Saudi Arabia has resolved to close Yemen’s land, air, and sea ports following the launch of a ballistic missile towards the Saudi capital, Riyadh, by Houthi rebels on November 4th. The Kingdom retaliated within hours of the missile intercept, carrying out a barrage of airstrikes on key Houthi targets within the Yemeni capital. Speaking via the Saudi Press Agency on Monday, Riyadh – as leader of a coalition of states fighting in Yemen – announced that in order “to address vulnerabilities…that led to the continuation of the supply of ballistic missiles and military equipment to the Houthi militias…the Coalition’s Command has decided to temporarily close all Yemeni ground, air, and sea ports,” and advised civilians and humanitarians operating in Sanaa to “avoid areas of combat operations [and] areas populated by the Houthis.”
Reacting to the Saudi decision, David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, warned that a blockade of just two weeks would put Yemeni children “on the brink of starvation,” with the numbers affected by such a move estimated to be in the “hundreds of thousands.” He went on to note that access was a key issue preventing the organization from reaching many of those in need, and emphasized that further restrictions could make the food crisis in Yemen “one of the most devastating humanitarian catastrophes we’ve seen in decades.” Addressing the Kingdom’s accusations that Iran was responsible for the missile launch, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry said that such allegations were “malicious, irresponsible, destructive and provocative,” adding that the “Yemeni response is an independent one and a result of Saudi Arabia’s aggression”.
Yemen has become yet another proxy war in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The competition for power and influence between the two largest Gulf States has also seen an increase in sectarian violence, with Riyadh and Tehran representing Sunni and Shia interests respectively. As Iran emerges from a decades-long sanction regime and edges toward parity with the Saudi kingdom, it is essential that the two regions find common ground in order to coexist peacefully. The initiation of diplomatic relations between the two would be an important step in this direction and, if successful, could be furthered by seeking potential avenues for trade.
The current civil war in Yemen has its roots in the Arab Spring of 2011, which prompted the transfer of the presidency from the authoritarian leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The conflict began in earnest in January 2015, when Houthi rebels lay siege to the presidential palace in Sanaa and took control of the city. The expansion of the Houthi movement – a manifestation of the Shia minority in Yemen – was interpreted by Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Arab states through a geopolitical lens as an undesirable expansion of Iran’s regional influence. As a result, from March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of states in a military campaign to restore power to the internationally-recognized government of Hadi. Code named Operation Decisive Storm, the intervention has received mixed reviews regarding its impact on the conflict and human security in Yemen.
The bold attempt by Houthis to extend the Yemeni conflict to Saudi soil could result in a serious escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the kingdom publicly deeming it “a blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime” and reiterating its right to self-defence enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter, an end to either the civil war in Yemen or the regional power struggle does not seem likely in the near future. This will have disastrous repercussions for civilians already struggling to survive the civil war.
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