October 24, 2014
Sixty-Six Egyptian Fishermen, Yemen and Instability in the Middle East
Pay attention to the recent developments in Yemen, an Arab State with a population of 23,000,000 people.
Yemen is located on the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (sometimes called the Mandab Strait) which flows between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, and connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Yemen chronically suffers from weak governments, endless violence and enormous economic and social challenges. Yemen is a member of a “not so complementary” club of the poorest nations in the world. Yemen’s society is based on tribes and demographically it is 60% Sunni and 30% Shiite.
All the above factors provide the conditions for Yemen to be a central stage for the widening and escalating Sunni – Shiite conflict; a Sunni Arab axis led by Saudi Arabia on the one hand – and a Shiite axis led by Iran on the other hand.
Yemen has also become a platform for the growing presence and operation of Militant Islam groups. The Sunni Militant Islam group, Ansar al-Sharia, which is known as Al-Qaida’s strongest branch – is located in Yemen.
In September 2014, something very important happened in Yemen. A local Shiite Militant Islam group known as Ansar Allah took over Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.
Ansar Allah is the Military Militia of the Houthis Shiite Tribe whose stronghold is located in Yemen’s northern district of Sa’adah which borders Saudi Arabia. The relations between the Shiite Houthis and the rule (whether it was Sunni or Shiite) in Yemen have a long history of violence. The Houthis argue that they are constantly being deprived of rights and services and are discriminated against.
In 2004, a young Houthi leader named Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi established a militia called Al Shabab Al Mu’minun (the Young Believers). In 2009 Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was killed in clashes with the Yemenite army and his brother, Abd Al Malik Badr UD Din Al Houthi – the current leader of Ansar Allah –took control.
In June 2007 a ceasefire agreement between the Houthis and the Yemenite government was signed; the broker was Qatar. Yet, the agreement did not last long and the fighting resumed.
The Yemenite Prime Minister at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh (himself a Shiite), accused the Iranian regime of supporting and arming the Houthis militia.
That accusation was not groundless: Given its strategic location, the Iranian regime views Yemen as a place in which it would like to increase its activity and influence. Moreover, the fact that there is a significant Shiite population in an area that primarily borders Saudi Arabia (Iran’s bitter rival) coupled with the chronic inner instability, Yemen offers the Iranian regime an ideal area to operate in and to expand its influence. (On the subject of Iran’s aggressive foreign policy read for example my articles “Masters of Chaos: The Iranian Mullah Regime – June 2012, “The Iranian Dance of Veils” – November 2011) Iran’s modus operandi is based on using local agents in different areas (like Bahrain, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the United Arab Emirates, etc.) to promote and enhance Iran’s interests. They are using the same method in Yemen.
Iran is massively supporting and arming the Houthis tribe in Yemen.
And accumulating information indicates that Eritrea – Yemen’s neighbor just across Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, is a vital component of the Iranian involvement in Yemen. In return for Iranian money, Eritrea has agreed to become a base for Ansar Allah militants. They are trained in Eritrea, reportedly some of the trainers are Hezbollah or Syrian military experts. Weapons and equipment supplied by Iran are being stored in Eritrea including – according to Arab sources – chemical weapons from Syria. And accumulating information indicates that Ansar Allah militants are fighting in the war in Syria – supporting Assad.
The recent developments in Yemen should be viewed mostly in the context of what I believe is the current – and future – name of the game in the Middle East – and that is – the strive for stability.
Among the different factors that shape and impact the level of stability in the Middle East, there are two major factors that are very present in Yemen:
- The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia
- The activity of Militant Islam groups
Iranian senior officials openly expressed satisfaction with the achievement of Ansar Allah in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia, as expected, expressed discontent and concern.
It is interesting to note that some Arab analysts – some of whom are known to have good connections with the Saudi rule – described the Saudi reaction as “surprisingly minor.” These analysts argue that the reason for that is that the achievement of Ansar Allah in Yemen actually serves the Saudis in different ways:
- It weakens the power of the Yemenite branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement – which is defined by Saudi Arabia officially as a terror organization
- It puts the Houthis on a collision course with the Sunni majority in Yemen, which may force the Houthis to make political compromises and concessions that will undermine Iran’s achievements in Yemen
- It puts the Houthis on a collision path with Ansar Al Sharia in Yemen, which is evaluated as Al-Qaida’s strongest branch. Such developments actually do serve Saudi Arabia well since it keeps Al-Qaida busy, and therefore decreases its potential threat on Saudi Arabia. In fact, over the past few days, fierce fighting is reported in the central regions of Yemen between Ansar Al Sharia – backed by Sunni Yemenite tribes on the one side, and the Shiite Houthis Ansar Allah on the other side.
Speaking of Al-Qaida, it should be noted that there has been a growing inner tension within Al-Qaida over the last few months stemming from the open rift between Al-Qaida and ISIS. Remember – Isis was previously Al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq. (On that matter please see my Intelligence Bulletin Al-Qaida Announces it has no connection to ISIS”, February 2014).
The growing tension is also reflected inside Ansar al-Sharia. While the group’s leader, Nasser Al Wahishi, remains loyal to Al-Qaida and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, other senior members in Ansar al-Sharia openly express support for ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Some Arab analysts predict that the growing tension will inevitably result in a violent rift within Ansar al-Sharia. However, it is possible that fighting Ansar Allah will put aside – for now – the inner tensions within Ansar al-Sharia.
Given that analysis, the Iranians – who are already experiencing growing difficulties in Syria and Iraq – two major arenas of utmost important and interest for Iran, may find themselves engaged in growing difficulties in Yemen as well. The Iranian satisfaction of having succeeded in developing a proxy in Yemen, may very well be replaced by growing concerns for the Shiite regime.
Though physically distant and different in terms of demography, geography, politics, and structure – the Iraqi, Syrian and Yemenite arenas interact. The meaning of that is that each side strives to compensate for its disadvantages or loses on one arena by making achievements in another arena. Thus, the recent action of Ansar Allah in Yemen in which it took over Sana’a can be looked at as an Iranian counter-reaction to the recent Saudi achievement in Iraq which was manifested by the stepping down of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was an Iranian proxy.
The recent developments in Yemen and their potential ramifications could have a negative impact on the level of stability in the region.
Saudi Arabia made it clear that it will not tolerate the infiltration of the crisis in Yemen into Saudi Arabia, nor will it tolerate any provocations along its borders with Yemen.
Egypt, another important regional player, who completely shares the Saudis interest in stability, is also sending a similar message. The Egyptian Minister of Defense announced that Egypt maintains a military presence off the coast of Yemen to fight piracy. Of interest to note, the Union of Egyptian Fisherman reports that sixty-six Egyptian fisherman are being held captive by the Houthis in Yemen. It is not clear if both Egyptian announcements are related; Are these real fisherman or perhaps Egyptian military forces? As of now the story is shrouded in mystery. However, if this incident is not solved diplomatically soon, it will clearly stimulate growing tension. In that context, it should be mentioned that this past Thursday the UN Security Council formally approved the intensification of the inspection of boats in the area of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait as part of the fight against piracy.
As the world’s attention in the Middle East focuses in ISIS it is no less important to closely watch the events and developments in Yemen.