By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
If there is a single nation on Earth today that is closest to the verge of collapse, it is Yemen.
Since the splintered country’s grisly civil war first erupted seven years ago, more than 10,000 civilians have died, according to United Nations’ estimates (although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates adamantly reject these figures).
And, with the recent assault on Yemen’s main Red Sea port at Al-Hudaydah by an Saudi- and Emirate-backed military coalition, which has cut off the southern region’s crucial access to food and medicine, the UN is warning that at least 8 million Yemenis could die of starvation and a rapidly expanding cholera epidemic – a staggering figure for a country of just 24 million.
And through all this, neither Yemen’s minority Houthis (backed by Tehran) nor it’s majority Sunnis (backed by Riyadh) are willing to budge in what has become one of the bloodiest armed standoffs in the region.
To fully understand the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen – which the United Nations has dubbed the worst in the world today – you have to go back and study the ravished nation’s history.
At the root of the fighting are ethnic rifts that date back centuries and which have been exploited by Saudi Arabia and Iran to wage a proxy war in their military faceoff to gain control of a pan-Islamic Middle Eastern alliance molded in the likeness of their own individual perception of Mohammedanism.
The Houthis, or Zaydis, as they prefer to call themselves, are adherents of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and account for about 45 percent of Yemen’s population.
Historically, they have been primarily concentrated in the country’s northern highlands.
The Sunni Shafi’i, who represent most of the remaining Yemeni population, are mostly centered in the southeast and along the southern coast.
Despite their minority status, the Houthi sect ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years, up until 1962, when a military coup overthrew their state.
The ensuing political instability proved to be a dangerous magnet for foreign intervention, first by Egypt and later by Saudi Arabia, which helped put in place the despicable and authoritarian regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh ruled the country up until 2012 and was famous for kowtowing to the likes of Saddam Hussein and other regional despots.
Saudi Arabia used its influence with Saleh to promote its Sunni domination agenda for the Gulf region, and despite having Houthi ethnic ties, Saleh – knowing full well which side of his bread was buttered – made a point of persecuting Yemen’s Zaydi minority.
Moreover, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Yemen became a haven for former Baathists, with the tacit blessing of Saudi Arabia.
But when Saleh’s grasp of power began to fray in 2011, the Houthis saw their chance to finally regain a say in their own destiny and they started to organize.
What began as a peaceful political movement soon turned into a full-fledged civil war, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia grabbed the opportunity of political instability to turn Yemen’s homegrown ethnic struggle into a proxy battlefield for their own mutual abhorrence.
In short, Yemen’s internal civil war was overshadowed by a regional sectarian war.
Fast-forward to today, and what exists in what was the second-largest country in the Arabian Peninsula (occupying 527,970 square kilometers) is a hodgepodge of multiple Yemens and multiple wars.
The entire territory has become an open firing range for just about every foreign power in the region, with Saudi Arabia using the northern segment for shooting practice for its air force, and the Iranians defiantly dumping tanks and rifles on the ragtag Houthi militias.
As for the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, he has no real constituency in Yemen since he currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Hadi has repeatedly rejected a United Nations’ road map for a political peace process and the Zaydi rebels obstinately refuse to put down their weapons.
Currently, the Saudi-backed Hadi government has a fragmented authority over the south of Yemen (although the Houthi control large swathes of this area), while the rebels brutally govern in the north.
Both sides refuse to recognize the other, and neither is willing to make any concessions toward a compromise government.
Consequently, Yemen’s existence as a unified state is increasingly endangered.
The only hope for Yemen is a middle-ground solution, with a withdrawal of both Saudi Arabia and Iran intervention from the region.
Hadi and the other Saudi lackeys would have to resign and an interim government that would be more inclusive of the Zaydi minority would have to be established.
To accomplish this, the Houthis would need to surrender their arms and adopt a political, rather than militaristic, stance for seeking an address to their longstanding grievances.
It in only in the context of a sustainable peace that a stable, unified Yemeni state can be reestablished.
Unfortunately, there is far too much distrust on both sides to make a compromise solution likely any time in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, the Yemeni people – particularly the country’s children – are paying the price for the foreign-imposed sectarian impasse, and the Yemeni stalemate is bringing the nation ever-closer to a territorial divide.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.