Yemen’s Proxy War: From Failing State to a Failing System

Just as the Islamic State (or IS)[1] is being pushed back in the battles around Tikrit, a new front in the wars currently raging across the Middle East has opened far to the south. The conflict in Yemen is not, and has never been, a mere “civil war”. It is directly related to the wars already being fought throughout the region and, more recently, to the prospect of a US-Iran deal on its nuclear programme. Once again, just as in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon, we see Saudi Arabia and Iran both supporting opposing factions up to, and including, arming and training militia forces. Now in Yemen the Saudis have chosen to directly intervene by launching bombing raids against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, Ansar Allah (the Supporters of God), a Shia rebel group that has seized control of the capital and expelled the pro-Saudi, pro-US President.

A Saudi Satellite State

The territory occupied by the Republic of Yemen[2] has hardly been an oasis of peace for centuries. It remains plagued by tribal rivalries which have led to frequent uprisings and civil wars. Until 2011 the one stable factor was that it was ruled by the same man for 33 years. President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh through his party the General People’s Congress has ruled in conjunction with the Islamist Islah party of Abdullah al-Ahmar. Although there has been religious tensions religion was not an issue for most of this time as both Sunnis and the minority Shia were in the government. It was not then an issue for the Saudis either. Saleh himself is a Shia of the same Zaydi sect as the Houthis. Yet Saudi Arabia has maintained its influence by bankrolling the Saleh Government. The latter has used the money buy support by distributing largesse to the various tribes and political groupings. It did not always please everyone especially as the money was channelled through Abdulla al-Ahmar’s Islah Party. The Houthis (named after the clan which founded the Ansar Allah movement) from the far Northern province of Saada began to claim discrimination and rebelled on 6 occasions between 2002 and 2009. They even at one point repelled a numerically-superior Saudi force acting on Saleh’s behalf that tried to attack their stronghold.

The Arab Spring of 2011 undermined the precarious status quo. Taking heart from other struggles a popular movement of discontent against poverty, unemployment (said to be 40%) and corruption swept the country, and in particular Sana’a, the capital. The miracle is that it did not happen earlier. The Romans once called Yemen “Happy Arabia” (Arabia Felix) but today Transparency International and the UN designate it as on of the most corrupt kleptocracies on the planet. Its not just Saudi money that is squandered on the sheikhs, the military and other members of the elite but nearly all international loans go the same way. The country has had its debts restructured more than once and still is deeper in debt per capita than most European states. The World Bank has cut its loans for the failure of the Saleh government to enact “reforms”. This has only added to a humanitarian crisis that developed long before the present war. Over 50% of the population still work in agriculture (mainly herding) yet this sector only produces 10% of the country’s GDP. The annually decreasing amount of water is a serious problem and this is not helped by the fact that the production of the mildly narcotic khat (or qat) has increased dramatically in recent years. It demands more water than most agricultural products but it brings in more cash. The fall in the oil price (oil accounts for 75% of government revenue) has only added to the misery. Today 90% of Yemen’s staple foods come from abroad and 60% of this population of 24 million are already dependent on foreign aid which will now be more difficult to get.

In 2012 after the deaths of nearly 100 demonstrators, and over a year of prevarication and his own near death at the hands of a terrorist bomb, Saleh agreed to hand over power to an alliance of opposing forces which included the Houthi and his own deputy of twenty years, Mansour Hadi. This alliance had been cobbled together by the Saudis with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They secured a deal with all factions where Hadi was elected unopposed in a sort of government of national reconciliation. The real power remained the head of the Islamist Party (Islah) Abdullah al-Ahmar, since he continued to be the Saudis’ chosen paymaster to buy off the other factions.

But Saleh would not go away. He had already installed his son Ahmed as head of the Republican Guard. His MPs continued to block legislation In Parliament whilst Saleh himself refused to hand over military bases and supplies scattered around the country. Much of Yemen’s large (over 300,000 men) army remained loyal to him. Last September he joined with his old adversaries the Houthi to takeover Sana’a. He supported them in rejecting a new constitution and in the overthrow of the Hadi Government. Abdullah al-Ahmar, fled to Saudi Arabia and Hadi was to join him there after he first fled to Aden to rally opposition in his home town. This only provoked the Houthis to move out of their northern stronghold and begin the move South. With Saleh’s military support (which appears to be worth more than Iran’s) the Houthis have reached the gates of Aden.

Al Qaeda and the US

And here comes the next imperialist complication. Currently the country can be broadly divided into 3 zones. The mountainous north around Sanaa now Shia-dominated, the more industrial South where the only oil fields the country possesses are to be found and the largely deserted east where the rule of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is generally reckoned to be dominant. AQAP is reckoned by the Americans to be the most deadly Al Qaeda franchise and the one which aims to bring the Middle East wars to the lands of Western imperialism. They are the ones made the bomb for the so-called “underpants bomber” of a US airliner in 2012 (but he turned out to be working for the CIA as well) and the Coulibaly brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo bombings in Paris claimed to be their agents.

No surprise then that the US has a drone base at al-Anand from where they were attacking AQAP until the Houthi forces began streaming south. In the face of the Houthi advance the base has been evacuated and this fact may even have been the last straw for the US in supporting the Saudis in their “Operation Decisive Storm” (a conscious reference to the US “Operation Desert Storm” against Iraq) to bomb Houthi-held territory.

It certainly looked odd that the Saudis announced the formation of their anti-Houthi coalition from their Washington embassy and not the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh but it only underlines that in this fight they stand with their oldest ally in the Middle East[3]. The US has openly declared that it is not going to put its personnel back into Yemen for now but is openly offering satellite and other intelligence back-up essential to the success of any mission by the Saudi-dominated coalition.

A New Twist

But the fact that the US stands with the Saudis here should not blind us to the fact that this is a significantly new twist in the imperialist struggle in the Middle East. In the first place the coalition is not one put together by the US but by the Saudis. The new coalition shows that the Saudis are conducting a war for their own regional imperialist interests. It is an odd coalition in many respects but one thing all the 9 Arab members (plus Pakistan which has joined the coalition) share is that they are all Sunni majority states. Egypt and Sudan have been roped in because both regimes are bankrupt and have only been held together by massive Saudi subventions over the last couple of years. They are, to all intents, vassal states of the Saudis as is Bahrain and the Gulf States. Virtually all the others like Jordan and Morocco are also monarchies who fear that the consequences of a global capitalist crisis will bring down their regimes.

A further triumph for the Saudis is that the Qataris have joined its alliance. Until recently the Qatar regime has followed an independent line and tended to support opponents of the Saudis like the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Libya. However, the setbacks it has received there recently (it too supported IS to start with) seems to have made it more cautious. What we see is the Sunni faith being used as the ideological cement to hold together an alliance to defend the imperialist interests of the Saudi regime.

The only factor that holds them altogether is fear of the big enemy in Shia Iran. Yemen is the only part of the Arabian peninsula which has a substantial Shia minority, a source of worry to the Saudis for years. The fact that the Houthis are also Shia (of a different branch of Shi’ism) means that the bombing can be justified as halting the forward march of Iranian domination.

The Saudis had already shown how they would react in the Arab Spring in 2011 when the Sunni rulers of Shia-majority Bahrain came under pressure from street protests. The Saudis were not slow to send in the tanks to crush a revolt which is still going on (but strangely unreported – at least 80 police and scores of demonstrators died last year whilst thousands are imprisoned and tortured by the Sunni monarchy).

For the Saudis it was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran which transformed it from being a supporter of a conservative Islam with enormous wealth, the prestige of being the “guardian of the Holy Places” of Islam and consequently global reach. A new regime which put Shia Islam and anti-americanism at the forefront of its ideology and which was clearly aiming to use that ideology as part of its appeal to other Muslims in the region challenged that Saudi influence. Internally the Saud family had relied on the support of Salafist religious leaders of the intolerant Wahhabi sect to gain power but until 1979 they had not sought to export their version of Sunnism. This changed with the arrival of the Ayatollahs in Iran. The seizure of the US Embassy by revolutionary “students” and the beginning of US sanctions against the Iranian regime were a gift to the Saudis. They could thus stand with the US against two common foes.

The bedrock of the alliance was a common opposition to Iran and “communism”, as the USSR was characterised, and it allowed the Saudis to start exporting their own brand of Islam. As Pakistan was in the forefront of the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (also 1979) the US began to support Pakistani military intelligence whilst the Saudis showered those sects closest to it with money to set up madrassas where their students or Taliban learned not only to recite the Koran backwards but also how all other versions of Islam, especially Shi’ism were false. Today in Pakistan’s south-west the Pakistani Taliban record their greatest atrocities in bombing and burning Shia mosques. Radical Islam (Salafism) which includes Al Qaeda and Boko Haram was thus contradictorily born out of Saudi imperialist interests. The Saudis got involved in one way or another in every war or insurrection from Bosnia and Chechenya to Indonesia. At one point al’Baghdadi’s Islamic State was receiving substantial financial support from princelings of the Saudi royal house until IS felt strong enough to declare their own imperial designs in the shape of the “Caliphate”. The one thing in which the Saudis could not match the Iranians was their anti-imperialist (as anti-US) rhetoric. Thus Saudi Salafism morphed out of its control and into the hands of the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

And so another strange twist in the imperialist kaleidoscope has thrown up the contradictory situation where the US is fighting alongside its biggest enemies in the Middle East, Iran and Syria against the very Salafist forces unleashed originally by the Saudis. For the Saudi monarchy this is the stuff of nightmares. If the current negotiations on nuclear decommissioning with Iran succeed then it could open up the way for US détente with Iran. This would not only relieve the Iranian regime from the domestic disaster caused by sanctions but would allow it to increase its imperial reach across the Middle East.

But a trade off of nuclear compliance in return for the lifting of sanctions will not be easy. On the one side you have the Saudi lobby, the US Republicans (remember John McCain’s infamous “Bomb Bomb Iran” campaign in 2008) and the US’ other solid ally in the Middle East, Israel. In fact Netanyahu made the connection of the bombing of Yemen and his desire for the failure of negotiations in Lausanne for us [4]. He sees both as steps to halt Iranian influence in the region. On the other side Iranian hardliners are exerting their own pressure to ensure that talks fail. They fear that any opening up of Iran will mean the weakening of their own control over the economy and the state. Hence they have been attacking and imprisoning close supporters of President Rouhani as a threat of the consequences that will follow any deal that is not entirely in Iran’s interests. The war in Yemen is another useful weapon for the intransigents on both sides of this imperialist divide to scupper any prospects of agreement.


All this manoeuvring is going on in air-conditioned gilded palaces whilst in Yemen’s dusty streets and hills the slaughter increases. And all those military aircraft that Britain and the US (and others) have been selling to the Arab oil states for years are now getting put to the purpose for which they were built – bombing defenceless populations.

At the time of writing the number of dead approaches 100 and the injured is four times that. The worst atrocity was the bombing of a refugee camp where 45 were killed near Sana’a but the Houthi/Saleh forces have also killed civilians in the shelling of Aden and other southern cities. All the indications are that neither side can win an outright military victory. The massive forces ranged against the Houthis by the Saudi coalition, plus the fact that the tribes in the oil-rich province of Marib and in the South are hostile to a Houthi takeover, means that it is likely the Houthis will be driven back to their base in the province of Saada. However, as they have shown in the past, they will be difficult to dislodge from this mountainous region. Ex-President Saleh seems to have realised what demons he has summoned up and is now calling for a ceasefire. Predictably, with the strength of the Saudi coalition and the western powers at his back, President Hadi is now calling for the annihilation of the Houthi. This is one more war without end to add to all the others going on around the planet.

We have become accustomed to a capitalist world in disintegration where imperialist slaughters no longer needed to be justified. The “war on terror” the US Government announced in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center has given a carte blanche to every state from Putin’s massacres in Chechenya to the US coalition’s invasion of Iraq to destroy lives on a mass scale with scarcely a word said in opposition.

The bombings in Yemen come at the end of a long chain of related factors which go back to when the collapse of the USSR ended the settled certainties of the Cold War. The hubris of the United States in its self-proclaimed “New (American) World Order” and the “end of history” led to the arrogant assumption that the US could now dispose of friend and foe alike with impunity. In the pursuit of the interests of the military-industrial complex known as US capitalism there was no space for negotiations or compromise. When former ally Saddam Hussein tried to shift oil sales from dollars into euros his demise was already foretold. No matter that he had run Al Qaeda out of Iraq, no matter that he had nothing to do with 9/11, no matter that he had no weapons of mass destruction, he had to go. You can gas Kurdish towns with weapons of mass destruction supplied by the West but threaten the hegemony of the dollar and you are a dead man or woman. The destruction of the Iraqi state and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan opened a Pandora’s box which has turned the direction of US policy from all-out attack to defensive damage limitation. For Americans the unappealing sight of US soldiers coming home in body bags has been replaced by the unseen consequences of drone strikes on wedding parties which just might contain Al Qaeda leaders. For the peoples of the Middle East it means dying in imperialist wars that the capitalists system’s rivalries have inflicted upon them. All the murderous contradictions which we see in the Middle East today stem from this chain of events which in their turn stem from the strategic need to control the world’s energy supplies.

Unfortunately there is no force in the region which is powerful enough to halt the bestial appetites of imperialist rivalry. The working class of all the countries involved is numerically relatively small and so many of the young, in a region where the majority are young, are unemployed. This makes them easy prey for the likes of Islamic State or any other military force which will pay them handsomely. Even in Tunisia where the ideology of Salafism is weak thousands have gone to support IS in Syria for the simple reason there is no work at home. The same material forces which are increasing imperialist tensions and manoeuvres are also providing sustenance to the widening disintegration of the existing states.

The war in Yemen is just one more confirmation that a crisis-ridden capitalist system is producing mayhem. The more our rulers talk “peace processes”, the more they make war. The ideological justification is less significant just as long as it helps mobilise support for this or that material grab for resources. For the majority of its victims these ideological masks soon wear thin but they are enough to keep the fanatics inflicting death and mayhem wherever they operate. Do internationalists need to provide more evidence that this system is bankrupt in every sense of the word? The only alternative to imperialist war is class war and the sooner workers everywhere join together to fight for their own interests the sooner will be arrive at an international organisation capable of bringing not only imperialist war to an end but the system that produces it. We have a long road ahead.


1 April 2015

[1] For our analysis of IS see

[2] The Republic of Yemen only came into existence in 1990 when North Yemen (independent since 1918) and South Yemen (which won independence from Britain in 1967) united.

[3] See

[4] This article was written before the broad outlines of an agreement between Iran and the P5 + 1 group were signed in Lausanne on 2 April. This does not affect the judgements made here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


Understanding all the inter-necine faction fighting going on in the Middle, with its constantly changing sides, like the shifting sands of the desert, has long been beyond my grasp, so articles that clarify simply, as does this one, are greatly appreciated. The sad thing is that the outcome of all the huge waste of money on expensive armaments and war effort on the Arabian peninsula and nearby, merely to preserve the oil-based gilded palaces of the rich elites and their phony rival religions, only immiserates more the lives of the poorest and most miserable victims of a war-hungry capitalism gone completely mad and out of control.

[quote=Jock] Do internationalists need to provide more evidence that this system is bankrupt in every sense of the word? [/quote]

I think not.

But is there anything that can be done to persuade the western working class to wake up soon and assume their responsibilities as the revolutionary class and the only class on the planet that can save both it and humanity from destruction at the hands of the crazed bourgeoisie - bloated with money and obsessed with war.

Thanks for your message Charlie as it made me re-read the article and found a terrible typo in the last paragraph which no-one seemed to have spotted!

Charlie, I agree that there is an expensive waste of money on armaments, but that is from our proletarian point of view, whereas for capitalists, investment in them is a highly profitable source of returns, regardless of where the weaponry is being used and being planned for use. Emphasising this with workers and students draws attention to the fundemental nature of capitalist imperialism and so can lead to quests for knowledge of how to get rid of it, of its wars, and of all the poverty it causes.

Maybe research, if not already done, can list the major and minor manufacturers worldwide of weaponry and military vehicles, and maybe also reveal which politicians have personal investments in them. The buck doesn't stop there, as the saying goes, but forever seeks to grow. May the CWO grow faster !

Yes T 34. May the CWO grow faster, and all other organisations that share its vision. And may they one day all join together in the Party.