By Steve Bell
The resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has raised hopes for an end to the war in Yemen. A fragile truce is in place between Saudi Arabia and Ansarallah (“The Huthis”). As yet there is no broader peace process in place. Such a process would requires a change in policy from the US government, and its European allies, towards Ansarallah. Continuing to treat them as “rebels” or “terrorists” offers no hope of diplomatic engagement.
The recent publication of a collection of articles in the book, “The Huthi Movement in Yemen”(1), may prompt a more serious engagement from policy makers. The contributors are specialists and academics across a variety of fields, who display little empathy for Ansarallah, but are attempting to understand its successes.
Lest there be any doubt about its success, retired infantry commander and strategic analyst, James Spencer, writes: “…the Huthis were able to fight to a standstill a Coalition of regional powers with high-grade equipment, unlimited budgets, and the physical and political backing of three Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. The Huthis were able to manage this feat using predominately Cold War equipment, with the addition of limited quantities of entry-level modern weapon systems, provided by a Tier 2 regional power under grinding political, economic and military sanctions and a blockade on Yemen.” (2)
Origins and dynamics
The predominant narrative in the West has been that Ansarallah are a backward, tribal, sectarian force maintaining its influence by authoritarian and arbitrary measures. It’s power supposedly derives from being a proxy force of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Such prejudices remain in some of the book’s studies. But the more closely the evidence is examined the clearer it becomes that Ansarallah is a significant political force for Yemen and the region’s future.
Its’ origins lie in a reform movement initiated by Hussayn al-Huthi in the Zaydi community in the north of Yemen in the early 1990s. The community is primarily located in the mountainous governorates bordering Saudi Arabia. This is one of the poorest parts of the poorest Arab state.
He was elected to Parliament in 1993, as a member of Hizb al-Haqq, a party based on the Zaydi community, founded after the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. In 1994 southern separatists attempted to undo unification, resulting in a civil war. The separatists were defeated, resulting in a greater centralisation of power under President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh further encouraged the promotion of salafist Sunni schools and publications, financed by Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi community. The community was neglected and outside of Saleh’s patronage networks. Hussayn al-Huthi’s talks to supporters focused on the need to revive Quran studies, alongside identifying the role of US imperialism and Israel as damaging Arab/Ummah interests
The turning point in the movement came in the aftermath of 9/11. Saleh’s government allied itself with the United States, and began to receive training, arms and support from Washington. This marked a shift in Saleh’s policy. His government had opposed the first Gulf War in 1991 – resulting in mass expulsions of Yemeni migrant workers from Gulf states. The relatively small movement was now mobilised, and connected with larger social forces opposing Saleh’s turn to the US.
Reflecting a hostile approach to Ansarallah, Bernard Haykal’s contribution states: “Al-Huthi’s reformist project should probably be understood as a reaction to the dire political, economic, and intellectual conditions in Yemen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The radical and simplistic characteristics of his views and those of the movement he spawned, best captured in the Huthi “shout”, perhaps explain his broad appeal among many Yemenis. These features may also have contributed to the political and military success of his followers in the civil war that continues to rage the country. One way to think of Huthism is as an ideology of deliberate simplism and revolutionary activism.” (3)
Generally evidence of the wide support for Ansarallah emerges by default – we learn of “broad appeal among many Yemenis” in passing. Haykal aims to downplay the popular character of Al-Huthis’s anti-imperialism. It became influential because it was more representative of Yemeni society than Saleh’s capitulation.
The “shout” (slogan) was launched on the first demonstration after the government allied with the US. It has acquired as much notoriety internationally as popularity in the north of yemen. It is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam”. This is frequently reported as bigotry, a claim endorsed in Mohammed Almahfali’s contribution.
The refusal to examine the context of the slogan is a furtherance of the attempt to obliterate popular anti-imperialism. The slogan, within a religiously inspired movement, highlights the decisive role of US imperialism, placed before Israel, as the source of the region’s problems. It is a shout of frustration and determination, from oppressed people. To western ears it jars, to a large part of Yemeni society it makes sense.
A parallel perspective might be drawn with Hamas. The founding charter of Hamas references the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This has been a source of sustained criticism from western governments and Israeli governments. As Hamas has developed a more rounded and effective discourse so there have been much speculation that it will reformulate, or drop, the founding charter.
This may be the case in future. But it is certain that while Gaza remains beseiged and repeatedly bombed, Hamas is not going to conceed any demands on its charter. Equally, Ansarallah faces constant questioning on its slogan, in the few instances it gets a platform in the West. But while Yemen is under siege, denied normal access to the world economy, Ansarallah is unlikely to withdraw a founding slogan as demanded by the sensitive souls who are assisting the starvation of Yemen’s children.
From the contributions, it is evident that Ansarallah today is very different from the initial movement launched by Hussayn al-Huthi, who was killed by Saleh’s government in 2004. Mohammed Almahfali’s contribution analyses the data contained in the speeches of Hussayn al-Huthi compared to that in the speeches of the current leader of Ansarallah, Abdulmalik al-Huthi. Almahfali summarises the shift as: “…from a religious discourse dealing with political issues to a political discourse that uses religious concepts.” (4)
This involves a shift from centering upon “Islam” and the “Umma” – concepts with transnational expression – to centering upon “homeland” and the “people”. This reflects the maturation of a movement from a revivalist initiative which critiques imperialist intervention into an armed party which fights for national and popular sovereignty.
This evidence is one expression of overturning the suggestion that Ansarallah is a movement that seeks to restore the ascendency of the sayyid in Yemeni society. The sayyid are the descendents of the family of the Prophet. They formed an elite that provided the Imam who ruled the north of Yemen for a millennium until the 1962 revolution. Opponents of Ansarallah claim that it wishes to end the republican form of government, established in the north in 1962, and in the south from 1967 after the expulsion of British imperialism. Abdulmalik al-Huthi’s speeches are one source of refutation as they emphasise the people as a whole as the source of authority for the Yemeni state.
In her contribution, Marieke Brandt asserts the alleged restorationist intentions thus: “At the domestic level, three main characteristics of Huthi rule vis-a-vis the tribes have become visible: Huthi rule rests on (1) the re-activation of sayyid leadership, (2) the reactivation of religious rallying calls, and (3) a policy of interference in tribal affairs.”(5) Brandt is an expert anthropologist, her research must be taken seriously. Her book on the history of the “Huthi wars” prior to 2014 is essential reading.(6)
But, her political analysis is reductive and inaccurate. Tribal relations in Yemen are important and complex. Yet it is not possible to extrapolate Ansarallah’s whole political project from its relations with tribes, which are mediated through a Tribal Cohesion Council it established. This is not the centrepiece of thede facto state that Ansarallah has established.
Even Brandt’s own observations contradict her suggestion of the reactivation of “sayyid leadership”. She writes: “…after 2014 the Huthis hardly address tribalism as such, but refer to tribes as mere descent-based entities, avoiding references to tribal law or self-governance. Tribes are portrayed as conceptually equal to the strata within Yemeni society, undercutting notions of a specific tribal quality of Yemeni society. This is not surprising, for the Huthis aim at gaining the support of an audience that is much broader and also includes the large nontribal parts of the Yemeni populace.”(7) And Brandt further undermines her initial case: “…the Huthi leaders do not seem to pursue a re-installation of the imamate. Rather, they superimposed their rule on the template of the republican state, minus the post-1990 democratic element.”(8)
The source of this confusion is a straight out hostility to Ansarallah which disrupts academic consistentcy. The following is very revealing: “…it becomes understandable why the putative “indigenous” Qahtani part of the population sees itself increasingly excluded from the hierarchy of power and being degraded to a “subaltern” social class by the putative “immigrant”, Adnani/sayyid community. This unease prevailing among many people is reinforced by the reign of terror and fear that characterizes Huthi rule in Yemen.”(9)
The Hashimi clans, of which the al-Huthi family come from, migrated into Yemen in the tenth century CE. To pitch as a contemporary conflict the usurption by latecomers of the earlier settled Qahtanis is surely to base an argument on tribalism, not to transcend it.
But then isn’t anything permissible against a form of rule based on “terror and fear”? Yemen has been invaded, is under siege, has had its infrastructure and economy destroyed by bombing – all this at the hands of the Saudi led coalition, armed and supported by the US, EU, and Britain. Apparently none of which is responsible for the “terror and fear” of a hungry, embattled, displaced and impoverished people. Truly, academics are capable of the most obvious oversights.
Ansarallah’s Vision for Yemen
The suggestion that Ansarallah seeks to restore the imamate, sayyid rule, and exclusionary government ignores the actual form of governance being exercised in the area of Yemen it controls. The guiding approach here is the “National Vision For the Modern Yemeni State” issued by the Supreme Political Council in Sana’a on 26th March 2019, the fourth anniversary of the commencement of the war.
In his contribution, Charles Schmitz explains: “…the movement produced a blueprint for a future state in 2019 called the “National Vision” that builds upon the republican experience of the last fifty years. It calls for equal citizenship, elections, political competition, political parties, and limited government. The National Vision claims to implement more effectively the goals of the republican state: economic development, social justice, rule of law, political freedom, education, etc. The Huthi movement’s interim government in Sanaa is also secular in style, drawing as much as possible on continuities with the republican past – the use of Parliament, a prime minister and ministers, an attempt to hold parliamentary elections, and a ruling council whose leader is not Sada [i.e. from sayyid families].” (10)
Certainly the National Vision document reads as a progressive programme for the consolidation of a sovereign, republican Yemen in line with the developmental and reconstruction needs of the country. “…we acknowledge the importance and priority of achieving peace and stability, there is an equally urgent need to deal with changing variables, which the National Vision will confront through its fundamental pillars, which rest on the existence of a strong, unified, democratic, just and independent Yemen, enjoying a balanced and sustainable human development, which is concerned with the reliance on knowledge, innovation and a diverse educational curricula. The National Vision provides an enabling environment for economic growth to ensure universal access to basic human needs in the first phase, to be followed by achievement of stability until reaching the desired progress and excellence in later stages.” (11)
Now opponents argue that the Vision is different from the practice of Ansarallah in power. While there is no peace in Yemen it is inevitable that there will be a difference. In times of war, the methods of war obtain – including arbitrary and security formed practices.
But the evidence is that, having inherited elements of the state bureaucracy, the priority of Ansarallah has been to deliver for the population despite the horrendous limitations upon access to resources. This includes having had the Central Bank in Sanaa sabotaged, despite being a relatively efficient body. It also includes being denied access to the revenues from Yemen’s oil and gas fields, which have been diverted to Saudi Arabia, for the use of the Hadi government and now the replacement Presidential Leadership Council.
The economic catastrophe that follows has meant that, despite controlling areas with over 70% of the country’s population, Ansarallah is unable to pay the salaries of those delivering civil and public services.
Joshua Rogers’s contribution gives some appreciation of the problem: “Regular salary payments to civil servants at all levels of the administration in Huthi-controlled areas ended in 2016, when the internationally recognised government stopped transferring salary payments to areas outside its control. Since then, a system of significantly reduced payments has been instituted. Initially minimal and improvised, these payments have become more regularized and institutionalized over the years. Most public servants working for the de facto authorities can now expect to receive roughly 10-25 percent of their previous salary – between 5 and 10 percent in dollar terms. Despite this fall in salaries, absenteeism remains low by some metrics. A recent UN Development Programme assessment in Hajjah, for instance, identified that more than 80 percent of district staff and nearly 70 percent of governorate staff continue to show up for work at least once a week… At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that public employees, from teachers over sanitation workers to local functionaries, have had to find additional sources of income to cope, mostly by taking up additional jobs in the informal sector.” (12)
Still some argue that the Vision’s words count for nothing – Ansarallah’s intentions are sectarian and restorationist. Those raising such charges do not explain why, despite the strength of Ansarallah’s area of governance since 2015, it has made no moves to restore an imamate, or the rule of sayyid. The obvious answer being that, the National Vision really is how Ansarallah sees Yemen’s future.
A proxy for Iran?
The suggestion that Ansarallah is a proxy for the Iranian state is not sustained by the evidence. Prior to the war, even hostile commentators find difficulties in demonstrating extensive Iranian involvement in Ansarallah’s evolution. For example: “Although the focus is often on Iranian support to the Houthis, Iran has also looked to screen and select a number of proxies in Yemen… There are natural impediments to the Houthi-Iran partnership, such as differences in the form of Shiism that they practice. Prior to 2014, Iran explored relationships with other potential partners, such as the southern secessionist movement, so as to diversify its portfolio of proxy reports.”(13)
Anthony Chimente’s contribution to “The Huthi Movement” is unreserved in his statement of Iranian involvement. “From 2004 to 2010, Iran’s role increased in Yemen remarkably by supporting the Huthis in their military conflict with the Yemeni government. By 2012, the United States began to observe Iranian weapons shipments going to the Huthis, alongside members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operating within Sa’ada during the same period, while Iranian support has measurably increased since 2015.” (14) Notably this history of involvement carries no citations.
There were six ‘Huthi wars’ with Saleh’s government between 2004 and the final ceasefire agreement of February 12 2010. The last of these included very open and serious Saudi military involvement in support of Saleh’s government. Yet no previous study suggests Iranian involvement. For example, “Iran declined to endorse renewed Government of Yemen actions and Saudi involvement in the sixth phase of fighting. While it has been careful not to articulate explicit support for the Huthi movement, Iran began to address the ongoing violence in Sa’ada in its official statements in late 2009. In an implicit signal to Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister cautioned all states to respect Yemen’s sovereignty and indicated Iranian willingness to participate in conflict resolution. Iran’s defense minister echoed his colleague, implicitly criticizing both Yemen and Saudi Arabia by affirming that there is no military solution to the conflict.” After reviewing some sharper statements of support from less official sources, the writer concludes: “Though condoned by regime elites, these statements probably signal Iran’s dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia’s power projection and influence in the region rather than suggesting Tehran’s intent to intervene directly in the conflict or to confront Saudi Arabia. At least by the beginning of 2010, the Huthi conflict and Yemen stability have not yet become a priority for Tehran, beyond being an additional element in the enduring rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional prominence.” (15)
Equally, during the mass mobilisations against Saleh in 2011, and for the period of the Gulf Initiative up to 2014, it was far from evident what the balance of forces was and who would be able to assert hegemony. Why would Iran make a major investment in the victory of a force which appeared to be one of the most geographically limited actors at that time? Indeed, during this period, in 2013, Iran was blamed for demonstrations in New York and Aden by southern secessionists opposing a UN report asserting Yemen’s unity.
Certainly with the collapse of the Gulf Initiative, and the launching of the coalition’s war on Yemen, it was inevitable that relations between Iran and Ansarallah would become warmer. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, not only launched the war, but also spoke of the need to take confrontation with Iran “into Iran”. Shortly afterwards, terrorist actions in Iran certainly lifted the interest of the Iranian government in a Saudi setback in Yemen.
But evidence of Iranian direct involvement is usually cited as arms seizures. While the coalition has been massively and legally armed with the most up to date planes, vehicles, missiles and munitions, Ansarallah has been under an arms embargo. Inevitably, rather than surrendering to the occupying forces, it has smuggled weapons. Such illegal activities are impossible to verify by external, disinterested parties.
It should not be forgotten that Ansarallah inherited the bulk of the armed forces and material after the national armed forces fragmented from 2011. Ansarallah also absorbed the armaments of the community it originated from, where studies show every adult male possessed 2 to 3 firearms. It also had access to tribal caches.
Evidence of Iranian involvement on the ground is ghost-like. Even the US State Department doesn’t suggest there is a significant Iranian presence in Yemen. Dr. Abdul Galil Shaif’s important study of the southern question makes notable efforts to be balanced, but certainly regards Ansarallah as an Iranian proxy. He provides only one claim of Iranian presence. Refering to the battle for Aden in 2015, he writes: “In the Sunni mosques, there were calls for the people to rise up against the invaders. Iran got involved in the conflict on the side of the Houthis. Two Quds Force officers from Iran were captured by the Southern fighters defending Aden.” (16)
And there it ends. No further reference to what happened to those two, nor any further references to the presence of Iranians in more than eight years of war. More convincing is this, published in 2020: “…we assume that Iran will not become directly involved in the civil war, either through ground troops or aerial support. As discussed earlier, Iran cultivates proxy groups in part to avoid direct military confrontation. And given the relatively shallow relationship between the Houthis and Iran, it is highly unlikely that Iran would risk its broader regional interests to directly assist the Houthis. Such direct intervention would likely trigger a regional conflagration and provoke a U.S. response which would cost the regime far more than the loss of a potential proxy.” (17)
The search for Iranian presence, influence and control over Ansarallah has a two-fold function. It reduces the independent stature of Ansarallah which is an authentic force in Yemeni society. And, it reduces Yemen to a jigsaw piece in the US and allies confrontation with Iran. Certainly the result of this witch hunt has made a peaceful solution in Yemen more difficult to achieve.
A truce – yet the humanitarian crisis continues
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): “More than 23 million people needed humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Most of these needs were driven by Yemen’s ongoing economic collapse, itself a result of more than eight years of conflict.” (18)
The economic collapse has a number of causes. The Saudi coalition bombing campaign, particularly in the first three years, caused massive destruction of the infrastructure and economy. The siege of the country imposed by the coalition cut Yemen’s connections with the world economy. The widespread displacement of civilians also contributed.
According to the World Bank, Yemen’s annual GDP stood at $43.23bn in 2014, before the war started. By 2018, this had fallen to $21.61bn. The World Bank does not provide GDP figures after 2018. Based on IMF figures for annual growth/decline since 2018, my estimate is that Yemen’s GDP in 2023 will be around $20.23bn.
After more than eight years of war, the population of Yemen has to survive on less than half of what it produced in peace time. Expressed in per capita terms, the real situation is much worse – in 2014 Yemen’s population was just under 26 million people, today it is just under 32 million people. Before the war, 45 percent of the population were below the poverty line. That figure is now 90 percent.
The last UN estimate of war related fatalities, direct and indirect, was 377,000 at the end of 2021. Alongside this must be added the almost numberless injuries and traumatic experiences undergone by the population. With an already scanty health service, currently, according to the UN, only 46 percent are operational. Waves of diseases have racked the nation, including the largest cholera outbreak in history, and diseases such as diptheria, measles, and polio impacting especially Yemeni infants.
The truce since April 2022 has resulted in a fall of casualties. Saudi air raids have ceased, as have cross border drone attacks on the kingdom from Ansarallah. Most military action on the ground has abated, but there are regular reports of breaches. There is an increased reporting of “tribal violence events”.
But civilian casualties in 2022 were very similar to the numbers for 2021, despite 9 months of “peace”. According to Oxfam: “The highest proportion of casualties since the truce started comes from explosive remnants of war (EWR) including unexploded ordinance, landmines and IEDs. Numbers in this category are higher than at any time since the CIMP [UN monitoring body] began recording figures. This is due to increased civilian mobility both travelling on roads and working farms as the fighting has decreased … Children are particularly at risk, as in all conflicts, being more inquisitive and lacking the awareness of dangers that adults possess. EWR civilian casualties are some 60% higher in 2022 than they were in 2021.” (19)
Clearly the need for humanitarian assistance remains pressing. The UN humanitarian programme for 2023 is for $4.3 billion. To date only $1.1 billion has been pledged, half way through the year the programme is 80 percent unfunded. This continues a pattern of annual shortfall in donations from national governments.
This becomes more grotesque when compared to the movement of arms sales. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, that government provided at least $54.6 billion of military support to Saudi Arabia and the UAEfor the period 2015 -2021. Similarly, the British government authorised the sale of an estimated £23 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia in the same period. It is hard to take seriously professions of humanitarian concern when these governments have facilitated twenty times more finances spent on destroying the country than on humanitarian aid to Yemen’s population.
What will bring peace?
Following the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia there has been progress in the negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Ansarallah. There has been a major exchange of prisoners. More fuel and some commercial goods have been allowed to enter Hodeidah port. A limited number of commercial flights to Amman have been allowed from Sanaa airport – letting some Yemenis requiring medical treatment abroad to receive it. Most recently, the first pilgrims to Mecca have been allowed to fly from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia. These are valuable gains, but completely insufficient to address the needs of Yemen’s people. Only a complete lifting of the coalition’s siege will suffice.
What these steps do highlight is the need to address concretely the pathway to a lasting, just peace in Yemen. The prominent Yemeni-American activist, Shireen Al-Adeimi outlines some of the criteria necessary: “…a lasting peace would have to include cessation of all foreign intervention and backing of local actors. This includes the UAE’s arming of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, Saudi’s backing of the Islah Party, and the U.S.’s backing of the Saudi-led coalition.
The roadmap would also have to ensure Yemen’s sovereignty is restored by lifting the blockade entirely, and ending the UAE’s occupation of areas such as the island of Socotra and Saudi’s occupation of Al Mahra province. This exit could then set the stage for peace among Yemenis, who have a vested interest in coexisting and are more than capable of reaching a negotiated settlement.
After all, these same groups once reached a deal in the spring of 2015, before Saudi, the UAE, the U.S. and others in the so-called international “community” waged a war and blockade so devastating, it turned Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the era.”(20)
It is going to be a huge step to see the international coalition actually withdraw from waging war on Yemen. Only the people of Yemen have the right to decide Yemen’s future. The previous Gulf Initiative, and the coalition war to uphold that initiative, have absolutely failed the people of Yemen. The international actors responsible must end all further efforts to determine Yemen’s future.
Decisive here is the US government. It has considerable influence over both the Saudi and UAE regimes, as the main source of their armaments. Since 2011, it attempted to prevent any radical reform of the Yemeni regime, having first supported Saleh then the Gulf Initiative with Hadi. Its support for the coalition had nothing to do with freedom for the Yemen republic – as if this could be delivered by the Saudi and UAE monarchies! Its support for a coalition military victory was to ensure a government in Yemen aligned with US interests in the Gulf and Red Sea.
The danger is that US imperialism prefers chaotic and divided states to genuinely independent ones. No other conclusion can be drawn from US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria since 2001. Already Biden’s administration has shown hostility towards any concessions to Ansarallah, claiming the latter was making “maximalist and impossible demands”, yet the Saudis were later able to accommodate these. While it has very few forces inside Yemen, the US may still refuse to support the withdrawal of its allies from Yemen.
As well as arming various Yemeni forces, the Saudis and UAE also have control over parts of the south of Yemen. This is not to do with holding strategic positions in the war. It is for economic and resource purposes that the oil and gas fields are under their control. Equally, the UAE’s control of southern ports is for commercial purposes. This is about subordinating Yemen’s resources to the developmental needs of its vastly wealthier neighbours.
To restore Yemen’s sovereignty demands that all Yemeni resources and services are under Yemeni control. Whether the coalitions allies in the Southern Transitional Council and the Islah party are prepared to support such a shift will be an indication of their commitment to peace in Yemen.
Certain areas of the coalition’s occupation have a military/intelligence character outside of the war. The UAE is reported as building military facilities and “listening” installations on Socotra island. This occupation of a geographically sensitive island connects to the integration of the UAE into US foreign policy via the Abraham Accords with Israel. There are indications of Israeli involvement in the facilities being constructed. This is also true of the UAE’s building of an airbase on an island in the Bab-al-Mandab. If Yemen is to have an independent future then such facilities must be removed and occupying forces evacuated. In addition, the UAE must stop looting the unique ecology of Socotra.
These are big and necessary steps. They also illustrate how transactional the war was for the coalition. Billions weren’t being spent merely to try and restore the wretched Hadi to power.
If these international withdrawals are made then the Yemeni parties to the conflict will have to deal directly with each other. Difficult dialogues are part of such a prospect. Not the least of these is the question of overall governance. Left to themselves, Yemenis will want to create a process that offers a lasting solution to the unity/federation/autonomy/separation debate.
The biggest danger is that Yemenis won’t be allowed to decide this process. There will likely be pressure within the coalition, and from the US, to utilise divisions within Yemen. Neo-colonial forces would prefer a fragmented Yemen to an independent one. The watchword for those around the world who support Yemen is to demand an end to all interventions, occupation and meddling in Yemen.
The corpse that is British diplomacy
Since the start of the war British government policy has been characterised by an endorsement of the coalition’s quest for a military victory. On 27 March 2015, Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary stated that Britain would “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. Now as British forces have been deployed in the south of Yemen, and on defence batteries inside Saudi Arabia, so support may have even breached that limit.
The support included defending the coalition in the UN, and Security Council, regardless of its defeat and atrocities. The British government even continued to arm the Saudis when, for a brief period, Biden’s administration froze some arms transfers. This was a minor difference with the US, whose role in Yemen the Tories have generally followed.
This enthusiastic tail-wagging for the military operation has been the British government’s almost only visible activity. Entirely absent have been any diplomatic initiatives to accelerate an end to the conflict peacefully. Given that the British government has been the pen-holder for UN Security Council resolutions this is clearly a notable failure.
The supine passivity of British diplomacy was expressed by James Cleverly, Secretary of State for the Foreign Office, in his contribution to the House of Commons on 13th June, this year. When questioned on the moves to advance beyond the truce, he replied: “They [the Saudi government] are making attempts to permanently bring ceasefires in Yemen to a full peace settlement. If that is the case, we are very happy to support that action.” Such energy! Presumably if the Saudis decide otherwise , then the government will remain happy to support further efforts towards a military solution. Certainly there are no independent diplomatic efforts underway.
This inertia pervades government policy on Yemen. Generally Yemen isn’t seen as important enough to discuss often in the Commons. The most recent occasion for an extended debate was on 3rd November 2022. In a Westminster Hall debate on the “Yemen Peace Process”, David Rutley, Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Foreign Office, spoke on behalf of the Tory government.
He explained that: “We continue to use our role as penholder on Yemen in the UN Security Council to push for a lasting political resolution to the conflict. Resolution 2216 should be replaced when there is a real consensus on a political settlement, and the UK stands ready to support the negotiation of a new resolution on ending Yemen’s war when the time is right.”
Resolution 2216 was carried at the UNSC on 14th April 2015 – less than 3 weeks after the first Saudi air strikes on Yemen. It must be one of least credible resolutions ever carried at the Security Council – it demands that Ansarallah surrender all territory it secured, disarm and hand heavy weapons to the Hadi government, withdraw from all positions and assist in returning to power the Hadi government. The only function of such a resolution was to ensure that military action in Yemen is “justified” and continues.
Since April 2015, the Saudi coalition has proved to be absolutely incapable of defeating Ansarallah. Nor has Ansarallah been persuaded to surrender and endorse a failed and corrupt politician, whose mandate expired in 2014.
In response, British diplomacy has done nothing. The opportunity to draft a more helpful and equitable resolution for the Security Council has been forgone. The British minister Rutley justifies a belligerent policy, waiting for some other force to take the initiative for peace.
Further in the debate, Rutley ignores the actual redundancy of Resolution 2216 which calls for the restoration of the “internationally recognised government of President Hadi”. The latter was arrested by the Saudi government in spring 2022, and was last heard of as awaiting a trial inside Saudi Arabia on corruption charges. In his place, with no reference to the decision or wishes of the Yemeni people, the Saudi regime engineered a “Presidential Leadership Council” from armed factions, united by nothing except hostility to Ansarallah. Minister Rutley stated: “I reiterate the UK’s strong support for the council and its eight members President Rashad al-Alimi, Sultan Ali al-Arada, Farj Salman al-Bushani, Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, Othman Hussein Megadi, Tariq Saleh, Abed al-Rahman Abu Zara’a, and Aidarius al-Zubaidi. We praise the strong and magnanimous leadership of the PLC.”
Such whitewashing is a constituent part of British diplomacy. Never mind that these people have no representative mandate together, other than force majeure. They represent ground forces who have regularly come to armed clashes with each other. They have political objectives for Yemen’s future which are in direct contradiction – some supporting secession for southern Yemen, the others supporting Yemen’s unity. “Strong and magnanimous” is not a substitute for democratically elected and politically coherent.
Finally, the minister made it absolutely plain that there would be no question of interrupting the flow of arms to the coalition in order to promote peace. Rutley said: “Questions were raised about arms sales, I reassure Members that the UK takes its export responsibilities extremely seriously, and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria… the UK regularly raises with Saudi Arabia, including at senior levels, the importance of international humanitarian law, and conducting thorough and conclusive investigations into alleged violations.” The government still insists that no-one is better fitted to investigate alleged war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition than the Saudi coalition. Such is the diplomatic and political bankruptcy of the British government.
Nor is there any prospect of this changing. On Wednesday 6th June, the High Court ruled in favour of the British government in the case brought against the arm sales to Saudi Arabia by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The government welcomed the judgement, continuing a policy of belligerent, profitable support for war being waged on a poverty stricken country.
As best it can, the peace and labour movement in Britain must continue its demand that the British government lift its hands off Yemen. This means, no more arms to the coalition before a lasting peace; withdrawal of all British forces in and around Yemen, and ending all political support for the coalition.
(1) “The Huthi Movement in Yemen: Ideology, Ambition and Security in the Arab Gulf”, Abdullah Hamidaddin (editor), I.B.Taurus 2022,
(2) ibid, p.248
(3) ibid, p.21
(4) ibid, p.42
(5) ibid, p.82
(6) “Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict”, Marieke Brandt, C.Hurst and Co. 2017
(7) “The Huthi Movement in Yemen”, p.84
(8) ibid, p.86
(9) ibid, p.86
(10) ibid, p.200
(11) “National Vision For The Modern Yemeni State”, Supreme Political Council, 26 March 2019, p.17
(12) “The Huthi Movement in Yemen”, p.225
(13) “Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?”, Trevor Johnston et al, RAND Corporation 2020), p.x
(14) “The Huthi Movement in Yemen”, p.193
(15) “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon”, Barak A. Salmoni et al, RAND Corporation 2010, ps. 267-268
(16) “South Yemen: Gateway to the World”, Dr. Abdul Galil Shaif, AuthorHouse UK 2022, p.118
(17) “Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?”, p.81
(18) Annual Report, OCHA, June 2023, page 39
(19) “Fueling Conflict”, Oxfam briefing paper, January 2023, p.25
(20) “With – or despite – US influence, Yemen appears poised for real peace”, Shireen Al-Adeimi, Responsible Statecraft website, 20 April 2023