When the Houthi uprising began in 2004, Saudi ears inevitably twitched. The government in Riyadh had spent the previous year building an enormous wall along the southern border to stop Al-Qaeda. The possibility of resurgent Zaidi rule in Yemen, absent since 1962, was a distinct possibility. This would not be a competing autocracy, it would be something far worse in Saudi eyes; a republican democracy, with women in elected office and an example of how religious states can be run democratically, without the need for kings at the helm to keep citizens safe. Such an example of religious democratic rule would be right on Saudi Arabia’s border.
Since the late nineties, Zaidi leaders in Yemen had perceived Sunni “Wahhabism” as being far too dominant in the capital Sana’a. As elsewhere, Saudi money was being used to influence the domestic politics of a foreign state through its mosques. In Yemen, the Saudi money compounded economic decline in Zaidi areas, which had been in deep recession for decades. These problems were real, and debilitating. Regardless of the odd Revolutionary Guard adviser and truckload of rocket-propelled grenades from Iran, the Zaidi resurgence would probably have taken place anyway.
That said, Iran’s involvement, however light, cannot be underestimated in explaining how the Saudis have reacted. The internal politics of sectarianism in Yemen were already in some ways a proxy of Saudi Arabia’s bitter relations with Iran; it was moving towards a compelling example of conservative Islamic democracy, as Zaidi leaders promised it would.
A former parliamentarian, the Zaidi Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, was among those leaders. He rose to prominence campaigning on issues of inequality, corruption and economic turpitude, and posed such a threat to the Yemeni government that troops were dispatched north in June 2004 to attack him and his supporters. This marked the beginning of the “Houthi uprising”.
By September of that year, Hussein Al-Houthi was dead, but the Houthis and hopes for Zaidi rule of Yemen were not. His brothers – Abdul Malik, Yahia and Abdul Karim — now lead Ansar Allah, the holy revolution that they hope will deliver justice for Yemen’s Zaidis, who account for half the country’s population. Ironically, the Houthi rebels are as much a family affair as their opponents.
The current Saudi-led Coalition intervention in Yemen since March 2015 is not the first time that the Royal Saudi Air Force has been dispatched to bombard its southern neighbour. Six wars were fought between the Houthis and the government in Sana’a between 2004 and 2010. The final and most serious, which began in 2009, involved Saudi troops and airstrikes directly. The rationale was similar to today; incursions over the border were threatening Saudi sovereignty, and Iran was involved.
Alongside massive civilian casualties, Western involvement was a further similarity between what happened then and what is happening now. In a typically sleazy move, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped in secretly to provide the satellite photographs of Yemeni positions that Saudi air force planners needed. The Saudis used British-made aircraft, sold to them in a series of arms deals ongoing since the seventies.
Amnesty claimed that in a single attack, on the town of Al-Nadir in November 2009, so many people were slaughtered that an extended family “had to create a cemetery for themselves.” By the time the Saudis called it a day, seventy-three of their soldiers had been killed, nearly five hundred were wounded and around thirty were missing in action. The Houthis still remained a potent force, six years after the uprising began, and if anyone won that war, it was them. The big losers were Yemeni civilians, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Riyadh.
Saleh was ousted in 2012 and now backs the Houthis. The Saudis are back in Yemen. The question is, should Britain be back there too? It is not that our friends in Riyadh are using jets that we sold them long ago, as they were in 2009. It is that we have actively replenished their munitions when they run low, trained their war crimes investigators, and deployed British staff to their headquarters.
The short-term realism argument for British involvement remains somewhat compelling though. The collapse of Saudi Arabia to any insurrectionists, which was what newly-crowned King Salman feared in early 2015, would give birth to chaos that would make the Syrian civil war look serene. The holy cities of Makkah and Madinah would be open to anyone who wanted them, and those first to the gates would likely be far more uncivilised than the current landlords.
The longer-term picture for Britain is less optimistic. We are now seen, at home and increasingly abroad, as weak-willed fellow travellers, obsessed with profit above all else, and pathetically unwilling to inform the Saudis that the writing is on the wall; that they are losing this war, and that they will continue to lose until they withdraw. That the Saudis threatened members of the UN Human Rights Council last week with economic consequences if they voted for an independent inquiry means that Britain is siding with bullies.
The risk of blowback in years to come is well-documented, a case that has been well made elsewhere. Slain leader Hussein Al-Houthi was not known only for campaigning on economic tribulations, but also for his fiery anti-Western rhetoric.
There is an alternative. Pakistan, an ally at least as close as the British government, has held a prominent public debate about whether to assist Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the coalition in Yemen. A parliamentary vote decided emphatically against such a move. Although the government had just accepted a £2 billion bung from Riyadh to help its collapsing currency, Pakistan took the money and still voted no.
Why do we feel that the Houthis can be beaten now? I really have no idea. Whatever the reason is, Britain is losing the diplomatic war which it has been tasked with and promised to fulfil. Albeit in a watered-down version, the Saudis have now agreed for a group of independent experts to visit Yemen and begin documenting war crimes. The compromise came after intensive talks between the Saudis, members of the Arab League, the Netherlands, Britain, France and the US. It is a start. Britain should note the direction of travel; backing losers isn’t good for business, which is increasingly all that this war seems to be about.