The Present and Future of Yemen’s Geopolitics amid Local and Regional Conflict

Abstract: Yemen has been lead to the dire situation it faces today due to the conflict of local and regional powers which have sought to control strategic areas in Yemen, thereby dismantling the country’s territorial integrity.Yemen’s strategic location holds high geopolitical value for regional and global powers. This has led to attempts toexploit its geopolitical value bydismantlingits unity and subjugating parts of the territory to hegemonic projects.Yemen’s primrary challenges are territorial division, societal fragmentation, economic structural destruction, anda governance vacuum, the combined effect of which has been state failure.Yemen is also passing through a dangerous phase that threatens the country’s territorial integrity.

Locally, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seeks to establish an independent state in Southern Yemen, while the Shiite Houthi group in the North seeks to reshape Yemen’s map on sectarian grounds. Moreover, regional actors,namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)activelysupportlocal proxiesin the conflictto pursue their own objectives. Consequently, local actors areengaged in hybrid warfare and are consumed in multiple conflicts in desperate attempts to redraw Yemen’s geopolitics.

Thisstudy demonstrates the complexity of the ongoing conflict in Yemen and examineshow local and foreign rivals seek to dominate strategicareas of the country in their quest for influence and control. Such a conflict can affect the geopoliticalsignificance of post-war Yemen. The study uses thedescriptive-analytical method, as well asvisual aidsand maps to demonstrate the geography of the conflict.

Keywords: Yemen,Geopolitcs, Local, Regional actors, Post-Geopolitics

1- Introductionto Yemen’s Geopolitical Features

The current study uses the term “geopolitics of Yemen” to define the geographicalboundary of the conflictand domestic and regional actors as designated geopolitical factors thatshed light on the Yemeni conflict.

Yemenstretches overan area of 527,970 sq. km. Its mainland lies in the Arabian Peninsula with an extensive coastline of around 2,000 km and over 200 islands.In addition to sharing borderswith Saudi Arabiaand Oman, italsoshares maritime borders with a number of African countries,includingDjibouti, Somalia and Eritrea.[i]Yemen is located in a sensitive geopolitical region that oversees the Horn of Africa with access over the main maritime routes linking Asia, Africa and Europe.Yemen’s critical geostrategic position has made it the subject of conflict between ancient and modern empires. In the modern period, colonial powers occupied the Yemeni coastal city of Aden and Yemen’s islands due to their connection to geo-strategic interests, while the central and northern regions were held incommunicado, and plunged into local conflicts.Therefore, geopolitical rivalry is not new to Yemen,and the almost continuous political and military conflicts between Yemeni parties led to the intervention of external powers.Taking advantage of local rivalries, Yemen’s neighborshave historically used the country to settle their own scores.

Yemen has important strategicsignificance for the Gulf countries in particular and the West in general. These countries pay close attention to the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, due to its importance for global trade, as“according to some estimates, 7% of global trade and 30% of the world’s oil passes through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.”[ii] There arealso six main ports and other local ports on the Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts. The country is also characterized by natural resources, including natural gas, oil, fish and fertile agricultural lands, and “vast metal resources including silver, gold, copper, zinc, cobalt, and nickel…Before the uprising in 2011, several companies have been licensed to prospect and explore several metal deposits in the country.”[iii]There is also a liquid natural gas projectlocated in Balhaf on the coast of Shabwah, Eastern Yemen, that was launched in 2005. It is the largest investment project in the country, butthe seaporthas been a flashpoint in clashes between the UAE and the Yemeni government since 2017 to this day.[iv]

           Photo of the project of liquid natural gas Balhaf the coast of Shabwah Eastern Yemen

Photo of the project of liquid natural gas, Balhaf, the coast of Shabwah, Eastern Yemen. [v]

Despite Yemen’simportant geopolitical location and diverseterrain, it has suffered from its political elites’inabilityto build a strong governance system and has continuously felt victim to their competition. Thus, it is safe to describeYemenas “a prototypical weak state characterized by poverty, underdevelopment, and poorly functioning state institutions.”[vi]Theselocal rivalries haveencouraged numerous Yemeni elites to advance foreignagendas at the expense of Yemen’s major interests in exchange for much-needed backing and support.

Also, most of the inhabitants of the mountainous regions are tribesmen, who are akey feature of Yemeni politics“and play a central role in the stability of theYemeni state.”[vii] To say the least,the position of tribes in northern Yemenover the past century has been decisive in shaping the outcome of past and ongoingconflicts. The previous revolutions against the Imamate system failed because most of the tribes in the mountainous areas supported the Imam. The 1962 revolution succeeded because tribes took the side of the republicans. Similarly, the 2011 uprisingwas able to force President Ali Abdallah Saleh torelenquish power because the tribes gathered in squares in support.[viii]In the latest conflict, the Houthis,understandingthis dynamic well,first imposed their military control over the tribes in the northern mountainous areas before extending their military campaign towards coastal areas. The current conflict shows the weakness of the central state, while social groups, non-state armedand religious radical groups such as the Houthis are gaining strength and resolve.

As mentioned above, the study of Yemen’s demographic characteristics points to a geopolitical weak point in terms of the clearly unequalpopulation distribution.[ix]The majority of the population is located in mountainous areas, which are characterized by drought, poor resources, and a lack of basic services. The harsh living conditions, therefore, ease the recruitmentof some of the poplutioninto armed groups like Houthis in order to meet their needs. Here, it can be said that reshaping the population map through settlement of the mountainous areas’ inhabitants in the coastal and plain areas is important to prevent future conflict between domestic actors over power and resources.Secondly,in the most recent report, the UN estimates the population as of the first of July 2022, at 31,154,867.[x]High population growth rates, as seen in the chart below,[xi] may make the problem even worse and cause the state to fail to fulfill its obligations towards its citizens.

yemen growth rate

2- The Main Domestic Actors

Today, there are many local actors, sub-national security and socialcomplexes, with each actor holding grievances ithas resolved to act on. The geopolitics of the country is divided between these actors as follows:

2.1- The Internationally Recognized Government

Yemen’s internationally recognized government, backed by Saudi Arabia,controls strategic governorates including Hadhramaut, Al-Mahra, Marib, and Taiz city, as well as some parts of Abyan.

2.2- The STC

The STC was founded in Aden, 2017 by the southern separatists and headed by AidarosAlzubidi “to lead the territories of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to independence.”[xii] The STC rules the interim capital of Aden and the neighboring governorates of Lahj, Al- Dhale, Shabwa, Socotra and some parts of Abyan. The United Arab Emirates is fully backing the STC.

2.3- The Houthi Group

The Shiite Houthi group seeks to build a Zaydi state in north Yemen. It was founded by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, and appeared in 2004 in the district of Maran, Saada governorate, North Yemen. Currently, Abdul-Malik Badruldeen al-Houthi serves as the leader of the Houthi group. The Houthi group controls the capital, Sana’a, most of the northern governorates, and the city of Hodeidah and its ports. Iran is the main supporter of the Houthi group. As stated by one US official,“Iran’s support for  Houthi group is “quite significant and it’s lethal.”[xiii]

2.4- The National Resistance Forces (NRF)

In 2017, theNRFwas founded by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the former president, Ali AbduallahSaleh, with UAE backing. The NRF consists of some of the previous members of the Republican Guard and security forces. These forces rule the Mocha regionand the Red Sea coast of western Yemen.

2.5- The Salafi groups (Giants Brigades)

The Salafi groups (Giants Brigades) were established between  2016 and 2018,  run by Abdulrahman Abu Zara’a Al Muharrami, a Salafi religious leader, who is currently a member of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). These forces are deployed in some southern governorates. Most Giants Brigades fighters are from the Salafis and some tribesmen from Lahej, Abyan and Dhale. These forces are fully supported by the UAE.

In addition to these military groups, there are some other tribal local actors.These includethe “Inclusive Hadhramout Conference,” which focuses on Hadhramaut’s political, economic, security and social interests, and the Southern National Coalition (SNC) which aims to achieve the project of a federal state, according to the outcome document of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC),[xiv] and Al-Mahhra peaceful sit-in committee which rejects the Saudi presence in Al-Mahra.

The map shows the domestic actors before the latest truce January 2022

The map shows the domestic actors before the latest truce, January 2022.[xv]

Some ofthese domestic actors have extended their military control over a specific geography, which made them establish a kind of independent self-rule, leading to the dismantling of Yemen’s political geography. These actors, specificallythe Houthi group, the STC and the NRF, are linked to regional powers such as Iran and the UAE. The control of these actors over some governorates and the extension of their militarycontrol has led to the spread of chaos, a culture of hatred, the dissemination of inciting rhetoric,the weakening of central state institutions, and a proliferation of the black market, arms trade, and the formation of armed entities spread on non-national grounds. For instance, “during the first years of the war, the Houthi group depleted the Central Bank’s foreign exchange coffers, amounting to 5 billion US dollars, and acquired 500 billion Yemeni riyals, in addition to the deposits of local banks before the current war, which are now frozen and their owners are unable to obtain them.”[xvi]

2-  An Outlook of the Current Local Conflict and Grievances

The conflict betweendomestic actors is focused on power and wealth, with ideologies acting as justifications for the public. Some of these actors are carving territory for themselves evenat the expense of the country’s territorial integrity. However, the NRF as well as other political parties, including the General People’s Congress (GPC), the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah party, an Islamic party), Al-Mahhra peaceful sit-in committee, and SNC, aimto preserve Yemen’sterritorial integrity and build a unified state. It is truethat there are political differences between these parties, but they are united on the importance of the country’s territorial integrity.On the other hand, the ultimate objectives ofthe Houthi group and the STC are to reshape the country’s geopolitics. Despite the extention of thetruce until 2 October 2022, sporadic military clashes between the Houthi group and the government forces in Marib, Taiz, Hajjah, Saada and Al-Jawfare still ongoing, and there are deep political differences between the STC,the government and the military thatmay erupt at any moment.Moreover,the current fighting between the Yemeni national army and security forcesand theUAE-backed STC fighters inShabwaposes a serious challenge and exposes the fragility of the Presidential Leadersip Council.

2.1- The Houthis Attempt toReshape the Country’s Geopolitics

The first military conflict between government forces and the Houthi rebels was in 2004,[i]and ended in 2010. Despite the government apologyfor “the 1994 civil war in the south and to Shiite Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada”, [ii]in the NDC (2013-2014),the Houthis responded to conference by demanding compensation, a solution to the grievance of Sada’a and “required a division that would grant them access to the sea…They were not supportive of federalism.”[iii] As for the separatists, they demanded to establish an independent state in southern Yemen. Thus, both the Houthis and the southern separatists did not accept the outcomes of the NDC.

After the military coup of the Houthi group in September 2014, the country entered into a hybrid internal conflict amid regional intervention, a situation whichcontinues to this day. This military coup of the Houthi group complicated the crisis and led to state fragmentation.Likewise, the coup demonstrated that the Hashemite Zaydi class to which the Houthis belong was a major part of the deep state in Saleh’s reign. It did not believe in the republican system and political pluralism. Subsequently, the Houthis have impeded many attempts to build lasting peace anda political solution.In 2018, the UN’s envoy, Ould Cheikh Ahmed, announced that “the Houthis failed a consensual political solution in the negotiations hosted by Kuwait in 2016, doubting that they have an actual will to end the war.” [iv]

It seems that the Houthis are rejecting political partnership and peace offers is due to their ideology based on “the entitlement of Al–albayt to the caliphate.”[v]They believe thatleadership of Yemen can only be assumed by the Hashimate family, which iscurrently represented by the family of Abdelmalek al-Houthi.

For instance, The oath of allegiance to the group is given as a pledge to God regarding guardianship and authority (wilaya): “Oh God, we obey you, we obey your messenger, we obey Imam Ali, and we obey whomever you have ordered us to obey, my master Abd al-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Oh God, we absolve your enemy, the enemy of your Prophet, the enemy of Imam Ali, and the enemy of the one you commanded us to obey, my master Abd al-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi.”[vi]

Hussein al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi group,rejects pluralism in any sense of its meaning in thought oreven the branches of jurisprudence.[vii]Hence, the political thought of the Houthi group believes that Yemenis must accept the rule of Ahl al-Bayt, and therefore rejects politicalparticipation and a democratic system.

Over the past eight years, the Houthishave builta repressive ideologicalsectarian system in the areas of their control and are attempting to create an independent imamate in Yemen.They are conducting military offensives to control oil and gas resources in Marib and complete theircontrol over the northern regions,[viii] where they wantto seize an outlet on the Red Sea coast through the ports of Saleef, Hodeidah, and Midi, as well as important areas that will supply them with oil and gas, which are centred in Marib. This would allow them to move to control the southern regions.While the continuation of violence and conflictfurthers prolong their time in power, nonetheless,the repression and persecution of  tribes, the lack ofservices, and the Houthi ideology based on the exclusion of others remain a possible challenge to their continuation in power as a fait accompli.