The future of Yemen and the role of the region’s key players

18 October 2017


The war launched by the Arab coalition on Yemen does not appear to have achieved any of its objectives, from saving the country from the Houthis and their ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to restoring legitimacy, hope, stability and development. The war has destroyed Yemen for many years to come, having become a war of attrition for the various parties, especially Saudi Arabia, which is searching for an exit at any price. What, then, are the implications of the war in Yemen? What are the roles and interests of the major regional players? What is the nature of the dispute between Saleh and the Houthis? What is the human cost of this grueling war, and what are the prospects for ending it?

To explore these questions, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies hosted a seminar featuring Bakeel al-Zandani, a lecturer at Qatar University; Abdullah al-Ghilani, a researcher in strategic affairs; Hassan Ahmadian, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Tehran; and Jaber Al Harmi, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Qatari daily, Al Sharq.

The objectives of Operation Decisive Storm: between fulfillment and failure

Bakeel al-Zandani, a lecturer at Qatar University, believes that the intervention of the Arab coalition could have been significant if it had been undertaken when the Houthis first began their movement out of Dammaj in 2013. Decisive Storm came too late, and even then, could not compel all parties to sit at the table for talks. On the contrary, after two and a half years, Yemen is still at square one, if not further behind. It should be remembered when reading current events that the capital, Sana’a, did not fall to the Houthis, but was surrendered to them by Saudi Arabia’s allies in Yemen. This poses a question: where was the Yemeni army, ostensibly subordinate to the government, during the battles of Sana’a? The Ministry of Defence and the Yemeni army remained neutral during the conflict in Sana’a, which caused it to fall to the Houthis. This raises questions about the role of the army.

Decisive Storm had a set of political, economic, social and security repercussions that should be examined in order to understand the operation’s failure to achieve its stated objectives.

On the political front, some areas were indeed liberated. These should have been politically equipped to foster nascent civil institutions to be a model to other regions; instead, these territories remained precarious and unable to provide any service. There has been a failure in Aden, Shabwa, Hadramawt and the liberated regions.

Economically, 85 percent of the population of the liberated areas continued to live in abject poverty. Civil servants were hit badly. Everyone is shifting the blame to someone else while the standard of living is in persistent decline.

Socially, sectarian and geographic-based rivalries and identities became more entrenched in liberated areas, such that there is no longer a single unifying Yemeni identity.

In security terms, militias seized control in the liberated areas. The landscape is now a mosaic of various militia groups loyal to the states of the Arab coalition, al-Qaeda or tribes.

The overall situation in Yemen demonstrates that Decisive Storm did not achieve any notable objective, even as Yemeni citizens bear unimaginable burdens. Indeed, some coalition states have been engaging in quasi-colonial practices. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has deployed forces in every liberated region, recalling the British colonial powers; dividing the areas into mini-potentates, it exercises control by directing its loyalist militias. Yemenis seek partnerships with the coalition states to transition away from chaos and war toward conditions that respect the constitution and legitimacy, not toward an Emirati occupation that gives rise to further divisions and conflicts.

Decisive Storm and the protection of Saudi interests in Yemen

Abdullah al-Ghilani, a researcher in strategic affairs, believes that while the beginning of the Yemeni crisis and its fallout ere exceptional, these events are nevertheless a natural outgrowth of already-existing, well-known conditions. In order to understand Decisive Storm, one must pay particular heed to the Gulf approach to Yemen. That is, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regime has a specific position on Yemen, and this is what produced Decisive Storm. After the fall of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia took action and forged a coalition, i.e. the Arab coalition, launching an operation whose strategic motivations were entirely comprehensible; on the face of it, it sought to preserve Saudi interests in Yemen above all else. But the military operation lacked a guiding political vision to take advantage of the outcomes.

A few weeks after Decisive Storm began, on 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia announced an end to the operation and launched Operation Restoring Hope. Yet, Decisive Storm had not restored legitimacy to the country nor won victory over the Houthis and their ally, Saleh. How, then, could a military operation that had not achieved its central objective be concluded? This strategic oversight was the result of a lack of a political vision operating in parallel with military action. Despite their importance, the areas liberated by Decisive Storm did not seem to be Houthi strongholds; they were instead a burden and thus were easily relinquished as the Houthis retreated to the areas advantageous to them such as Saada, Amran and Sana’a.

The Arab coalition, and Saudi Arabia first and foremost, should have turned liberated Yemeni territories into a political and economic model, which could have acted as a magnet for all the Yemeni territory in the hands of the Houthis and Saleh’s forces. Yet, these areas continued to be precarious, war-torn and without economic support, while the Yemeni government remained in exile in Riyadh. In fact, the main predicament is that Yemen has become captive to regional and international players and the Yemeni force that should lead the resistance and be at the forefront—that is, the government and its apparatus and political and tribal forces—are nowhere to be seen.

Iran and the Yemeni situation

Hassan Ahmadian, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Tehran, said that the narrative urging the need to deter Iranian expansion in the region in general and Yemen in particular, is inaccurate. From the Iranian perspective, there was a force in Yemen, Ansar Allah, that sought to escape Saudi control; its power grew after the Arab Spring, much to Saudi Arabia’s displeasure. This is the heart of the matter. For Iran, an independent Yemen is better than a Yemen subordinate to Saudi Arabia. Iran also views Decisive Storm as a Saudi attempt to reclaim control of a Yemen that does not heed Riyadh’s dictates.

The media spin that current events are an attempt to contain Iranian expansion in the region is simply justification for a war against Yemen. Ansar Allah, according to Ahmadian, took a large part of Yemeni territory and made the initiative to arm itself; it then began talks with various domestic parties, but these proved fruitless. This is when the problems began inside Yemen, absent any Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia then made various accusations against Iran in order to justify a war in Yemen, the aim of which was to undermine Yemeni independence and bring the country back under Saudi tutelage. As is well known, Iran opposed Decisive Storm with the political and media tools in its possession.

Ahmadian said that Saudi Arabia does not possess a clear vision of how to extricate itself from the war; Decisive Storm thus became a war of attrition that has dragged out for two and a half years. While Saudi Arabia and its allies have made some gains, they did not achieve the main objectives. The problem is that even if the objective was to deter Iranian expansion and the deterrence was pertinent, Decisive Storm came to nothing. In fact, the tools Saudi Arabia is using run counter to its objectives, demonstrated by the fact that Ansar Allah is only growing in strength and popularity within Yemen. Sana’a did not fall as a result of war; there was a dialogue. But circumstances shifted in Ansar Allah’s favour, and it found itself an ally of the Popular Congress and every force that wants independence from Saudi Arabia.

Prospects for the Yemeni crisis: is there a solution?

Jaber Al Harmi, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Qatari daily, Al Sharq, believes that none of the defined objectives of Decisive Storm was achieved. Even in liberated areas such as Aden, there is no security and no functioning institutions, and the president is still missing or abducted. Overall, decisions about Yemen are in the hands of other, non-Yemeni parties. Before Decisive Storm, one united Yemen was spoken of; today, we speak of two Yemens: south and north. Prior to Decisive Storm, it was said that the Houthis would be eliminated; today, they are the ones present. It was Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that gave Iran space to expand. Saudi Arabia lost the war and, as a result, it devolved into a war of attrition. The reality is that there are no real prospects for a solution.

The current situation is this: people are suffering from food insecurity and Gulf neglect despite the fact that Yemen is part of the Gulf’s strategic depth. Saudi Arabia has even freed itself of its traditional alliance with some of the tribes in Yemen. The UAE has played a major role in leaving Saudi Arabia vulnerable in Yemen; it is even working to ensure that any possible judicial inquiry in the future would target Saudi Arabia rather than the UAE. Yet, the UAE controls the ports and the islands, and it has established prisons and armed militias. The Yemeni people, meanwhile, are the principal victims of this war: thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and catastrophes—not the least of which is the cholera epidemic—are rampant. The question remains: After 30 months, what has Decisive Storm accomplished? Thought must be given about how to escape from the crisis, but the Omani role offers the hope of salvation. Muscat is better placed than other parties to bridge differences and find a consensual solution that could restore Yemen. Although this war could last for decades, Saudi Arabia and its allies are exposing themselves to legal accountability, as they confront an ethical quandary and popular revulsion as well.

In this context, al-Ghilani noted that the situation in Yemen is an issue of regional security. Whatever is decided in Yemen will have repercussions for Saudi Arabia and Oman, the two biggest Arab states in the region. Both countries have social ties and political borders with Yemen, and events in the latter will reverberate in Riyadh and Muscat.

What has happened and will happen in Yemen is a result of the Gulf approach, as al-Ghilani noted above. The war against secession in Yemen in 1994 was supported by most Gulf states. Were it not for internal calculations, persistent resistance and Saleh’s alliance with the Islamists, Yemen would have been divided into two entities, north and south.

The Arab coalition, represented by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is reproducing old mistakes. The liberated areas need an attractive economic system, not just dominance and an extension of Gulf influence. No one player can forge the Yemeni reality; Yemen is large and well entrenched historically and geographically.

The humanitarian situation in Yemen is now eclipsing everything else, but it is dangerous for the Yemeni crisis to become simply and solely a humanitarian issue. That is a dangerous turn. Certainly, the interest in human beings is important, but the issue cannot be reduced to this that of a displaced people, suffering from disease and hunger. Strategically speaking, it is a mistake to turn the issue into a humanitarian one, although this is the aspect that now dominates in the halls of the United Nations. This development should be confronted.

Relatedly, Al Harmi said that in 1994, Qatar was the sole Gulf state that supported Yemeni unity. It even attempted to mediate in 2007 and 2008, and an agreement was concluded between the Houthis and Saleh before they set out from Saada and marched on to Dammaj and Amran. The Doha-sponsored agreement provided for development projects. Since the mediation was undertaken by Qatar, some GCC states sought to hinder it. Even the Gulf Initiative proposed in 2011 was ultimately rendered void of content, prompting Qatar to withdraw from it two or three months later. The Arab coalition states continued to wage the war without objectives and a political vision, and everyone paid the price of this strategic error. More than $180 million has been spent on the war in Yemen, Al Harmi maintained. If one-tenth of this sum was spent on development, it would have been better for Yemen, but the GCC states and its secretariat seem uninterested in Yemen beyond inviting it to the Gulf Cup. They do not seem interested in inviting the Yemeni people to be part of Gulf societies. The Sultanate of Oman is poised to play an important role in the future in resolving the Yemeni issue, for it may be the last resort for all players. Oman did not take part in Decisive Storm, which bolsters its role as a mediator. Al Harmi argued that ultimately fomenting war in Yemen and blockading Qatar would be costly for everyone; it will stoke resentments, further destroy Yemen and inflame sectarianism and confessionalism.

Al-Zandani surmised that the ties between the General Popular Congress and the Houthis would cast a shadow over Yemen’s future, for the alliance between them is only interest-based and has simply delayed the conflict. Saleh and his supporters have strong ties with Abu Dhabi, while Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, are linked to Iran. In this context, al-Ghilani said that there is an Iranian project in Yemen, insisting that it is a well-known fact. Iran has levers in the Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula, and one of these is the Houthis. But there is a difference between confirming that there is an Iranian project with various pillars in the region and saying that Iran created the events in Yemen. The fact is that Gulf contributions to the Yemen crisis were greater and more profound than those of Iran. Iran, however, took advantage of events in Yemen. Tehran’s allies, the Houthis, reached power and attained influence disproportionate to their size, making gains that Saudi Arabia wishes them to forgo. So the question is: what can compel Iran to pressure the Houthis to relinquish their gains? It is true that Yemen is not like Iraq or Syria to Iran, but there is nothing to urge Iran to pressure its Houthi allies to make concessions to the Arab coalition. While the Houthi-Saleh alliance is a temporary necessity and will certainly end, perhaps as a result of a dispute, the Houthis currently control the most important regions of Yemen. There must be a shift in the balance of power to make them vulnerable to pressure.

This coincided with the outlook of Ahmadian who believes that Iranian pressure on Ansar Allah to retreat is not likely at the present time. Ahmadian believes a war was imposed on Yemen by Saudi Arabia two and a half years ago. The war destroyed Yemen, and today we are witnessing a Saudi war that aims to create a Yemeni reality, which is unacceptable. However, the party that imposed the war is also demanding that Iran pressure Ansar Allah. From the Iranian perspective, this is an irresolvable and even incomprehensible paradox. Ahmadian believes that Saudi Arabia is making the same mistakes as its ally, the United States. Riyadh has not learned from the lesson of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; the United States, with all its political and military might, was unable to impose its wishes in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should have established service utilities and built political institutions in the liberated areas, and the government should have returned to these areas, but this did not happen. Certainly, nation-building is costly and requires much effort, but because Decisive Storm was from the outset devoid of any political vision, the war is running off the tracks. Ahmadian reiterated that Ansar Allah acted based on domestic, Yemeni calculations; therefore, demanding Iranian pressure on them is unfeasible for Iran.


The speakers responded to a set of comments and questions. They concluded that articulating Yemen’s position within a larger Gulf vision has been long delayed, and that the surgical operation undertaken by Gulf states, in the form of Decisive Storm, was a painful one that has had no positive result; it only left a gaping wound. Moreover, the two principal allies in the Arab coalition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, do not share the same agenda or interests. Abu Dhabi is seeking to strengthen its influence at Saudi Arabia’s expense and harm Gulf states and their interests in the region.

It is time to articulate a consensus-based Yemeni project. Yemenis are looking for a fair exit from the crisis by forming a national front consisting of all forces with popular support, first to end the war and then to find political solutions based on the law, elections and social development without being captive to regional or international players.