Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.
Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.
While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.
At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a Saudi al-Madinah frigate was almost sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015.
Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.
The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.
Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.
On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.
While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.
Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.
Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.
It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.
The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.
The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely