Yemen: more than a sectarian war
Updated: Jan 4
Since 2015, Yemen is at war. The country in the Arabian Peninsula is known as the poorest and has been reeling under multiple crises for years. Nonetheless, tensions increased when the tribal Houthi movement took over the government by force. Consequently, the former president Hadi fled to Saudi- Arabia and received full support from a formed coalition against the insurgents. Through the lens of the media, the Yemeni war is seen as a sectarian cleavage between the two superpowers Iran (Shia Muslim) and Saudi- Arabia (Sunni Muslim).
Source: photo by Giles Clarke for UN OCHA
However, it’s crucial to consider other motives of the involved parties with the aim of creating a holistic view of the conflict. In this regard, we will take a closer look to the relevance of energy resources to intervene in Yemen. The supply of oil and gas has always been tiny compared to Sanaa’s neighbours, although it lies at the nerve of the Bab- el Mandeb strait and is adjacent to Saudi-Arabia. Therefore, the escalation begs the question if the Yemeni war is more than a sectarian conflict.
A misunderstood conflict
Yemen is an unstable country that regularly has internal disputes and is known as a troubled country in the Arabian Peninsula. Due to political and ethnical entanglement, the Yemen war is an often misunderstood conflict. It has predominately been understood by media as a sectarian proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Understood as such, the main rebel/insurgent tribal group, the Houthis, are seen as Shia Muslim fighting other Sunni Groups.
“The conflict concerns a political and economic power struggle which drove this war to break out from the very beginning.” (Rijziger, 2016)
However, this perception does not necessarily reflect the reality nor the dynamics of the conflict on the ground since it falls short of taking into account the profound motivations of the actors to go to war. Although Edwards (2016) stated that there is certainly ample evidence to suggest that a proxy war of sorts is raging between Riyadh and Tehran in Yemen, however, he empathizes that religious piety is not the major motivating force in politics or society. The Houthis aren’t fighting a sectarian war, but rather defending the people of Yemen against unjust and corrupt leaders.
In addition Rijziger (2016) claims that the formerly independent and socialist South has long felt aggrieved by the North, not because it is home to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, but because Southerners felt shut out of politics and oil resources that have benefited the northerners. According to Reiziger 'the conflict concerns a political and economic power struggle which drove this war to break out from the very beginning.” (Rijziger, 2016)
The tensions intensified in 2015 when the increasingly Houthi insurgents took advantage of Hadi’s struggling government and seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa. Consequently, a Saud- Arabian coalition of ten African and Middle East countries military intervene to restore Hadi’s power in Yemen and, to reduce the threat of regional powers in the region. Nevertheless, the question must be asked about how far this is actually the case on the ground. In this light, we will take a closer look to the relevance of oil resources as a driving factor to intervene in Yemen.
Strategic importance of the Bab-el Mandeb
Yemen is a relatively small oil exporter by Middle-East standards, but is a practically interesting case. A recent report (2015) by World Bank shows that Yemen’s economy is dominated by the production and export of crude oil, which generates 70–80 percent of government revenues and most of the country’s foreign exchange reserves. As a result, Yemeni consumers are highly vulnerable to shifts in international commodity prices, domestic oil output, the country’s overall fiscal position and domestic security. Any disruption in the household of Yemen’s energy can lead to discontents within the population that may flare up into a new political deadlock.
On top of all this, Yemen lies at the heart of some of the most important energy routes and shares a long border with southwest Saudi- Arabia, and is adjacent to the Bab- el Mandeb strait or ‘Gate of Tears’. According to research (2016) by Edwards the strait, which controls access to the Red Sea and the southern end of the Suez Canal, is particularly crucial as the fourth-biggest shipping chokepoint in the world by volume. The Bab el-Mandeb has got an average of nearly 4 million barrels a day of crude, representing about 7 percent of the global seaborne oil trade.
Additionally, Said argues, the Bab- el- Mandeb strait not only serves as a conduit for the international oil trade, but also for nearly all trade by sea flowing south from Europe to Asian markets. Saïd claims in 2015 that "any interference in shipping traffic through the Strait could therefore severely affect international commerce writ large, effectively rendering the Suez Canal obsolete and forcing shipping to reroute to longer and costlier journeys.”
Closing the strait could would keep tankers in the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline1 , diverting them around the southern tip of Africa. These oil pipelines are co-owned by the state companies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Qatar. For example, a closure of the strait could restrict Egypt’s reliance on imported liquefied natural gas to maintain its electricity supplies. If passage were impeded, those shipments – and all other vessels heading to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea – would have no alternative to make the long voyage.
Ultimately, any hostile air or sea presence in Yemen could threaten the entire traffic through the Suez Canal, as well as a daily flow of oil and petroleum products that the EIA estimates increased. Research by Cordesman (2015) shows that disruption of an oil supply through the most direct shipping route between the Gulf and Europe will be immediately reflected in the price of crude oil, not due to large volumes of oil being delayed but primarily due to geopolitical risks. In this regard, such a threat also can be largely covert or indirect which is a more extreme scenario due to the fact of escalation between the involved parties.
Oil as a driving factor
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the Yemen conflict continues to raise alarm. First of all because Riyad, is one of the largest producers and exporters of crude oil and an influential member of OPEC. All the members of OPEC, including Saudi Arabia, need oil prices to be around $85/barrel. (Edwards, 2016) It cannot cut back its production due to prevailing challenge from burgeoning Shale oil and gas industry of USA. Saudi Arabia and most of the OPEC nations have already reached the oil supply tipping point, the so-called ‘peak- oil’ paradigm. Running out the last of the nation’s only saleable resource, the Saudi royalty have put their country into a mess, the potential for revolution there being acute, should the people discover the real predicament.
In this sphere, it is crucial, for the coalition led by Saudi- Arabia, that Yemen’s territory and islands remains a core interest, including the security of the strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. Furthermore, Yemen’s collapse is an extreme example, but nevertheless the danger of a breakdown of resource revenues is a persistent threat to all exporters, even those that are, for now, perceived as economically and politically stable. Research by Said stated Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and therefore requires money to keep functioning as a viable state, a reality that even these arch-enemies have recognised.
Despite fluctuating oil prices, Riyadh still retains the purse strings when it comes to assisting Sanaa when it requires an injection of capital into the faltering economy. Even so, Edwards argues (2016) that the tipping point does not need to originate from resource exhaustion, but can also come from a price drop or a supply disruption. Moreover, the regional arms race that accompanies high oil prices boosts not only arsenals of key countries in the Middle East but also their subnational proxies and even terrorist organizations that arise to challenge the status quo. (Rijziger, 2016) This makes the situation more complicated due to the violent participation of sub-national radicalized groups that are less susceptible to diplomatic pressures or initiatives.
In this emerging geopolitical context, the rise of violent subnational groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda are increasingly putting oil infrastructure at risk, laying the groundwork for a future oil crisis that may prove harder to solve than in the past. Ironically, the flow of weapons driven by the oil price boom then increases the geopolitical risk to oil production, once again laying the groundwork for a future rise in oil prices as fears grow that military conflict will once again disrupt supplies. In this manner, the world experiences perpetuating patterns of military conflict, followed by oil supply crises, and accompanying global financial instability. In effect, the Middle East resource curse has become globalized. The challenges this is posed on humanitarian, security and economic fronts have become increasingly dangerous.
It can be concluded that, although Yemen has not been endowed with oil reserves, due to its proximity to Bab-el-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden it lies on the nerve centre of oil transit and transport to Europe, USA and Asia. Its geo-strategic location increases the geopolitical significance manifold. The real motivator behind Saudi actions in Yemen is that of self-preservation. Implicit in this is the stability of their own country and the countries around them; this, of course, is inextricably linked to Iranian regional machinations.
Today, the threat to Saudi hegemony and its authoritarian rulers emanates from Iran. As ample evidence shows, though, this is not a sectarian war. Whilst ethnoreligious cleavages are certainly leveraged by the Saudi regime, they are done so , not for the oil itself, but to influence the market structure of oil and the risk of market domination. Ultimately, current regional armed conflicts over oil fields raise a serious new risk that oil facilities are becoming strategic assets and spoils of war.
Any further intensification of conflict in Yemen or greater involvement of Iran may trigger rapid increase in crude oil prices. This could ease the mounting pressure on oil exporting nations, reeling under economic slowdown and budget cuts due to falling oil prices. Hidden behind the smoke of sectarian conflict is actually a tale of geopolitics and petro-politics that aims to control Bab-el-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden through Yemen.
This research paper was written on 05/05/2018 for the course Global Energy Politics which is related to the University of Ghent.