Friday's Sermon: Feb 5/21
Biden says he will end Saudi's campaign against Yemen, but Saudi intervention has a long and bloody history.
Amidst the constant avalanche of bad news that has characterized this past year, it was refreshing to see the Biden administration follow through on its campaign promise to revoke support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. What this will look like in practice is yet to be seen, but there is reason for cautious optimism.
Yemen, devastated by a civil war for the past six years, stands on the brink of a catastrophic famine. In addition to the near daily airstrikes by the Saudi air force, Yemen is besieged, with the Saudi-led coalition preventing essential food and medicine from entering Yemen through the port of Hodeida. According to the UN’s Office of Coordinated Humanitarian Affairs (OCHO), the war has caused “an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure”. A further 10 million Yemenis are currently at risk of a horrific but preventable famine. By all accounts, what is happening in Yemen is a crime against humanity. In any just world, Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman, or MBS as he is called, should be sitting in a dock at the Hague next to Obama and Clinton, who tacitly condoned his brutal campaign.
Yemen and the nomadic Arabs of the interior of the peninsula have a long history together, a history that precedes even the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In pre-Islamic times Yemen was populated by sedentary peoples that formed small kingdoms like the biblical Sheba. With Rome often at war with Persia, overland trade was risky. Maritime trade, on the other hand, was safer, and those kingdoms in Yemen like Marib, Himyar, and the Hadramawt acted as ports through which goods from east Africa and south and east Asia would enter to be transported by caravan up through Arabia to ports on the Mediterranean to be shipped to Europe. Under this paradigm, the Yemeni cities grew wealthy alongside middle merchants like the Arabs of Mecca, whose city was situated in the middle of the land route between Yemen and the Levant.
In fact, it would be difficult to call these peoples that lived in Yemen at the time Arab, as they spoke four closely related but now extinct languages collectively called Yemenite, or Old South Arabian. Thus, Yemen was seen by contemporaries as a distinct political and cultural entity, separate from “the Arabs”. It would not be until the arrival of Islam that all of Arabia became a single community of Arabs.
In contrast to the Yemenis, the Arabs of the peninsula were broadly divided into small sedentary communities and pastoral tribes called the Badaw, or Bedouins. The former lived in oases, where the availability of water allowed the limited cultivation of crops like the date palm, or in market-shrine towns like Mecca that acted as both sacred ground and an interface through which Bedouins and merchants can trade goods. Conversely, the Bedouin tribes roamed the arid interior of the peninsula, raising camels and sheep and pursuing pasture and water. In times of difficulty, some tribes would move south, accepting work as mercenaries and guards in the Yemeni kingdoms. Between trade with the merchants of Mecca and those mercenaries, the Arabic language slowly diffused into the kingdoms of Yemen, eventually supplanting the Yemenite tongue. This was all about to change with the birth of a single individual, Muhammad of Mecca.
Given that this week’s sermon is about Yemen, I will not go into the particulars of the history of Islam. If you are interested in a detailed look at the rise of Muhammad and the ummah, the nation-state of Muslims, I was invited as a guest by the Radio War Nerd podcast to do a series on the topic. Episodes 246, 249, 251, and 255 encompass the early history of Islam. Suffice to say that the peoples of Yemen became Muslim under the rule of Muhammad. As the Islamic caliphate expanded, however, the need for more soldiers overrode the desire for Arab exclusivity and Yemen was absorbed into the Arab polity. In other words, Yemenis were now Arab for the purposes of serving in the nascent Muslim nation’s army.
Fast forward to the end of World War 1, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has left a vacuum in the region. Northwestern Yemen emerged independent as the Mutawakilite Kingdom of Yemen whereas the south of the country around the port of Aden was seized by the British Empire and became a protectorate. The treatment of the Middle East as spoils of war to be divided between Britain and France led to widespread resentment and anti-colonial sentiments. In the early and mid 20th century, these sentiments coalesced around a secular pan-Arabist ideology. In the 1950’s and 60’s, tensions exploded. Military officers, embracing pan-Arabism and disenchanted with sclerotic Arab monarchies, overthrew the kings across the region.
The Kingdom of Yemen was no exception, and in 1962 a cadre of revolutionary officers overthrew King Muhammad al-Badr and plunged North Yemen into a civil war. On the one hand, revolutionary officers established the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), also known as North Yemen, and espoused a pan-Arabist ideology that gained them the support of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, royalists backing the deposed king fought to restore the monarchy with support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Britain. The royalists were ultimately defeated, resulting in the perseverance of the YAR.
Meanwhile, the British protectorate of South Yemen achieved independence in 1967 as the People’s Republic of Yemen following a guerrilla campaign by the National Liberation Front. In 1969, factional conflicts within the NLF led to the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, colloquially known as South Yemen, a one party Marxist-Leninist state supported by the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.
Relations between North and South Yemen veered between friendly and hostile, including two civil wars in 1972 and 1979. In both cases, North Yemen was supported by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the US and UK against the communist South Yemen and its Soviet allies. This division remained until reunification into the Yemen we see today in 1990. In other words, Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen today follows a very deep historical precedent.
It is also important to note that Saudi Arabia has been a fulcrum of US geopolitical strategy. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia acted as the locus of Islamism through which the US hoped to counter secular pan-Arabism and socialism that emerged in the Middle East. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but the alliance with the Sauds remains. It is this alliance that has enabled the Sauds to conduct a war of extermination against Yemen since the fall of 2014.
What does Biden’s announcement mean? It is hard to say. We know that the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen today is wholly dependent on US support. Not only are the planes and bombs used by the Sauds US-made, but US Air Force mechanics maintain and refuel the planes, and US officers sit alongside their Saudi counterparts in flight operations rooms and provide intelligence and logistical support for the bombing campaign. Biden has rightly called the “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”, but he also left wiggle room by claiming that the US is “going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people”. Considering Saudi’s claims of daily incursions by Houthi-operated drones into its airspace, this casts a wide net on what the US will permit as self-defence.
(Sidenote: Western media constantly refer to the Houthis (officially Ansar Allah) as Iranian-backed. This is remarkably simplistic and not entirely accurate. I assume that this line is fed through Saudi-funded think tanks to the press and the Acela corridor Natsec goons. This “Iranian-backed” label serves two purposes in my opinion: easily identify a faction as an enemy of the US, and tacitly propagate the asinine notion that all Shi’a communities are a hive mind controlled by a an Ayatollah on a computer in Tehran. The Houthis are Shi’a, but they are Zaidis, a sect very much separate from the Twelver Shi’ism practiced in Iran. Moreover, the Houthis may be working with Iran in an alliance of convenience, but such an alliance does not mean total Iranian control like the Saudis claim. The Houthis are a distinct polity with their own independent interests and goals, and any self-respecting journalist should treat them as such. Then again, I’m not sure any such journalists exist in the Western press.)
It is clear to all observers that the war in Yemen is not only a humanitarian disaster but a total and complete strategic failure for MBS and the Saudi government. Not only has the Saudi-led coalition failed to dislodge the Houthis, but it inadvertently empowered its rival Iran by creating a climate where Iran is seen as a desirable ally to protect against Saudi incursions. It also revealed the complete hollowness of the Saudi military, who had to immediately resort to Colombian and Sudanese mercenaries to conduct any ground operation, and whose air strikes may as well be considered wholly US organized.
The Biden administration has recognized the total failure that is the Yemen War, and has pledged to withdraw support. If this is a starting point for a total re-evaluation of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, then there is ample cause for optimism. If only as a pipe dream, I sincerely hope MBS is sent to the Hague for his complete destruction of a country. On the other hand, the aforementioned caveats stated by Biden may lead to a continuation of the status quo. It is very difficult to have faith in the US foreign policy, and I don’t see any big change forthcoming but I hope I am wrong.