The Middle East’s Cold War & Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

Instability in the Middle East, caused by internal conflict and foreign involvement, continues to grow. The UN reported that, “[t]he military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 — actions that may amount to war crimes.” News publications have run countless stories on the crisis in Yemen and debating American involvement in the conflict, but few detail how the conflict got to this point.

The main two players in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two powerful nations have fought and currently are fighting a myriad of proxy wars in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran fight indirectly by militarily and financially supporting opposing sides in war. The opposing influences exerted by the two rivals in other nations adds fuel to the fires of preexisting conflicts. The pressure from these powers causes the smaller nations to shatter and fragment leading to civil wars such as in Syria and Yemen.

Iran’s Supreme Leader (L) and Prince of Saudi Arabia (R) (Source: BBC)

An important distinction between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni Muslim while Iran is majority Shia. Historically, this religious difference did not necessitate fighting, but the Saudis and Iranians are disputing who is the true Islamic state and leader of the Muslim world.

Critical background to the understanding of U.S.-Iran relations begins in 1953. The U.S. secretly staged a coup to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister Mohommad Mosaddegh. They replaced him with an American puppet monarch Reza Shah. The Shah was wildly unpopular because of his westernized, secular reforms in a majority Shia Muslim country. Additionally, the Shah bred governmental corruption and fear from his secret police. Unrest among the people reached a breaking point with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Protest Against the Shah During Iranian Revolution (Source: Business Insider)

After the revolution overthrew the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeni rose to power. He preached against western-backed monarchies in favor of a theocratic government that would be “popular, Islamic, and led by the clergy” (Vox). The monarchy of Saudi Arabia feared that their people would be inspired by Iran and rebel against their King. Iran began backing Shia revolutionaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, panicking the Saudis and renewing the motivation to fight against Iran. The Saudis strengthened their alliance with the U.S. forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

An Iranian Revolutionary Holds an Ayatollah Khomeni Sign circa 1979 (Source: BBC)

The rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was followed by war with Iran. Saddam aimed to gain some Iranian territory to control oil reserves and halt the Iranian revolution. Iraq held a short-lived advantage, until Iran began holding the Iraqis back. The prospect of an Iranian victory terrified the Saudis, who then put their full force behind the Iraqi dictator.

The U.S. led an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam. Once he was toppled, there was no longer a physical and ideological buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. failed to replace Saddam, plunging Iraq into civil war. The country fragmented into Sunni and Shia militias with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni groups and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supporting the Shias. The widespread chaos presents an opportunity for a power grab correlating to the uprising of extremist groups such as ISIS and Hezbollah.

A similar pattern of support emerged during the Arab Spring democratic revolutions in 2011. Various groups throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa protested against monarchies and advocated for democratic governments. The Saudis supported status-quo monarchies and Iran supported the pro-democracy rebels. These proxy conflicts took place in Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, and Morocco. All of these past events are necessary to understanding how the situation in Yemen reached the point that it has.

Map of Arab Spring Revolutions (Purple: Government overthrown more than once, Black: Government overthrown, Maroon: Civil War, Teal: Protests and governmental changes, Red: Major protests, Beige: Minor Protests, Dark Grey: Other protests and militant action outside of the Arab world) (Source: Wikipedia)

The Yemeni civil war began officially in 2015, but the events of 2011 set the nation on the path to war. The origins of the conflict stem from, “the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.” The tumultuous transition included, “attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity” (BBC). The Houthi movement is led by the minority Shia sect Zaidi. They utilized the transitional instability to gain control of the northern Saada province. The civil war is essentially between the Hadi government and Houthi rebels.

Houthi Fighters (Source: Express.co)

Eventually, the Saudi military stepped in to prop up Yemen’s central government to fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group. An alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia extends back to the early 20th century due to the discovery of huge oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, so the U.S. has been sending weapons to the Saudis and supporting the Saudi-led bombing campaign on Yemen. Tensions with Iran also prompted the U.S. to support Saudi interests and military strategy in Yemen.

Yemeni Child Views the Destruction from an Airstrike (Source: Commondreams.org)

As the humanitarian crisis worsens in Yemen with 20 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation and thousands already dead, the U.S. government is debating further involvement. A UN report puts the death toll due to the U.S. backed Saudi bombing at 65% of the total deaths of the war (BBC). However, the widespread chaos makes the assessment of an accurate death toll difficult with many officials suggesting it could be as high as about 68,000 since 2016. In addition to the thousands of civilian casualties from bombing, many more men, women, and children have died of malnutrition, disease (including a cholera epidemic), and poor health.   

The American argument on involvement mostly falls along party lines with Democrats pushing to end involvement and cut ties with Saudi Arabia, especially considering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Republicans backing Trump’s fierce support of Saudi Arabia. However, there has been some bipartisan action to put an end to U.S. involvement.

In April 2019, the House of Representatives voted to end involvement in Yemen, after the resolution already passed the Senate. President Trump, in a highly expected move, vetoed the resolution in favor of continued support for war. Trump’s veto, “strikes down a resolution that invoked the War Powers Act to distance the United States from a four-year conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and resulted in a widespread famine.” Trump is sidestepping Congress in order to continue selling billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen.

Facts on the Humanitarian Crisis (Source: Arab Center DC)

Entangling alliances and the desire for control of oil-rich nations have escalated conflict in the Middle East to its current status. The motive of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the U.S., and other foreign powers to exert control and influence in the Middle East has caused disaster in the region. For the most part, innocent civilians in Yemen and elsewhere are paying the price for this lust for power.

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