The conflict in Yemen is not really about Iranian influence, as is often claimed to and in Western capitals. It’s certainly not about legitimacy or democracy, nor yet about sect, creed or colour. It’s about filthy lucre, and the corrupt access to it via state-capture. The Arab Spring—a rising up of the “street” against the kleptocracy—was co-opted and corrupted in Yemen by political factions (and their foreign sponsors.) The UN-sponsored National Dialogue Conference supposed to be a national fresh start after decades of corruption, nepotism and misrule, was itself corrupted by those very factions it sought to replace: many of the ancien regime were able to retain and leverage ill-gotten political and financial resources, despite those being the major cause of the 2011 uprising. And the West stood idly by.
Most Yemeni factions—there are many more than the “good” Hadi faction and the “bad” Houthi faction—are fighting to capture the state, or (for the secessionists) to carve out a statelet. Once they have control of the trough , they are likely to dole out patronage to Yemeni clients, as Salih did; and corruptly sell valuable franchises to foreigners, via favoured local ‘agents.’ . It’s all about making a quick buck.
Who makes money?
The rampant corruption continues predictably, both within and without Yemen. A war economy has taken rapid root, where almost anything is available for a price—for those who have the price. While the street wastes away, many profiteer from this misery, according to the recent UN special envoy. The Houthis—once famous for their Spartan lifestyle—have been corrupted by power and Ali Abdallah Salih. The internationally recognised government, living in luxurious comfort in Riyadh, has granted the brother-in-law of the notorious General, former Salih henchman, and now Vice President in the exiled government Ali Muhsin ‘al-Ahmar’—whom the US described as “major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years”—fuel distribution rights. The name of the “legitimate” President, is now—quite literally—the Yemeni slang for a bribe: a bin Hadi.
Sadly, and unlike many other conflicts, in Yemen, the war itself is a major revenue generator, rather than a fight for resources. The main job in Yemen these days is fighting. Militias from the Houthis to al-Qaeda employ human cannon-fodder, including children who have become the family breadwinners. Otherwise unimportant tribes who occupy militarily vital ground are paid by the day to align with one side or another; the price of staples has skyrocketed due to scarcity and the bribes necessary to import the goods (a bribe often having to be paid to cross each side’s front line, as well as at check-points on each road.) This will make it far harder to persuade the leaders of factions to return to peace—and poverty.
This falling out of thieves has re-worked the political landscape. Former president Ali Abdallah Salih cooperated with his sworn foes the Houthis against his kinsman/erstwhile henchman (and Jihadi liaison) Ali Muhsin, who now cooperates with current President ARM Hadi (raised from Salih’s vice-president.) Islah—an uneasy symbiosis between the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood and the (mostly Zaydi) Hashid tribesmen—opposed both its former allies as it sought power (and wealth) itself; indeed, before the Houthi investment of Sana’a in September 2014, Islah had attempted a coup in 2011 . Newer actors rapidly came to more prominence, many funded by foreign backers: the activist Sunni Salafis—such as the al-Rashad Party—aligned against the Zaydi Houthis (although not actively with ARM Hadi); salafi militias rapidly became major independent actors, particularly in Ta’iz. The Southern secessionists—both the older/old Hirak and the newer/younger Southern Transitional Council—squabbled amongst themselves, and against Hadi—after initially fighting against the Houthi-Salihi grouping. al-Qaeda fell out then fought with Islamic State. Most famously, in December 2017 Ali Abdallah Salih tried to turn on the Houthis to sell Sana’a to the Saudis; and they killed him for his treachery.
All the while bombs are destroying both decades of modern infrastructure and millennia of Yemeni civilisations and culture including world heritage sites. Sana’a, a city founded by Shem the son of Noah, pounded by bombs; the great ancient Dam of Ma’rib sundered, not by rats but by bombs; terraces to rival Babylon’s Hanging Gardens irretrievably smashed by bombs, together with the hydrological infrastructure to support them, devastated by bombs.
Who dropped those bombs?
Mostly, the bombs have been dropped by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (The Houthis have also used indiscriminate weapons, but by their nature, artillery rounds are more limited.) These foreign governments sound like modern states, but are really feudal domains controlled by ruling families . Those dynasties—led by the Al Saud—have pushed back fiercely against the Arab Spring, which threatened to eject them from their privileged positions. In the long term, it still does: any successful republican regime (such as might have been led by the Houthis, before their corruption) would undermine the autocratic rentier model. If that should happen, there would be no more gilded palaces for these families, no more opulent yachts nor priceless art; no more bottomless bank accounts, nor functional immunity. So the oil-rich Gulf monarchies have backed Generals Haftar in Libya, al-Sisi in Egypt and Hadi in Yemen to blight the re-emerging shoots of democracy in the Arab world—and bombed Yemen back to the Dark Ages with high tech weapons.
Who sold those weapons?
The West—sanctimonious guardians of human rights, and purveyors of fine democracy—sold those weapons. For most Western governments—notably the Permanent Members of the Security Council—have returned to simplistic mercantilist foreign policies. While there is a formal definition in international relations of mercantilism, in layman’s terms, mercantilism means that everything is for sale: works of art; chateaux; companies; weapons; votes at the UN Security Council; national interest; justice; even truth.
The West’s much lauded system of checks and balances have shown themselves to be straw men. The US Senate recently voted not to invoke the War Powers Act to constrain US participation in the war; while in the UK, a court produced a ruling on the legality of arms supply which would not have been out of place in a banana republic. While human rights groups have tried to press the case, most of the news media have been shut out of Yemen, and fed a diet of propaganda by high-priced “communications” outfits, sometimes via the medium of often Gulf-funded think tanks (or “Arab-occupied territory,” as then President Obama termed it.) Even the Church seems to have been less than forthright in its denunciation of those who have made the little children suffer; and who pass by on the other side.
Yemenis have borne the brunt of a pyramid scheme of death and corruption for three long years, while serried ranks of Arab and Western actors skim each tier beneath them. Nor is this parasitic orgy likely to cease with a cessation of hostilities: there’s almost as much potential for corruption in aid as there is in war. And for the consequent misery and generational desire for accountability, usually expressed in Yemen through violence. Truly, the love of money is the root of all evil.