Yemen has become an embarrassment for Saudi Arabia, mainly because an Iran backed force of Yemeni Shia rebels continues to operate on the Saudi southern border for three years and the Saudi military is unable to do much about it. In early 2015 hundreds of Saudi warplanes were tuned loose in Yemen along with several thousand Saudi ground troops. This helped halt and turn back the rebel advance that was all. Although the pilots and troops performed well they were unable to quickly defeat the Iran-backed rebels. At this point Iran saw this as an opportunity, even if the Shia tribes they backed would probably be defeated eventually.
Iran played up (in the mass media) the fact that in Yemen here was another example of how Sunni Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. This sort of thing is seen frequently in Yemen. For example several hundred Shia rebels crossed the border into Saudi Arabian province of Jizan in December 2015 with the intention of doing as much damage as they could. Saudi ground and air forces responded but after over a week of fighting some of the Yemeni Shia gunmen were still north of the border. At that point the Saudis claimed to have killed over 200 of the invaders but the Yemenis soon withdrew because they were there to inflict damage, not be on the receiving end.
The Yemeni tribes of have long proved too tough for the Saudis to bother with. While the Saudis were able to make peace with and subdue the Shia tribes on their side of the present border in the 1930s they found it prudent to halt and make peace with the Shia tribes further south in British controlled Yemen. That worked until the British left in the 1960s and Iran became a religious dictatorship in 1980s. To further complicate matters Islamic radicals from Saudi Arabia (like Osama bin Laden) and even more from Egypt founded al Qaeda and began demanding that all the governments in Arabia be replaced with Sunni religious dictatorships. Thus by 2010 Saudi troops found themselves facing angry Shia tribesmen and Sunni Islamic terrorists on their southern border.
Nearly all this border violence takes place is in the three Saudi border provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran. Most of the threatened border is in Najran where most of the half million locals are Shia. Nevertheless these Shia are loyal (so far) to the Saudi king. The provincial capital (also called Najran) has a population of 240,000 and is close enough to the Yemen border to be, since 2015, the target of frequent Yemeni rebel artillery and rocket attacks. The Yemeni Shia do not want to hit Saudi civilians along the border if only because most of these civilians are Shia. So the attacks concentrate on military and economic targets, especially those involved with oil. The Saudis have an easier time concealing military and police losses as well as damage to oil facilities. Security forces and oil facilities have always been well protected, by secrecy as well as more conventional means (well trained and loyal guards and workers). That loyalty is not permanent and is there largely because the Saud family has demonstrated for over a century that it can defend itself, at least inside the kingdom. Anywhere beyond the Saudi borders is another matter.
The current war against rebel Shia tribesmen became a joint Yemen-Saudi campaign against the common enemy during late 2009, when Saudi warplanes used several hundred missiles and bombs on Yemeni rebel targets near the Saudi border. This attack was triggered by an incident on October 14th, when Saudi police caught two al Qaeda members trying to get past a border post dressed as women, and carrying weapons and bomb making material. The two were killed in a gun battle, along with a policeman.
Then, on November 3rd 2009, a group of Yemeni rebels entered Saudi Arabia and attacked Saudi police, killing one of them. One of the rebels was killed, and the rest fled back into Yemen. The rebels demanded that Saudi Arabia stay out of the fighting. The rebels also called on the UN to help negotiate a ceasefire, but the Yemeni army believed it was close to capturing the rebel leaders, and crushing the rebellion. On November 5th, in response to the Yemeni rebel attack, Saudi Arabia sent F-15 and Tornado fighter-bombers across the border to hit suspected rebel camps.
The Saudis believed that al Qaeda members would try to sneak back into the kingdom, rather than risk capture by Yemeni troops. The Saudis feared that the rebels were harboring a number of Saudi al Qaeda members, and that these terrorists were behind an August 28 2009 attempt to assassinate a senior Saudi official. That attempt involved a bomber who hid the bomb in his ass. You can't get much explosives up there, and the attempt failed. But if it were tried in an aircraft, the results might be catastrophic.
In 2009 the Shia rebels had nowhere to turn for help, as Saudi Arabia considers Shias heretics. Iran, however, has long provided moral, and cash, support for the Shia Arab tribes in Yemen. Since the Shia tribes are inland, away from the coast, it's difficult for Iran to deliver anything else. With cash, the rebels can bribe local officials, buy supplies for themselves and their families, and replenish their ammo and weapons from gunrunners. In late 2009 Yemeni troops captured three arms dealers, who were not in the area to dispense charity. The soldiers have made it difficult for anything to get through to the rebels. That worked until 2011, then it didn’t.
There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect. In 2009 only a few hundred thousand Zaidi were up in arms against the government, and not all of them were actively resisting the advancing troops. There are another million Zaidis across the border in Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni majority makes any uprising, or assistance to their Yemeni brethren, highly unlikely. The rebels appeared ready to go down fighting, and have mountain fortresses that have always been difficult to take. By 2010 it was apparent that this all might go on for a while but back then it was believed that this uprising would not end well for the Shia rebels.
The north Yemen tribes, both Shia and Sunni, have long been a problem. Back in 2006 the Yemen government made peace with the northern Shia tribes, and some of the tribesmen soon ignored their promises to behave. By 2009 government began playing hardball, and demanding surrender, before peace talks began. If the tribal rebels could not get pressure from foreigners (the UN, NGOs) to help them out, surrender would be the only option. Instead the rebels got the unexpected 2011 Arab Spring uprising that overthrew the Saleh government in Yemen that they had been fighting for years.
Before 2011 the Shia Islamic militants of northern Yemen wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. From 2004 to 2010 several thousand died in this on-and-off war between the Shia tribesmen and the Yemeni security forces. At that time Yemen was supposed to be the new headquarters of “Al Qaeda in Arabia" (Saudi Arabia no longer being safe for the terrorists) these Islamic terrorists were keeping their heads down. Other groups in the south want to break away and form their own "Yemen." But in 2010 the government saw the Shia rebels in the north as the bigger threat. The dissident politicians in the south were waiting to see how the war with the Shia tribes played out. And al Qaeda was waiting as well and eventually turned into AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
Up to 2010 there has been some gunfire from southern separatist groups, but nothing major. Because of that many of the al Qaeda members headed back to Saudi Arabia, fearing that once the tribes were pacified, Islamic terrorists would be next on the target list. They were right, but the Arab Spring and increased Iranian aid for the Shia rebels kept Yemen continuously in turmoil and provided an opportunity AQAP is still taking advantage of.
AQAP also carried out attacks against the Shia rebels. The bin Laden family are Sunnis from Yemen, and al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was always brutal in his persecution of Shias. By 2010 the battles with the Shia tribesmen were more intense than the skirmishing that began in 2004. Until 2009 things had been quiet for two years. In 2005, nearly a thousand troops and tribesmen died, while in 2004 some 400 died. There have been several truces, but the al Houthi supporters keep breaking them. The rebels kept demanding more concessions from the Saleh government (which was a coalition of Shia and Sunni groups). What is ironic about all this is that the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi. But the rebels consider Saleh a traitor for dealing with the Sunni majority.
The pre-2011 unrest was largely because there were many Yemenis who had a grudge against the government. Most of this could be traced back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again. This came back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.)
The unrest in Yemen would have subsided had it not been for the Arab Spring unrest of 2011 that triggered widespread calls for less corruption and more economic and social progress. That caused a violent backlash, especially by Islamic conservatives who saw 2011 as an attack on Islam by non-Moslems. That in turn gave a boost to Islamic radicals like al Qaeda and their Shia counterparts in Iran. From that we got the current “war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants (which over 80 percent of Moslems follow). Iranian media plays up the suffering of Yemenis in general and manages to maintain too low a profile to attract much media attention (outside the Arab world). That angers the Sunni Arabs as well but there are more pressing problems for most Arab countries. First there is the low world price of oil, which appears to be permanent, or at least not short-term. This hurts Iran as well but the Iranians never became as dependent on oil as their Arab neighbors did. That and the more impressive Iranian military and diplomatic history make Iran, ruled by an ambitious religious dictatorship of Shia clerics, the worst possible threat for Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. Naturally, Iran was immune to the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring and saw it as an opportunity. This turned out to be true for Iran but for Arab nations like Libya, Syria and Yemen all these 2011 reform efforts have brought catastrophe. That’s not unique and characterizes the last thousand years of Islamic history. But that’s another story.
An Unwelcome Reminder
The Yemeni government recently announced that there would be closer monitoring of how foreign aid groups used their money. This was another warning to Arab countries providing economic and military aid to do something about their own corruption. It has been the corruption in local Arab nations (Oman, Kuwait and Qatar are often mentioned) that has enabled Iran to continue smuggling weapons to the Shia rebels in Yemen despite an aerial and naval blockade enforced since early 2015. The blockade has not intercepted any arms shipments so far in 2017 yet the rebels are using more Iranian UAVs and ballistic missiles in combat. The missiles are particularly embarrassing as they continue to be fired at targets in Saudi Arabia, including military bases, including more next to the holy city of Mecca.
Earlier in 2017 there were gun battles in the south (Aden) between Arab coalition and pro-government militias because of corruption. Someone had stolen the money meant for the payroll of the tribal militia that has been guarding the airport since 2015. The UAE has been supplying the cash for this and it is still unclear who was responsible (or irresponsible) for the problem. In any event the aggrieved tribal militia closed the airport to pressure whoever to get them paid. The provincial governor wanted to keep the airport open while the payroll problem was handled so he asked the Presidential Guard (stationed in Aden because that is where the national government is temporarily based) to go provide security at the airport. The tribal militia was unwilling to cooperate and the airport remained closed amidst occasional gunfire.
But the main problem is the corruption. Aid groups complain that they have to divert money from buying and importing food to medical supplies in order to deal with the cholera outbreak. Asking donor states (and private foundations or individuals) for more money doesn’t work when the destination is a place like Yemen. Because of the Internet donors can more easily exchange information on the success or failure of their efforts. Yemen most frequently comes up on the losing side because of the rampant corruption and banditry.
The UN also steadfastly refuses to address the corruption that triggered the civil war in the first place and continues to make it difficult to deliver essential food and other aid or halt the delivery of Iranian weapons to the rebels (who were supposed to be the champions against corruption). It’s the proverbial “elephant in the room” no one wants to acknowledge much less try to eliminate.
The Cost of Failure
The UN has documented the extent of the disaster in Yemen as much as it can (lacking access to many rebel and Islamic terrorist controlled areas). Since the civil war began in early 2015 the UN has evidence of at least 5,000 civilian deaths and the actual civilian toll may be as high as 11,000. Deaths are more frequent now because of years of food shortages and lack of medical care. Over 40,000 have been wounded so far and more than ten percent of the population (about three million people) has been driven from their homes and are still unable to return. More than half the population is in need of food and medical aid and most of the population is dependent on foreign aid to one degree or another. Yet the UN obtains only a fraction of the money for this from the usual donor nations. The main problem is the chronic corruption in Yemen and the fact that even with so many (over 15 million) Yemenis dependent on food aid, a lot of this aid gets diverted by corrupt officials and local (often tribal) leaders.
Since June 5th, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with Qatar over problems that had long been kept quiet. In the region it was widely known that Qatar had long provided aid and assistance to the Shia rebels in Yemen. Actually that was no surprise as Qatar, like many of the small coastal Arab states in the Persian Gulf have long survived by being open to work with anyone. What was different this time, according to the Saudis, was that Qatar actively worked with Iran to promote the Yemeni Shia rebellion in 2014 that nearly took over all of Yemen by early 2015. Qatar denies this extreme version but its fellow Arabian states side with the Saudis. Thus on June 5th ambassadors were expelled, borders were closed and Qatar was made to feel very unwelcome. Yemen and several other Moslem nations followed the suit. In addition Qatar was expelled from the coalition that sent forces into Yemen in early 2015. Qatar contributed about a thousand troops, apparently with the understanding that they would not be required to do any heavy fighting. Thus the Qatari troops have been stationed in the north, to guard a usually quiet portion of the border with Saudi Arabia and only reported six of their troops wounded (or injured) during their time in Yemen.
The expulsion comes after years of disagreements over support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. Cutting ties with Qatar was partly retaliation against the Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network which often reports on real or imagined (depending on who you ask) bad behavior by Sunni Arab security forces, including the Arab coalition bombing campaign murder of civilians and trying to pass that off as a clash with Islamic terrorists. While that happens, al Jazeera also gives sympathetic treatment to Islamic radical and terrorist groups, especially in Egypt and Syria, that hardly anyone else (Moslem or otherwise) has much sympathy for. Qatar also openly supports Palestinian terror group Hamas, although they recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (or worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well. Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. This sort of behavior is not uncommon in the region and the small Arab Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and the member states of the UAE have survived for centuries using these methods. One could say Qatar has been too successful and the current unpleasantness is the price of that success. As is the local custom secret meetings will be held, demands discussed and agreements made. How long this takes will depends how much pressure can really be applied to Qatar, which has close ties with Iran, Turkey and the United States.
Red Sea Stalemate
Since late 2015 much of the fighting in Yemen has been in southwestern Taiz province, which has always been heavily fought over mainly because it has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels. The most heavily fought over area continues to be Taiz city, near the Red Sea. Government forces have been slowly driving rebels out of the city. For over a month government forces have been pushing inland from the Red Sea town of Mocha (Mokha) to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle is the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels two years ago by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and continues to hold out. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to surround the Khalid base and force it to surrender. In the north government forces have taken high ground east of the capital (Saana) within sight of the city and established positions to observe and call in accurate artillery and rocket fire when large groups of rebels assemble or move. The fulltime observations posts also make it easier to keep track of the pro-government Sunni militias also operating in the area but not willing to operate like a military unit (and do what the senior army commander wants).
At this point the Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and that will make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies. The UN is trying to persuade the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of Hodeida but the rebels are not interested. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of keeping control of the key port for handling foreign aid for most people in rebel controlled territory. Then there is the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels.
August 6, 2017: In the northwest (between the port of Hodeida and the Saudi border) government forces have spent the last three days trying to push rebels out of port town of Midi (Medi). This place has been largely surrounded and partially captured since April but minefields and well-fortified rebel positions have prevented numerous airstrikes and ground troops from clearing all rebels out of the area.
August 4, 2017: In the south the Arab coalition drove AQAP out of all the major urban areas in in Shabwa province. This is just north of Hadramawt province and Mukalla (the largest city in the province). This operation has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense in early 2017 when the United States increased its effort to find and kill key AQAP personnel in Shabwa. This was mainly done from the air using UAVs for surveillance and attacks using guided missiles and smart bombs. The American have made over 80 airstrikes in Yemen this year, most of them in Shabwa. There have also been American special operations teams on the ground, mainly to gather intelligence and direct airstrikes. There were two American commando raids in Yemen so far this year, made possible by the more intense intel collecting effort. This disrupted AQAP operations and made it possible for government forces and coalition forces to systematically take back control of all the towns and cities in Shabwa that the Islamic terrorists had long been free to operate in (mainly because a lot of the local tribesmen agreed with the Islamic terrorists).
August 3, 2017: In the southwest (Taiz province) government forces captured a key road junction outside the port of Mocha and cut rebel access to the main road between Taiz city and the Red Sea port of Hodeida. The rebels have surrounded Taiz city since 2015. Government forces are slowly cutting off rebel access between Taiz city and other rebel held areas so that the siege of Taiz city can be broken.
July 27, 2017: Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted another rebel ballistic missile fired deep into Saudi territory. This one was intercepted about 69 kilometers south of Mecca and a nearby airbase. Rebels later admitted that the missile was aimed at the King Fahad airbase in Taif province. The Saudi accused Iran of trying to disrupt the annual Haj pilgrimage at Mecca. Examination of the debris indicated it was another Iranian Burkan missile. The Shia rebels captured a number of SCUD and SS-21 ballistic missiles when they moved south in early 2015. Many army units joined the rebels, including troops who knew how to operate these missiles. In 2016 Iran apparently brought in some technical personnel and smuggled in some needed components so that Yemeni Scuds could be modified to increase their range (with a smaller warhead) to at least 800 kilometers. This would make it theoretically possible to his the Saudi capital or one of the larger Saudi bases. These modified SCUDs (called Burkan by the rebels) are not very accurate but they can hit somewhere in a large city or military base, providing the rebels with some positive propaganda. The first Burkan was fired in late 2016 and since then at least six have been fired. All were intercepted.
July 22, 2017: In the Red Sea port of Mocha Shia rebels again tried to attack an Arab coalition ship delivering supplies. This attack, the third so far, used a small boat full of explosives. The attack failed as the explosives detonated when the small boat hit a pier near where a freighter from the UAE was arriving.
In the north Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted another rebel ballistic missile fired deep into Saudi territory. This one was aimed at a Saudi oil refinery on the Red Sea coast at Yanbu, which is over 1,000 kilometers from rebel territory in northern Yemen.
July 21, 2017: In the southwest (Taiz province) government forces finally captured the Khalid bin al Waleed military base. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and continued to hold out until today. Government forces advanced from east of Taiz as well in order to surround the Khalid base and force it to surrender.
July 19, 2017: UAE officials accused Qatari troops operating with UAE troops in Yemen of informing local AQAP groups about where UAE forces were going and when and that this led to some AQAP attacks on UAE forces. Incidents like this played a role in the UAE joining other Arab states in severing relations with Qatar in early June.