Yemen: the Afghanistan of the Gulf coalition

Yemen has the potential of becoming the Afghanistan of the Gulf coalition. The Soviets in their aspiration towards the Indian Ocean were forced to abandon Afghanistan because of terrain and economic difficulties. Are the US and the Gulf monarchies aspiring of getting to the ocean or is it just to reinstate America’s point-man Mansur Hadi who fled to Saudi? The only current oil outlets for the Gulf countries are the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf and both accesses are controlled by Iran and Yemen.

Considering the Yemeni terrain and low oil prices, the coalition could run into the same difficulties in Yemen as the Soviets did in Afghanistan in the event of a ground offensive. It seems that the US may’ve been aware of this and with intelligence and logistical support may’ve instigated the Arab Sunni s to get involved as a coalition.

Since March 26, the coalition has been engaged only in an aerial and naval bombing campaign resulting in deaths of hundreds of civilians – similar to Israel’s campaign in Gaza. On April 21 the Saudis announced an end to the campaign and start of a new operation called “Restoring Hope” whose focus will now be towards security, counter-terrorism, aid and a political solution in Yemen but that “the coalition will continue to prevent Houthi militias from moving inside Yemen.”

What goes beyond the military equipment in fighting a war is the actual trained military manpower. The Soviets had both but were no match for the Afghan terrain as they could only see the terrain but not the Taliban who could see the Soviets in their uniforms. The Yemeni Houthis would’ve the same advantage.

Brian Whitaker has written a rather interesting blog “Yemen and Saudi Arabia – A Historical Review of Relations” (dated one day before the coalition strikes) on . It provides an in-depth analysis of relations dating back from 1934 which have not been favorable for Yemen in its political relations with Saudi Arabia. Whitaker writes that …given this historical background, it will be surprising if the Saudis do not become involved in the unfolding events in Yemen. What form this will take remains to be seen but the Saudis probably know Yemen well enough to avoid the folly of sending their own ground forces. They might engage in air strikes and, on past form, provide money and equipment. Even that would be dangerous though, because it would invite a response from Iran whose support for the Houthis has so far been verbal rather than tangible. The Saudis and US were hoping that Pakistan could be bribed into joining the coalition. That refusal has come as a major setback for both.

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The coalition and the US will likely not permit an Iranian influence in Yemen. The US has deployed nine naval vessels including the aircraft carrier Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser Normandy along with Egyptian and Saudi naval ships with the intent of monitoring if Iranian vessels might be trafficking arms to the Houthis. The maritime tensions could have broader consequences for the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The Commander of the fifth fleet told CNN that “We are closely monitoring all maritime activity in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

I was exposed to Yemen on two occasions – both being oil related. The first was when I worked on a plant revamp project for Calgary based oil company Nexen and then on an Engineering Design for Total E&P’s (France) facilities located in Block 18 Marib Governate for the supply of natural gas to Yemen LNG plant located at Balhaf port, some 400 kms east of Aden and 200 kms west of Mukalla oil port. Sanaa is located 170km directly west of Marib (the Capital of the Sabaean Kingdom in the ancient times) settled some three thousand years ago and ruled by Queen Bilquis (Sheba) of the King Solomon fame. Even today the ruins of a great dam (the basin mentioned in the Islam Holy Book) are visible.

During the course of the engineering phase I studied the geography of Yemen and its geopolitics, history and civilization dating back to the time of Sheba. I also befriended a young Yemeni engineer from the Marib area (I’ll refer to him simply as NAS) who was working for the national Yemen LNG Company and whose insight about Yemen provided me the advantage to write this article. The history and civilization is beyond the scope of this article, the focus of which is oil and geopolitics.

g150326bYemen’s coastline stretches some 2000 kms from As-Saif bordering Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea to Oman’s border. Bab- al-Mandab (the gate of tears) is a narrow strait between Yemen and Djibouti. The distance between the two countries at the mouth of the Red Sea at its closest points is about 27 kms and is 300m at its deepest. Approximately 3 million barrels of oil/ day (MMBOPD) pass through the strait. It is the most important passageway for crude oil tankers after the Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran from where about 20 MMBOPD flowed out from the Gulf representing 40% of world’s traded tanker crude oil.

Yemen is one of the most mountainous regions (part of the Sarawat range) on the western Arabian Peninsula. Jabal an-Nabi Shuaib (mountain of Prophet Shuaib) is 3800m – the tallest mountain in Yemen and rests north of the capital Sana’a. The Utmah District of Yemen, 50 kms from Sana’a, boasts some of the most interesting mountains in the country. In many ways Yemen resembles Afghan terrain.

Among the GCC countries, only Oman is not part of the Arab Sunni coalition. Unlike Wahhabism being the dominant religion in the Gulf monarchies, majority Omanis are pragmatic, moderate, peaceful and tolerant Muslims that follow the Ibadi school of Islam which differs from both Shia and Sunni beliefs. Oman has had cordial relations with both Iran and USA and acted as an intermediary in negotiations held in secret in 2011-2012 between Washington and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Iran has never blown its trumpet regarding Shia power or indulged in terrorist activities. Whenever and wherever the US has created a power vacuum, Iran has moved in to create stability whereas Saudi Arabia at the same time has tried to foment instability through terrorist activities. A case in point is Iraq. After the Americans moved out, Iran quietly moved in and helped Iraqis to stabilize the government but Saudi Arabia has assisted the Baathists to collude with al-Qaeda causing death in the hundreds of thousands. Now that the Americans have left a power vacuum in Yemen after Houthi takeover in November 2014, the Saudis have created terrorism whereas Iran aspires to stabilize the region. There little to doubt that Iran would not support the Houthis strategically as it’d be to their advantage to get a foothold in Yemen and control the narrow strait leading into the Red Sea.

In closing, the coalition should be careful to avoid opening an Afghanistan in Yemen which in view of the economics of oil and the Yemeni terrain could result in the failure of this adventure. Moreover Iran’s involvement could become as disastrous for the coalition as Israel’s involvement with Hezbollah supported by Iran in July 2006.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily coincide with one’s of the Editorial Board.

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