Forgotten War

Context:

  • On January 2, the Houthis hijacked a UAE-flagged ship, Rwabee, in the Red Sea, alleging that it was carrying military cargo.
  • Seven of its eleven crewmen are Indians. The Saudis retaliated with massive bombardment of Sanaa airport and then diverted a ship carrying fuel to Yemen to its own port.
  • The Houthis have refused to release the vessel despite a United Nations Security Council resolution and have criticised the United Nations for siding with “murderers who violate international laws”.
  • The two-year fighting to take the energy-rich province of Marib has intensified. The Houthis are just 20 km from the provincial capital, but now face freshly deployed crack troops mobilised by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the ‘Giants Brigade’ that is rapidly moving north after taking Shabwa province.

Geo-Political issues:

UAE’s Agenda

  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in a major territorial re-ordering of Yemen.
  • In the south, the UAE-supported separatist entity, Southern Transition Council (STC), controls Aden and much of the southern territory.
  • UAE is seeking unchallenged influence over the strategically valuable Bab al-Mandeb strait.
  • At its narrowest, this strait is just about 30 km wide; it links Asia with Africa and, through the Suez Canal, with Europe.
  • The UAE has now taken control of littoral ports and islands on both sides of the Red Sea – in Eritrea, Puntland and Somaliland – besides Aden and Mocha in Yemen.
  • While initially the UAE had sought to establish a military presence in the region, its priority now is to develop the ports to make the region a major commercial hub.
  • The UAE is also partnering with Israel in this area to neutralise any effort by Iran to intervene in these waters through its Houthi allies.

Saudi’s Agenda

  • The Saudi geopolitical interest is at the other end of Yemeni territory – the Al-Mahra province that abuts Oman’s entire southern border and also has a 560-km coastline on the Arabian Sea.
  • The Saudi interest is to construct an oil pipeline from its Eastern Province to Nishtun port on the Arabian Sea, thus bypassing the Strait of Hormuz where Iran has a dominant presence The fight over Marib, the last province in north Yemen outside Houthi control, will decide the outcome of this seven-year conflict. The city now has two million people and provides 90% of the country’s oil and gas. With the Giants Brigade moving to the front, there could be some heavy civilian casualties. The Houthis have sought to deter the UAE-supported forces in Marib with drone attacks on Monday on an oil facility in Abu Dhabi and the airport.
  • The Saudis have been pushing this proposal since the 1980s, but made no headway earlier as they insisted on placing their own security forces at a 4-km buffer zone along the pipeline.
  • Taking advantage of the ongoing conflict, the kingdom is preparing for a long-term military presence in this province.
  • The fight over Marib, the last province in north Yemen outside Houthi control, will decide the outcome of this seven-year conflict. The city now has two million people and provides 90% of the country’s oil and gas.
  • With the Giants Brigade moving to the front, there could be some heavy civilian casualties. The Houthis have sought to deter the UAE-supported forces in Marib with drone attacks on recently on an oil facility in Abu Dhabi and the airport.
  • Victory in this conflict will give the Houthis the financial resources to consolidate their rule over the north of Yemen, possibly resurrecting the former North Yemen that had existed before unification with the south in 1990.
Way Forward:
  • Saudi and UAE interests are likely to diverge. The UAE may find the de facto partition of Yemen acceptable as it would retain its control over the southern ports and the Bab al-Mandeb strait, and manage the south through the STC it has sponsored.
  • But Houthi control of the north will not be acceptable to the kingdom as it will view this as an Iranian proxy planting itself along its porous 1,400-km border.
  • To add to Saudi concerns, a former Lebanese general has also predicted that, after taking Marib, the Houthis could cross the border to “liberate” the former Yemeni provinces that are now part of the kingdom.
  • Thus, continued fighting in Yemen is the most likely prospect for the country. And, with limited interest in the conflict in the international community, this will remain a “forgotten war”.

Source: THE HINDU.

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