The Yemen Crisis: Could Domestic Conflict Grow into Protracted Regional War?

March 27, 2015


Brian Whitaker

former Middle East editor for The Guardian. He now runs the website, which covers Arab politics and society. His new report is "Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A historical review of relations."

Iona Craig

a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014.

As Saudi Arabia and Egypt threaten to send ground troops into Yemen, we look at the roots of the crisis. While many analysts have described the fighting as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, journalist Iona Craig says the fighting stems from a domestic conflict. "People try to frame this as an Iran versus Saudi kind of battle, which it has now become. But it is very much because of domestic politics," explains Iona Craig, who recently spent four years reporting from Sana’a. We also speak to Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian, about the decades-old history of Saudi intervention in Yemen.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Yemen and the Saudi-led bombing campaign, we’re joined by two guests in London. Iona Craig is back with us, journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014. And Brian Whitaker is with us, former Middle East editor for The Guardian. He now runs the website, which covers Arab politics and society, where he wrote a new report on "Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A Historical Review of Relations."

Brian, let’s begin with you. Can you lay that relationship out? The significance of Saudi Arabia now bombing Yemen with the U.S. supporting Saudi Arabia?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, it’s a long and complicated relationship, really. You know, we have—Saudi Arabia is a rich, conservative monarchy, and on the other side, we have Yemen, which is very populous, it’s very poor, and it’s republican. And those two are separated by a border of about 1,500 miles, which is very difficult to police. I think, generally, among the Gulf monarchies, there’s a certain level of apprehension about Yemen, partly because it’s not like them.

And if we look at their relations with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia was created as a state in 1932; within two years of that, there was a war between the Saudis and the Yemenis, which resulted in the—Yemen ceding some ethnically Yemeni territory to Saudi Arabia. And as part of that deal also, Yemenis were allowed to work in Saudi Arabia on quite generous terms, and that led to large numbers of Yemenis working in the kingdom and sending remittances back to Yemen. That was quite a rocky relationship, as well, because in the early 1990s, when the Saudis didn’t much like Yemen’s attitude to Saddam Hussein, several hundred thousand Yemeni workers were expelled from the kingdom.

We also had the North Yemeni Civil War in the 1960s, where we saw the Saudis intervening on behalf of the royalists, and the Egyptians intervening on behalf the republicans. So that was a military struggle. And then, in the mid-1990s when North and South Yemen became—have become unified, but then a war broke out between the North and the South. The Saudis were supporting the southern separatists.

And, of course, most recently, in 2009, when the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was having one of his six wars against the Houthis, the Saudis joined in then with a bombing campaign to help. So, there’s a long history, and also there’s a long history, apart from military things, of Saudi involvement in Yemeni politics, which has often taken the form of payments to tribes, politicians and so on—you know, the sort of things other people would probably call bribes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in effect, then, the Yemenis have functioned almost as a reserve labor force for Saudi Arabia? You were mentioning it. They also function that way for other states in the region? And also, you mentioned there were—the unification of Yemen. But for a time, there was actually—wasn’t there a left-wing government in South Yemen?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Indeed. The only Arab Marxist government was in the South, and that disappeared in 1990 when North and South became unified. Then, the southerners had second thoughts about it, and a war broke out in 2004, which lasted a few weeks. And so, basically, the Saudis were, at that stage, supporting the—as they were then, the ex-Marxists who had ruled the South. So it’s a curious relationship because, at some time or other, the Saudis have supported most of the different factions within Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, what do you feel is most important to understand right now? And can you talk about the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting that took place yesterday, a kind of Sunni meeting?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think at the moment in Yemen, you have to realize that the situation has got to where it is now largely because of domestic politics, as well. People try and frame this as an Iran-versus-Saudi kind of battle, which it has now become, but it’s very much because of domestic politics. And the reason the Houthis have been able to get to where they are today is very much because of the support of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has been plotting this for some time, certainly, you know, at least since 2012, 2013. And although they’re old enemies, they are now supporting each other in this battle. So, this came about, really, because Saleh was granted immunity by the GCC in the deal that he signed at the end of 2011. And these are the very same people that are now bombing him today, so there’s quite a deep irony in the situation that’s going on right now. And although Saleh hasn’t been doing that overtly, it was clear and very evident to me when I was on the ground in September, when the Houthis took Sana’a, that those men that were in plainclothes with Houthi stickers on their Kalashnikovs were in fact the Republican Guard. They were saying it openly, and people recognized them as former Republican Guard soldiers who were under the command of Ahmed Ali, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son. So I think you have to be—you know, it has to be quite clear that although you talk about the Houthis being supported by Iran, they’re actually, on the ground, being supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh much more than there is any evidence that they’re being supported by Iran at the moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Iona Craig, as the civil strife in Yemen grows, do you have any sense of what’s going on with the jihadi forces within Yemen, and obviously, the United States’ big concern, the drone strikes that have repeatedly been targeted within Yemen by the United States?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think the issue now is the counterterrorism policy for the U.S. has pretty much vanished, in the sense that the National Security Bureau, that was really set up by the Americans, the Yemeni intelligence agency, in order to gather human intelligence to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is now the hands of the Houthis. In addition to that, the counterterrorism troops that were being trained by the Americans, that all stopped last Friday when the Americans finally left. And now the Saudis, backed by America, are bombing military bases across the country. So, it’s certainly feasible that amongst all of that the counterterrorism troops are going to be impacted by that.

Now, as far as what the jihadist groups’ reaction is to—for al-Qaeda, certainly, you know, for them, they’re going to be able to take advantage of this kind of mess that’s going on in Yemen, whether that means being able to take weapons as military bases are vacated, knowing that they’re going to be hit—if the Houthis haven’t already taken those weapons themselves. But it is going to be an opportunity for them, particularly as it’s going to polarize the society within Yemen itself. This sectarian element will become, you know, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and therefore that will, almost inevitably, in some way, drive some people into the hands of al-Qaeda. Even if they’re not before, they may find themselves fighting on the same side of al-Qaeda in order to defend themselves and their territory.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of the U.S. role with Iran in all the different places now—working with Iran, if you will, in Iraq, although they kind of deny this; working against Iran in Yemen right now; and negotiating with Iran around a nuclear deal—Brian Whitaker, can you talk about the significance of this?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, obviously, there are quite a few ironies in that situation. The latest I’ve seen today, though, is that Iran doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting more deeply involved in Yemen at the moment. And that might be quite a smart move. I think the Americans would also be probably leaning on them not to step things up in Yemen, in order to secure the nuclear deal. I think that—for the Americans, I think the nuclear deal is probably the priority at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: At this point, Iona Craig, what do you feel needs to happen? You know, we have President Obama famously recently saying that Yemen is the one major success story in the war against terrorism. What do you think, as you listen to a man I’m sure you know well, Farea Al-Muslimi, on the ground in Sana’a under the bombardment, saying, "What our country needs is investment in the economy, is education, is not more bombs"?

IONA CRAIG: I mean, certainly, most immediately, is some sort of political settlement to get out of this current crisis. But by pushing the Houthis this far, by deciding to bomb Yemen, I don’t think—the indication from the Houthis at the moment is they are not prepared to back down, which means more bombing and the possibility of even ground troops. The Houthis, you know, have been fighting in Yemen for over 10 years now. And I think the real risk is, if ground troops are involved, that this could be a very protracted and long, borne-out conflict, which is going to impact Yemenis massively.

You know, what Farea was saying was really depressing, but absolutely true. The economy has all but collapsed. The government—not that there is one, really, but there isn’t the finances to prop up the civil service indefinitely, and not even for many more weeks. You’ve got 16 million people in need of humanitarian aid, and that was before this conflict started. So, I think for Yemenis on the ground at the moment, there is this real risk for them that this becomes a long, drawn-out process, where the Saudis are saying it will be a few days of aerial bombardment in order to reduce the military power of the Houthis. But they know this territory. They’ve been fighting in Yemen, in the highlands in Yemen, for 10 years. If the Saudis or the Egyptians decide to take them on on the ground, this could be a very long process.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, just recently awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Brian Whitaker, thanks so much for being with us, former Middle East editor for The Guardian, now runs the website We’ll link to that. It covers Arab politics and society. Wrote the new report, "Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A Historical Review of Relations." This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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