Taking a page from the Soviet script of 1968 Czechoslovakia, Saudi Arabia has come to the fraternal aid of Yemeni President Rabbo Mansour Hadi by starting to bomb Sana and massing 150,000 troops on the frontier and war ships off the coast. On the eve of what should be called Saudi aggression, a letter of President Hadi asking for the brotherly help of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council and others was written. The ink was hardly dry on the message calling to defend security and stability of the region and to counter the threat to world peace that fighter jets were in the air. Messages of support came from Turkey and Pakistan. The USA promised intelligence and logistic support.
One might think that there had been some military planning prior to receiving President Hadi's letter unless one believes that the Saudi army is always on ready alert and can plan and stage a major offensive in a couple of hours. President Hadi is now living safely in Saudi Arabia, so we may never know the exact timing of the appeal and military action.
President Hadi, although weakened by revolts, has a detailed knowledge of both internal and regional politics, having been Vice President during the last segment of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 30years rule. Saleh had officially left power after riots in 2011 but stayed in the country and kept in touch with his supporters. Part of the current struggle can be seen as a conflict between the supporters o the two men. However, that would be to give too much importance to internal political life, overlooking the regional political dimensions as well as the highly fragmented nature of Yemeni society.
The foundations of Yemeni society are tribal-clanic. The closest equivalent is Somalia. When the tribal networks break down, people fall back to their extended family-clan for support. There is also a religious divide between Sunnis (65%) and Shi'its (35%), but sectarian solidarity only complements tribal-clanic structures. Sectarian differences do not create the factions.
Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the League of Arab States support Sunni factions, and Iran the Shi'ite, although the Shi'ite in Yemen do not follow the same Shi'ite traditions as those in Iran. Religious differences play some role, but one must not exaggerate theological divisions which few people understand or care about.
The tribal-clanic divisions are made stronger by the sociological-demographic make up of the country of 26 million people. Many Yemeni are young, uneducated even in traditional Islamic knowledge, unemployed and with few hopes of future employment. Subsistence agriculture is declining with real problems of water resources. Thus many young people cross into Saudi Arabia looking for work. They are considered “illegal immigrants” although national rather than tribal boundaries have little meaning. Likewise for trade, what Saudi Arabia considers as smuggling, Yemeni consider as traditional trade routes.
To continue the 1968 Czechoslovakia analogy, where the purity of Marxist doctrine was less a Soviet priority than the fear that any reform ideas might spread to other countries, including the USSR, so the worry of Saudi Arabia is not that Shi'ite theology might somehow corrupt the purity of Saudi's official religious doctrine, but that the idea that people might organize to promote their interests might cross frontiers. Likewise, Iran would like to see the Shi'ite Houthi movement grow stronger, but Iran does not control the movement.
Ultimately, the 1968 Soviet troop movements did not keep Czechoslovakia part of the Marxist empire but rather drove many to start asking questions about the relation between Marxist thought and Soviet practice. By the early 1970s, East-West negotiations started which led to the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Likewise, it is not clear that Saudi air power will lead to a more consensual, integrated society in Yemen. The disintegration of the political structures in Somalia since 1991 shows us that tribal societies can continue to function even without a central national government. But the Somalia “solution” may not be a model desired for Yemen.
There have been calls for “negotiations” and “political solutions” in the Yemeni conflict, though it is unclear what there is to negotiate or what political solutions mean. The further disintegration of an already highly fractured Yemen is dangerous. More foreign fighter jets and land troops may not lead to a Yemeni society based on at least minimal forms of cooperation.
René Wadlow, president and a U.N. representative (Geneva) of the