Cross-posted from View from the Left Bank.

The narrative being put forth in the U.S. media is that the current war in Yemen is a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, and that the opposition in Yemen consists of a small religious minority, the Houthis, who have forced a “legitimate” government from power. Here is a considerably different assessment of the Yemen crisis which tries to bring the main themes of the crisis back into a more objective focus. 

1. Some Historical Considerations…

By now it has been close to three months that, with a green light from the US and a helping hand from a few Persian Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen under the pretense of self-defense. We are now beginning to witness the fallout of Saudi aggression on its political structure. To have a better picture of what is going on in Yemen a brief recap of its relations with the Saudi monarchy is necessary. Although poorly appreciated by many, the fact remains that, historically, Saudi Arabia has been at war with its southern neighbor in one way or another, virtually non-stop since 1932.

The two countries have fought six wars so far. The most critical of these wars was Yemen’s 1962 war of independence. In September 1962, the Imam of North Yemen was overthrown in a popular coup led by Arab nationalists within the Yemeni military. Until then, 80 per cent of the population had lived as peasants under a feudal system of government, with control maintained by graft, a coercive tax system, and a policy of divide and rule. Once the uprising began, Nasser, the Egyptian president at the time, sent troops to bolster the new Republican government. Royalist forces supporting the deposed Imam fled to the hills and began a conservative insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Early in 1963, working with the Saudis, Jordan and Israel, and with U.S. backing, Britain began covertly arming and supplying the Yemeni royalist forces against the new Yemen Republican government. A British mercenary operation was set up, funded by the Yemeni royalist foreign minister, the Saudi prince Sultan, the British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense. British SAS volunteers were given temporary leave from official duties and French mercenaries were also recruited to the conservative cause. In early 1964, SAS forces undertook their first clandestine airdrop of arms and ammunition, with the discreet backing of MI6 and the CIA. UK Defense Secretary Peter Thorneycroft spoke of the need to organize ‘tribal revolts’ in the frontier areas and to initiate ‘deniable action … to sabotage [pro-Yemeni Republican] intelligence centers and kill personnel engaged in anti-British activities.’

Then and now, Saudis have always been paranoid of any Yemeni group or government that calls for real change and substantive democracy for themselves and the region. If we fast forward some forty some years to the more recent events we would see that despite the 1962 uprising, all the efforts were gradually quashed and Saudi regime was able to neutralize all the demands for a more representative kind of government by buying off Yemeni leaders over the time.

When the Arab Spring of 2011 burst forth, the democratic movement returned to the fore to once again challenge Yemen’s festering socioeconomic crisis. If, in the 1960s, the Saudis previously collaborated with British colonial power in tandem with the Israelis and Jordanians, in 2011, the Saudi present partner is the US administration and its policy of containment of real democratic movements in what it considers its sphere of influence. The two, the Saudis and the United States, have been diligently working together to frustrate all attempts by Yemeni people to change the dislocations that were present in their political system.

First the two partners in regional crime hoped to frustrate the movement for more meaningful change by offering Yemen a cosmetic face lift, replacing Abdullah Saleh, the president, with his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This changed nothing. The socio-economic crisis, already severe, continued to deepen; the grievances of the Yemeni majority went unanswered. As a result, Hadi’s tenure, if one can call it that, could not last long. Hadi was removed. Once, the Yemeni opposition that by now had grown to five distinct groups,[1] rejected the Saudi American political arrangements and pushed for change, the bombing began.

Although the Western and U.S. media tried to distort the Yemeni realities by portraying the crisis in Yemen as between the Houthi minority and Hadi’s “legitimate” government, this scenario is so far from reality to be ludicrous. While the Houthis are actively involved in the democratic Yemeni opposition, they are not alone but a part of a broader oppositional coalition. Likewise, Hadi’s “legitimacy” has never been recognized by the Yemeni people as he was forced on them by combined U.S.-Saudi pressure.

  1. The Obama Doctrine…

The crisis in Yemen fits in neatly to the recently announced US regional and grand strategy which has come to be known as The Obama Doctrine. While sharing the essence of other doctrines before him on the US global dominance, this doctrine has made few tactical necessary adjustments. In his last visit to West Point Military Academy Obama outlined a more up to date US military policy for world domination. He indicated that due to the unpopularity of war in the US, the need for the US to assess the role of its military in dealing with future trouble area, the economic challenges that the current interventionist policy has caused, and the evolution in the dynamics of global threat, the current strategy of direct intervention that has been the hallmark of US foreign policy must be reformed to accommodate the current realities.

The consequence of this doctrine is a concrete shift in the parameters of US global dominance but not its core. Consequently, direct military intervention (covert or overt) that constituted the bedrock of other doctrines since WWI, is to be replaced with management from afar (remote control), regional allies are given a greater role in protecting US interests with the US providing the needed logistical support. To facilitate such a role and create a degree of legitimacy for such operation, regional alliances must be established.

Unfortunately, defenseless Yemen happened to be the chosen target for the implementation of the new doctrine, as was Iraq in 2003 for the Bush Doctrine. In the Yemeni case, the US gave the green light to the Saudi regime to lead the operation. With the assistance of few more repressive Persian Gulf emirates the regional alliance was complete and the show began.

However, it did not produce the desired result: to force the opposition to accept the Saudi puppet Hadi back to power. To the contrary, the country is more united today, angered by bombings that have left, as of now over 6,000 dead and injured, most of these, civilians. Furthermore the so-called regional alliance has essentially collapsed as neither Pakistan nor Egypt, both of whom the Saudis hoped would be their military partners, opted out even before the fighting began. Unfortunately for the Saudis, as happened previously, the people of Yemen have not capitulated to the Saudi bombing campaign.

As the Saudi aggression against Yemen went from bad to worse, the Omanis, their neighbors, offered a framework for peace talks between all the parties without preconditions. Previously the Saudis had insisted that any peace talks would have to include bring Hadi back to power. They have had to abandon this negotiating point. As a consequence the Saudis had to swallow whatever is left of their pride and accept the participation of Yemenis without preconditions.

The Obama Administration in Washington, finding itself yet involved in another escalating tizzy that could undermine its already flagging influence in the region, agreed to the Omani framework, thus creating more favorable conditions for negotiations to take place in Geneva. In this new political arrangement, there will be a place at the table for Yemen’s popular movement to partake in the preliminary negotiations and to express itss side of the story. Let us hope that these Geneva talks on Yemen will come up with a peaceful resolution to the Yemen crisis, one that the Saudis will have no alternative but to comply with and that would put an end to the current mayhem in Yemen. The current fiasco has already had the most serious ramifications, not just on the Saudi global image, but more critically on the political arrangement that has come to frame the Saudi power structure.

  1. The question of succession in al-Saud family 1920-1953

Historians claim that Ibn Saud, the first ruler of Arabian Peninsula in the post WWI era, first began to think of the question of succession around the late 1930s or early 1940s. Due to many polygamous marriages, which were done to strengthen his power among the biggest tribes, he had left nearly hundred children, sixty of whom were boys and they were all looking forward to few years at the top as the king of Saudi Arabia.

After few years of toying with the idea of leaving it open, he finally opted for what is called an agnatic seniority or horizontal succession system, which is a patrilineal principle where the order of succession to the throne rests on the exhaustion of one generation. This process was conceived in order to avoid conflict between his different male heirs. The next generation would come to power only after the males of the older generation have all died out. Agnatic seniority essentially excludes females of the dynasty and their descendants from the succession.

By the time Ibn Saud died in 1953, his older son, Saud, took over as the new king and all Ibn Saud’s many children accepted that they will have their share of power only if they waited and lived long enough, until the their seniors had departed this earth. The system was considered a “done deal” and all of Ibn Saud’s children began to enjoy their frivolous lives as they waited to fill their dead brother’s shoes so to speak.

For the eleven years of Saud’s reign, there were no serious threats to the system. However, as the palace war between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal grew more heated in the early 1960s, King Saud let it be known that he was considering changing the line of succession from agnatic to primogeniture system in which the eldest male offspring inherits the wealth and position of power from his father and naming his eldest son Crown Prince. Primogeniture gives preference to a ruler’s oldest son, eliminating the other heirs from power. Such a change was deemed unacceptable to the rest of the royal family who well understood they were being iced out from power. At Faisal’s request, a palace coup ousted King Saud; Faisal took over the helm in late 1964, at the time avoiding what could have been a bloody power struggle within the royal family.

It is these family squabbles, ultimately to gain control of the mountain of wealth from Saudi oil and natural gas, that have, once again, resurfaced with a vengeance. One of the grave ramifications of the current fiasco in Yemen is the pressure that it has put on this system due to internal dissatisfaction with the war, which, despite the Western media claims to the contrary, the Saudis are badly losing. Only a few weeks ago the current ruler, Salman, dismissed his half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as the crown prince and replacing him with his nephew. (See this chart of the Saudi family tree.)

What happened a few weeks ago is an attempt by Salman to convert the horizontal into a vertical system or change the line of succession from agnatic to primogeniture with the intention of giving his son the whole pie, rather than just a piece, at the expense of the others. Is this the beginning of a crack in the whole political structure or finally we are beginning to see the slippery slope leading to Arabia without Sultans? Only time will tell.


[1] The five groups operating in Yemen are: Harakat Ansarollah (Houthies), Almo’tamar Al-Sha’bi (People’s Forum) lead by Abdollah Salih the former president, Tajamo’ al-Islah (Muslim Brotherhood’s chapter in Yemen, Qiwaa al-Hiras Al-Jonoobi (The Movement of Southern Forces) that demands the separation of the south Yemen, and groups supporting Hadi the Saudi appointed current president.


Ibrahim Kazerooni, originally from Iraq, just received a joint PhD in Religion and International Studies from the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog

Rob Prince recently retired as a Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He frequently writes about economic and political developments in North Africa, especially Algeria and Tunisia. He blogs at View from the Left Bank.