Yemen’s Forgotten War: The Complicated Conflict That Almost No One is Talking About


In late November, the New York Times broke a disturbing story about the ongoing war in Yemen. Former Colombian soldiers, alongside other foreign nationals, most of them from Latin America, have been hired by the government of the United Arab Emirates, one of numerous Gulf countries involved in the Saudi led intervention in the country. It is believed that at least 450 of these mercenaries have been introduced into the conflict.

Later reports stated that 15 of these military contractors, including six Colombians, two Britons and an Australian have been killed in fighting in the country since the Times’ scoop. All of the dead are believed to have been working for the controversial security contractor Blackwater Worldwide (a claim that the UAE denies), now well into its second re-brand as Academi.

From Mercenaries to “Contractors”

During the Medieval period, before the birth of the modern nation state with its professional armies, Europe was overrun with soldiers for hire. Even with the rise of these states, mercenaries never really went away. During the American Revolution, some of King George’s forces were German soldiers of fortune and, in Africa especially, regardless of successive international laws prohibiting their use, mercenaries have been used in a variety of conflicts up to the present day.

In keeping with the Orwellian trend of altering the language of war to drain words of their negative connotations (think “enhanced interrogation” as a euphemism for torture or “collateral damage” for civilian casualties), mercenaries are now generally included as part of the much larger category of “contractors”, who can be doing anything in a war zone from serving the troops food to mine removal.

Although the majority of contractors aren’t deployed in combat roles, they have become an integral part of the way many countries wage war. It’s a profitable business, and, seeing that the Colombian mercenaries in Yemen are paid up to five times as much as they would make serving at home, one can understand the economic incentive highly trained soldiers from poorer countries have to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Even the infamous Mexican drug Cartel, Los Zetas, who perfected the beheading video as propaganda long before Daesh began its murderous rampage in Syria and Iraq, purchased the services of Guatemalan Kaibiles (Special Forces) to bolster their organization. The Kaibiles have been implicated in war crimes, including genocide against indigenous Mayans in their home country. These are the kinds of mercenaries that nightmares are made of.

Saudi Arabia’s Reckless War

It should probably come as no surprise that our despotic allies in the Middle East are unwilling to fight their own battles, preferring to bring in foreign nationals and local proxies as cannon fodder for their vicious war. When the Saudi National Guard, themselves trained by contractors from a company called Vinnell, a subsidiary of American defense contractor Northrup Grumman, invaded Bahrain in response to a request from the Sunni monarchy to suppress protests against them by the majority Shia population, the world let out a collective yawn.

This may have encouraged adventurism on the part of the Sunni Muslim Saudis in their ongoing rivalry with Shia Iran and they have brought Gulf allies like the UAE along with them in the folly of choosing sides in Yemen’s long running civil war. With a new King on the throne and a Deputy Crown Prince eager to prove himself as chief of the country’s armed forces, the Saudi leadership is ignoring Yemen’s history of standing up to invaders. They seem to have forgotten that Yemenis successfully fought the much larger Egyptian military to a standstill in recent history, a war some scholars refer to as Egypt’s “Vietnam”.

Like much of the Middle East in 2011, Yemen was swept up in the Arab Spring and widespread protests led to the unseating of long term President Ali Abdullah Saleh, replaced by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Rather than enjoy an opulent retirement, Saleh allied himself with an important Shia tribe from the north of the country, the Houthis, who had been conducting a low level insurgency for years against whoever held power in the country’s capital, Sana’a. In 2014, these forces deposed Hadi, eventually forcing him to seek sanctuary across the border in Saudi Arabia.

Many commentators immediately accepted as fact that the Houthis are Iranian proxies because they follow a branch of Shia Islam but their Zaidi sect is said to be a Shia equivalent of the austere Sunni Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia and quite different from the Shiism of Iran. This is not to say that Iran hasn’t given the Houthis support, just that experts on the region are unsure of the extent of their actual influence over them.

We do know that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that has tried more than once to engage in mass casualty attacks on the west, have increased their influence in the south of Yemen over the course of the Saudi led bombing campaign. Now, predictably, Daesh, who had little presence in Yemen prior to the invasion, have claimed responsibility for a car bomb in the southern port city of Aden that killed the Governor and six of his bodyguards.

Air-forces, mainly provided by NATO country arms manufacturers (also mostly on their taxpayers’ dime), are being used to bomb what little infrastructure there is in the Middle East’s poorest nation. Hospitals and weddings have been hit from the air, leading to at least 2,600 civilian dead (some estimates are more than double this), many of them children.

A 7 day ceasefire brokered in the lead up to talks between the belligerents in Geneva began on Tuesday, December 15th. Although the negotiations haven’t been canceled, the agreement was reportedly broken multiple times within 24 hours of coming into effect, repeating a pattern established during previous ceasefires.

African Humanitarianism, Western Hypocrisy

Yemen has been torn by strife since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. North Yemen became a country and South Yemen a British colony in 1918. The South Yemenis revolted against the British and the result throughout much of the Cold War was a NATO supported North Yemen and a much smaller South Yemen allied with the Soviet Union. The country was unified by former President Saleh in May of 1990.

In many ways Yemeni society is still ruled by ever shifting tribal allegiances, making it very difficult for Westerners to penetrate the intricacies of its politics. For an example of another nation that has become unbalanced in this regard following an intervention by foreign powers, one need only look at the chaos still unfolding in Libya. Regardless of what one thinks of him, Gaddafi was an expert at balancing, and buying off, competing factions in that country.

According to a UN report, since the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE began bombing Yemen, it has changed the traditional migration formula in the area. At least 120,000 Yemenis have fled their homes, undertaking the dangerous trek to African countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. This, despite the fact that chaos in the Horn of Africa has also brought upwards of 250,000 Somalis to Yemen in recent years.

It is somewhat ironic that the response of African nations, including those that already have or are producing displaced people themselves, has been much more generous than that of many European and other western nations. The efforts of these African nations are woefully underfunded by the international community but there is always enough money to subsidize military training and the purchase of weapons of war in both Africa and the Middle East, a practice that is certainly not limited to NATO countries and usually leads to yet more refugees in the long term.

A Regional “Great Game”

It’s interesting that many respected mainstream commentators insist on portraying the battle between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and Iran and its allies on the other as a long term religious schism, seeing as how both states have their own cynical reasons for portraying it as such. Even if Iran is not as involved with the Houthis as some outlets are portraying it, it is in their interest to pretend that they are. The narrative of a sectarian battle is helpful to the leadership in both of these countries.

It is my belief that this larger struggle is more political, economic and based on mutual convenience than it is religious and unpacking the many reasons for the ongoing conflict would demand both a willingness to accept nuance and a grasp of the region’s history. It isn’t rocket science, but it does require more investigation than many mainstream commentators seem to be willing to make.

The secret to Iran’s success in the region is not a singular genius for evil but a willingness to pick up the pieces after their self-declared adversaries walk blindly into one disaster after another. To paraphrase one Middle Eastern prophet, the leadership and media of western countries need to remove the log from their own eye before they will ever be able to help the greater Middle East remove the splinter from its own. For the sake of the people of Yemen and the region as a whole, this can’t happen soon enough.


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