Houthi leaders – Abdel al-Khlaiq al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim – were blacklisted in November.

Regarding the Saudi-Egyptian move – there are two possible interpretations. One is that a ground invasion, involving Egyptian troops, is imminent. The other is that the two countries are attempting to ramp up pressure on the Houthis in order to bring them to the negotiating table and force concessions from them.

In an official statement following the visit from his Saudi guest, General al-Sisi said that “the security of the Gulf region is a red line for Egypt, and is an integral part of our national security, especially the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab straits.”

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Nevertheless, we feel it is unlikely that Egypt will send ground troops to the war in Yemen, even if such a request has been made. With major regional powers Pakistan and Turkey standing back from the conflict, Egypt will be reluctant to go against the grain. Talk of military manoeuvres, rather than the full engagement of troops, may be a compromise stance for Cairo.

Egypt will not have forgotten its involvement in the 1962-1967 North Yemen Civil War when it supported the Republicans against the Royalists who were backed by Saudi Arabia. Of 70,000 Egyptian troops deployed in Yemen, 26,000 were killed and Egyptian historians refer to the disastrous war as “Egypt’s Vietnam.” The disaster had wider-reaching implications in that it greatly weakened the Egyptian Army at the time when its Arab brethren in Palestine needed it most – during the six-days war with Israel.

It is no coincidence that veteran Egyptian writer Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a contemporary of “Egypt’s Vietnam” is one of the loudest voices speaking out against any involvement in the latest Yemen war.

UN Security Council

Moving on to the Security Council resolution, it is notable that the only abstention came from Russia. Why didn’t Russia exercise its veto and prevent the resolution entirely? We believe that Moscow did not want to lose the paragraph in the resolution that calls for the warring parties to implement a cease-fire and come to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

The Resolution is commendable and no-one could argue with its demands. It is also a significant diplomatic victory for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. It is unlikely, however, to change anything on the ground. One could offer the criticism that it is too little too late – if the embargo on weapons to the Houthis had been in place three years ago we would not have seen Iranian ships and aircraft carrying all kinds of weapons and military equipment coming an going unhindered in Yemen’s ports and aiport.

Ali Abdullah Saleh - Yemen's most powerful general
Ali Abdullah Saleh – Yemen’s most powerful general

There are more than 50 million firearms in Yemen; half of them arrived in the country from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to arm the tribes and anti-Houthi groups but quite probably were commandeered by the Houthis just as weapons sent to the Syrian armed opposition ended up in the hands of Islamic State fighters.

Regarding the travel ban on Mr Abdel Malik Al-Houthi, we do not believe that this is a gentleman much given to jet-setting round the world’s capitals, if he has ever left Yemen it will have been the exception rather than the rule. Nor have we read, or heard on the grapevine, that he owns property or stocks or bank accounts abroad – we do not believe he has significant assets worth “freezing.”

The most important steps the international community should be taking are those that will lead to a political solution as soon as possible. The history of Yemen assures us that the country is the graveyard of any army rash enough to invade.


Meanwhile, the decision by Pakistani lawmakers to remain neutral over the Yemen conflict came as a major shock to the Saudi and Gulf authorities who had always considered their Pakistani ally as a reliable military force in times of crisis.

Nevertheless, if we compare (as many are doing) the current situation in Yemen with the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, Pakistan only provided around 5000 troops for a “back-up” team to remove the Iraqi invader, despite possessing the seventh largest army in the world.

Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif
Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif

We should not forget that Pakistan is also one of a handful of regional powers possessing nuclear weapons which undoubtedly contributes to its greater circumspection and reluctance to engage militarily.

Nevertheless the Pakistani parliamentary resolution which saw a blanket refusal to contribute to the military operation in Yemen to destroy the Houthi uprising and restore the “legitimate” government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was unexpected and unusual. Last week, Islamabad also hosted the foreign minister of Iran which is backing the Houthi uprising in Yemen.

This outcome also means that media hysteria about Pakistan supplying “ready-made” nuclear bombs to Saudi Arabia to counterbalance any advancement in Iran’s development of nuclear weapons are probably exaggerated.

We must remember, though, that Saudi Arabia was the leading funder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, and provided substantial financial assistance to the Pakistani Government’s efforts to achieve nuclear parity with India.

Pakistan’s “neutrality” may also be due to its own sectarian demographics. Born of bloody sectarian conflict, Islamabad will be more cautious than many of its neighbours about the impact an overtly sectarian military intervention would have on the 20 percent of its own population which is Shiite.

Finally, Pakistan’s decision may embolden other countries such as Turkey and Egypt to risk infuriating the Saudis by adopting a position of neutrality over Yemen.

Turkey and Egypt

It is remarkable that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a great effort to avoid talking about the war in Yemen during his recent visit to Tehran; his joint press conference with President Hassan Rouhani focussed instead on developing trade ties between the two countries.

Erdogan also met Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has furiously described Saudi actions in Yemen as being similar to Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip. The Turkish President has yet to contribute in any material sense to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.

The Egyptian stance is no less ambiguous than Turkey although Egyptian planes have finally taken a minor role with some strikes on Houthi targets over the weekend.

Saudi jets have been pounding Yemen for  weeks
Saudi jets have been pounding Yemen for weeks

Saudi Arabia doesn’t need other countries’ warplanes; it has the largest and most sophisticated air force in the developing world – what it really needs is allies who are prepared to commit ground troops, and warships to counter the Iranian build-up which now threatens to control the Bab el Mandeb, under cover of the fight against piracy that threatens international navigation through the strait.

There are conflicting opinions about the Egyptian position on Yemen. Some claim that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met leaders of the Egyptian army a week ago, as well as members of the military Council and sought consent for a ground intervention.

But there is another view that President Sisi, who is facing a real war in the Sinai, and a very serious security threat from terror elements (not least the Islamic State) in Libya, is reluctant to enter the war in Yemen. Nor is it likely that the Egyptian people would have any appetite for such an intervention.


Saudi Arabia’s robust response to the Yemen crisis has clearly taken the world by surprise – not least the Iranians who blame it on the growing influence in Riyadh of “a number of young and inexperienced princes [Princes Mohammed bin Nayef and Crown and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman apparently].”

Every day that passes risks escalation and exportation of the Yemeni crisis throughout the region with more bloodshed and waste of the Arab world’s financial and human resources.

It is interesting that Saudi Arabia has taken such a strong stance on Yemen as it has never given a second’s thought to intervening on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza. This give some credence to conspiracy theories that link Riyadh’s enthusiasm for war to the price of oil and the rapid depletion of the GCC countries’ sovereign funds.

Regional instability always sends oil prices soaring and when Saudi planes started bombing in Yemen the price of oil shot up and their were hopes for a recovery from the 59% slump since June 2014.

This theory is not beyond the realms of possibility – after all, the chaos shaking the rest of the region is mostly due to the West’s thirst for oil (Iraq, Libya etc) – but the Saudis may be disappointed because experts do not believe the recovery of oil prices will be long-lived – there is a still a glut of oil in world markets, mostly led by US shale-producers.

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