As U.S. leadership of the international order fades, more countries are seeking to bolster their influence by meddling in foreign conflicts. In this new era of limit testing, Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley lists the Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2019.
The diffusion of protests against authoritarian regimes across the Arab world in 2011 reinvigorated Yemen’s marginalized social movements and united different geographical and political factions in Yemen, such as the northern Houthi movement and the southern secessionist movement Hiraak.1 The Saudi Kingdom, along with other Gulf monarchies, swiftly designed a transitional plan for the country to ensure that President Ali Abdullah Saleh wass replaced with a friendly government led by President Abd Rabo Hadi. Disillusioned by the transition, the Houthis took military control of the capital Sana’a in September 2014, and Yemen descended into a civil war. On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen with the aim to restore the Saudi-backed Hadi government and destroy the Houthi movement. What was initially planned as a limited operation degenerated into a war of attrition without a conclusion insight. Scholars and policy analysts moved quickly to examine the Yemen war as a by-product of Saudi-Iranian rivalry and another manifestation of a region-wide war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Yet, the crisis in Yemen is more complex; it is neither an international proxy war nor a sectarian confrontation.
As with most civil wars, the war in Yemen is marked by the influence of outside actors. It began in September 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis took over the capital Sana’a, and it might well have ended six months later, when the president fled a Houthi advance on Aden. Instead, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of ten Arab countries—supported by the United States—in an air and ground campaign against the Houthis. Since then, the war has ground on, with a new dimension of fighting opening recently between southern secessionist militias—many of which receive support from the United Arab Emirates—and government forces backed by the Saudi coalition. Since taking office, the Trump administration has increased American air strikes in Yemen six fold.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she contributes to interdisciplinary programs in International Relations, Middle Eastern Studies, Developmental Studies, and Social Justice Studies. Her specialization is in the comparative politics of the Middle East. She currently serves on the board of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, where she is involved in initiatives to link academic research to public policies. She has written widely on Yemeni and Lebanese politics over the past several years and published her book Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon in 2013.
Where do you see the most significant research occurring in the political science of the Middle East?
I’m excited to see increasing attention to the intersection of the formal and the informal in analysis of Middle East politics. For a long time, it was rather “either/or,” but more recently there has been some great mapping of the ways in which informal political practices and discourses shape and are shaped by formal institutions and international agreements. The role of unprecedented mass mobilization during and after the 2011 uprisings was taken by some as evidence of the “irrelevance” of formal institutions, but on the contrary, careful scholarship on specific uprisings has shown the iterative relationship between the informal and the formal in creative and theoretically significant ways. Even before the uprisings, some scholars were doing this in critical political economy, but I see early lessons developed in that literature carried into analysis of social movements and other research traditions and it’s exciting.
Saudi Arabia and other oil rich Gulf countries don’t want to live in the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Yet when the US embarks on an agreement to prevent this very possibility, they fear it might lead to a grand bargain that gives Iran carte blanche for expansionism in the Middle East.
Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist close to the Saudi ruling family, is already speaking of the “inter-Muslim struggle of the century” and Prince Turki al Faisal, former chief of Saudi intelligence and erstwhile ambassador of his country to Washington, is travelling the conference circuit warning that Saudi Arabia will strive to get a nuclear device should Iran do the same. » More