The killing of former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh as he fled the capital of Sana’a has ended hopes of a possible finish to Yemen’s civil war. In a bid to secure peace with Saudi Arabia, Saleh announced he was abandoning his Houthi rebel allies last week, with whom he had joined forces to overthrow the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Saleh announced the split amid calls for talks, which would occur contingent on his abandoning the Houthis — a move which sparked severe fighting in the capital of Sana’a between his followers and Houthi forces. Despite having an initial advantage, Saleh’s less numerous forces were quickly overwhelmed and he was forced to flee.
Yemen fell into civil war in mid 2015 between the predominantly Shia Houthis in the country’s west and Sunnis supporting President Hadi in the east.
The Houthis have been accused of fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran, while President Hadi’s government has received extensive support from a Saudi-led coalition. The coalition comprises forces from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, with intelligence support from the United States.
The war has so far left more than 10,000 dead and sparked a severe food crisis and cholera outbreak in western Yemen, which has been blockaded from receiving external supplies. Around 125,000 people are reported to be starving and on the verge of death in western Yemen. Both sides have used access to food as a weapon in the war.
The conflict in Yemen followed the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, as a result of which Saleh was, after 30 years in office, pushed from power. Hadi, a former senior military officer and acting President in the interim, was voted into power in an election in which he was the only candidate.
Hadi’s presidency was not recognised as legitimate by the Houthis and in 2015, Houthi forces captured the capital of Sana’a, placed Hadi under house arrest and forced his resignation as president. Hadi escaped, fled to Aden, rescinded his resignation, and then traveled to Riyadh as Saudi forces began a bombing campaign against Houthi forces.
Seeking to be restored to the presidency, Saleh and a smaller number of tribal and political loyalists, joined with the Houthis against the Hadi-led government. With the Houthis wanting to install one of their own in office, it was always an uneasy alliance.
After Saleh turned on his erstwhile Houthi allies, calling for peace talks and seeming to consolidate power in Sana’a, it appeared, momentarily, that the tide might have turned in the Yemen civil war. However, Saleh’s forces were not able to capitalise on the element of surprise and quickly lost ground to Houthi forces.
The anti-Hadi force has been weakened by the split, but not critically so. The Yemen civil war has thus returned to a stalemate, which Saudi Arabia and Iran are unlikely to want to see ended through compromise.
As with other conflicts in the Middle East, the Yemen conflict reflects local grievances based on distinct, often religious, group identities. But as with other regional conflicts, the Yemen civil war is also a proxy for a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are vying for regional supremacy.
Allies and supporters of Saudi Arabia, including Australia, might take some comfort in that country’s recent economic, legal and social reforms under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. But the country remains an absolute monarchy, in which its direction is dictated by the preferences of its king or his proxy, the Crown Prince.
In part, then, Saudi Arabia’s reforms are in part aimed at making the country more palatable to its less religiously austere neighbors. This is, in turn, part of a wider exercise in establishing Saudi regional leadership, if not hegemony.
For Yemen, then, the question of Saudi support depends less on who is the Yemen president, and more on whether they remain, in effect, a tributary to Saudi Arabia. To that end, the Yemen civil war will continue until the Saudi-supported forces win. At this stage, such a victory is not yet in sight.