After years of hearing how terrible Western interventions are in the Middle East (Exhibits A, B and C the fiascos of Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Gaddafi Libya), it will be interesting to see how a Saudi-led all-Muslim intervention fares in Yemen.
My prediction is it won’t be much better than those of the infidels. For a start we are dealing with the poorest country in the Arab world. Whereas Iraq sits on a lake of oil, squandering the proceeds with a venality that is ghastly to behold, Yemen is running out of water, let alone oil. With an estimated GDP per capita of $2,500, the country comes 187th in the world. The figure for Saudi Arabia, incidentally, is $31,300. The last thing Yemen needs is more war.
Yet thanks to the extraordinary trauma gripping the Middle East, that is exactly what the land known by Romans as Arabia Felix is getting. The situation is so bad that Yemenis are now fleeing their beleaguered country in their droves to… Somalia.
Discount all the protestations that this is not a sectarian conflict. Certainly it began as a domestic fight for power between the Shia Houthis of the northwest and the Sunni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who fled the capital of Sanaa in February. But things have moved on rapidly and this is now part of a regional war that pits Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran and involves a great swathe of the Middle East encompassing Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
This conflict is already following a familiar script. An estimated 75,000 civilians have already been displaced, food prices are going through the roof and medical facilities are stretched to breaking point. On Wednesday, in what for a moment looked like a grim April Fool’s Day story, at least 25 people were killed following an explosion at a dairy factory in Yemen’s Hodaida port, the largest loss of civilian life since the conflict began on 26 March. There will be more to come.
Iran and Saudi Arabia both say they want a political settlement rather than a protracted conflict. It should, in theory, be possible for such a settlement to be reached in which President Hadi is returned to the head of a government in which the Houthis are given an appropriate share of power. That’s the theory. In practice, one suspects there’s plenty more fighting to come.
Surveying the conflict and the rival regional protagonists, the words of Henry Kissinger come to mind: ‘Pity they both can’t lose.’ The tragedy is that the only losers will be the country caught in the middle. And the only winners may yet prove to be our friends in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and their fellow beardies in Daesh (let’s not dignify them with the words Islamic State), who thrive on chaos. Pity the Yemenis.