Three big lessons from Yemen's five years of war

Three big lessons from Yemen's five years of war

Comment: Arab autocracies, Saudi-Emirati military muscle-flexing and a mythical 'international community' have all contributed to five years of crushing civil war in Yemen, writes Rami Khouri.
5 min read
27 Mar, 2020
'The war's widespread destruction and chaos seems unimportant to global powers' writes Khouri [Getty]
This week's fifth anniversary of the Saudi-Emirati-led war on Yemen holds some frightening lessons about our region and its place in the world.

The Arab and foreign fighters who wage this war signal profound moral and political failures in Yemen, that also rear their ugly head in similarly sustained, destructive warfare and state collapse in half a dozen other Arab countries.

Three lessons in particular scream out to us from the shriveled bodies of thousands of emaciated and dead Yemeni babies and children that we witness almost daily as the war enters its sixth year.

One is how our Arab autocracies inevitably ravaged their countries into fractured, violent wrecks. A second is the danger of failed Saudi-Emirati military muscle-flexing that still threatens the region. The third is the mythical nature of "the international community" that allegedly values peaceful norms and the rule of law, while waging war in the region and supporting the Arab autocrats who make war and state collapse inevitable.

These lessons are urgent to grasp and redress, otherwise more countries in the Middle East will suffer Yemen's torment - 100,000 dead, of whom 15,000 civilians, and 80 percent of the population requires humanitarian aid to survive, and this is before the COVID-19 pandemic reaches it.

The Arab region's first half a century of sustained state-building and national development from the 1930s to the 1980s augured well for the future. But since then, our nonstop military and oligarchic sectarian autocracies have mismanaged their economies and denied their citizens' rights so severely that this second century of modern Arab statehood starts in a regional whirlwind of war and suffering.
Yemen speaks volumes about the dangers of UAE-Saudi military adventurism
Active wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine, and other Arab countries keep generating large-scale human displacement and refugee flows, shattered economies, destroyed cities, schools, and health systems, and fracturing states and national identities.

Yemen has checked all these boxes, and so it endures warfare among local militias that invite participation by Arab and Iranian parties and foreign powers, like the US and UK. Since the 1980s, such unraveled states have inevitably incubated the birth and expansion of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

Particularly noteworthy in Yemen is the variety of fighting forces. These include the Ansarullah (Houthis), who rule in the north, the Saudi-based and -supported "legitimate" Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Emirati-supported Southern Transitional Council separatists who seek their own state once again, the local Islah Islamists who enjoy tribal and Arab support, loyalists of the former assassinated President Ali Abdullah Saleh, dozens of armed tribal groups that also engage in governance struggles, and pockets of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other militant-terrorists.
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Yemen speaks volumes about the dangers of UAE-Saudi military adventurism. The UAE and Saudi Arabia justified their attack on Yemen as aiming to reverse the Houthis' power grab in Sanaa, and to halt the expansion of pan-Arab Iranian influence.

That proved to be an epic miscalculation of Saudi-Emirati political analysis and military prowess. The UAE and Saudi leaders who launched the war, Mohammad bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, sought to assert their capabilities in the region during a moment of regional tumult, when Islamists were winning national elections, citizenries were overthrowing their regimes, and the world and Iran were negotiating a nuclear deal.

The war backfired, leaving strengthened Iranian-Houthi ties, and much enhanced Yemeni military capabilities that can reach Saudi and Emirati targets. It stoked widespread anti-Saudi-Emirati feelings among most Yemenis, catalyzed new alliances of militias to fight the Saudis-Emiratis and their mercenaries, wasted billions of dollars, left hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, and birthed new global criticism of Saudi-Emirati policies.
Yemen and the other regional wars unmask the 'international community' as a pleasant fiction
The UAE wisely recognised its failure and pulled out of the war last year, in favour of funding mercenaries and locals in the south. The Saudis may follow suit, and both countries will be saddled with huge post-war demands for reconstruction.

One hopes the Emirati-Saudi leaders will adjust their failed policies and more constructively engage their regional neighbours, though they continue to support Arab autocrats or military regimes in states in transition, such as Sudan or Libya.

The war's third hard lesson is about world powers that wage war in hapless Arab lands, and then mostly shrug their shoulders at the resulting carnage. The US and UK have directly assisted the continuous Saudi air attacks against Yemeni targets, while they and some European powers sell military hardware to the Saudis and Emiratis, with only a few objections.

With this lingering imperial mindset, foreign powers only see their own interests when they look at Arab lands and freely wage war in them.

Yemen in Focus: Fifth war anniversary marks 'catastrophic abuses' on all sides

Yet ironically, the war's widespread destruction and new zones of chaos seem unimportant to global powers - as long as sea lanes and energy pipelines remain operational, and terrorists and refugees are contained.

There are similar dynamics in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, and other war-scarred lands, which spawns the added new danger of mass militarisation and securitisation of national policies as the route to stability - though the past half-century has proven exactly the opposite, as seen in the current mass uprisings in many Arab lands.

So another legacy of Arab autocrats' inept governance is that many states have become virtually irrelevant in the strategic calculations of foreign powers, who ignore the local suffering they helped to bring about.

Yemen and the other regional wars unmask the "international community" as a pleasant fiction, even if individual smaller states or humanitarian groups do act honourably.

The Arab region is now dotted with states - some of them once strategic or energy powers, like Syria, Libya, and Iraq - that have become disposable countries, a trend that Somalia initiated 30 years ago. As they collapse in endless warfare, the world mostly ignores and contains them.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.