So the unravelling continues. From Libya to Iraq, borders drawn in the sand in the long aftermath of the First World War are being erased. States, for so long held together by assorted military and monarchical strongmen, are disintegrating. Large territorial entities are shattering along tribal and factional lines. And to this list of the unravelled, we can now add Yemen.
In September, the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia movement from northern Yemen, swept into the capital Sanaa, before advancing south towards the Gulf of Aden. Yemen’s ruler since the beginning of 2012, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have not been the only ones agitating. Parts of largely Sunni south Yemen are seeking to secede and reinstate some semblance of their former independence. And, as the fighting increasingly collapses along tribal and factional lines, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has operated an increasingly successful operation in the south and east, and now ISIS, are seeking to pose as the vanguard of Sunni, anti-Houthi resistance. Much of this had passed the Western media by. What didn’t, however, was the response of Yemen’s neighbours and chief sponsor of Haidi, Saudi Arabia. Confronted by a collapsing state on its southern border, the Sauds have been bombing northern Yemen since the end of March. Over a 1,000 Yemenis have been killed during the bombardment, and 4,000 injured.
But what we’re witnessing is not just a localised conflict. Rather, it’s a manifestation of the disordering of the region, a manifestation of the absence of a controlling force, a manifestation of the lack of a dominant power, let alone a legitimate authority. As the shifting shape of Iraq or Syria shows, with groups from the Kurds to Islamic State taking advantage of the collapsing of central state power, it’s all up for grabs now. This is certainly true of Yemen. Assorted factions within, from the secessionist al-Hirak in the south to the Houthis in the north, are grappling for power and territory. And assorted factions without, from the Shia theocracy of Iran to the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia to the fore, are seeking influence and, given the rise of such bang-up-to-date stateless terrors as ISIS, security too.
But beyond that, we’re also witnessing the unravelling of the West’s power, the dissipation of its ability to influence and order world affairs. Gone are the days when the likes of America or Britain could carve up the region according to their interests, building kingdoms out of the post-imperial, and in Yemen’s case, post-Ottoman dust. Gone even are the more recent post-Vietnam days when Western powers could shore up a favourable regime with finance and arms, or undermine an unfavourable one by financing and arming its opponents. This isn’t to say the meddling and intervening has ceased. As the past 20-odd years have amply and brutally illustrated, Western intervention continues. But it does so without a clear material rationale, without authority, and without conviction. It is marked by do-gooding postures, and clueless, time-tabled practice.
Yemen is a case in point. Up to the Arab Spring, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman leader of Yemen since its post-1990 unification, and before that the president of North Yemen, had in recent years been a US ally, even allowing the US airforce to use Yemeni airbases as part of the ‘war on terror’. Yet, as resilient as his martially enforced rule looked, like that of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya or Saleh’s one-time ally, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, in reality it was rather more brittle. As one report described the pre-2011 Yemeni state: ‘In many provinces, the Yemeni army has occupied little more than walled military garrisons, and officers often had to ask permission from local sheikhs before embarking on missions.’ Little wonder that when the Arab uprisings spread to Yemen in the Spring of 2011, protesters found that they didn’t have to kick too hard to break Saleh’s door down. As one independent, Houthi-sympathising activist put it at the time, ‘We recognise that we are in a historical moment… All of the traditional power centres are weaker. Everyone is too weak to dominate the others.’