For the past few of months, conflicts in Yemen have been making the headlines of the daily news as the situation seems to worsen continuously. In this article, I gathered some information from different sources to help me understand the actual situation in Yemen, its origin and why it matters to so many countries.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East with very limited natural ressources, with a GDP of roughly 36bn USD according to the World Bank (vs. Saudi Arabia is 750bn USD). Its inhabitants (24.4 million) are divided into two principal Islamic religious groups: 55 – 55 % Sunni (predominantly present in South and South East) and 42 – 47% Shia (North and NorthWest). Therefore, Yemen contains a high ratio of Shia Muslims compare to its neighbour Saudi Arabia as you can see it on the picture below.
(Source: Financial Times)
Quick recap: When did the schism begin?
It all started when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD. As he left no designated male heir, disagreements over the succession to Muhammad as a caliph of the Islamic community started to rise, leading to two opposition groups:
- Shia, the minority accounting for 10 – 15% of the World’s Muslims
- Sunni, the majority accounting for 85 – 90%
Over the centuries, Shia-Sunni relations have marked by both cooperation and conflict, which brings us today to the Yemen crisis. In recent months, Yemen has descended into conflicts between several different groups, pushing the country into the ‘edge of a civil war’.
Given the complexities of the conflict in Sa’dah, I will try to define which groups are present in Yemen and which country is related to that conflict. Sa’dah conflict, Yemen’s government against the Zaidis, originated in Northern Yemen in June 2004 and has been running since then. Sa’dah region (see appendix), once the seat of power of Yemen, has often been the centre of battles for political power in the country.
A single state within the borders of what is now the Republic of Yemen had never existed before 1990. In past centuries, a variety of states existed covering different part of the country. On September 26, 1962, the last imam of Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr, was overthrown by Abdullah al-Sallal, founder and President of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, Red part in the map below).
For the next six years, Badr and his alliance of northern tribesmen fought a guerilla war in the mountainous highlands against Egyptian soldiers who arrived in support of the Yemen Arab Republic. One of the leaders of the northern tribal alliance (Badr allies) was indeed the elder Sheikh Hassan al-Houthi. At that time, the northern tribesmen were getting support from Israel in their fight against Egypt (which was then Israel’s principal enemy). In 1966, Israeli assistance to Yemen tribesmen ended (increasing concerns for safety) and Badr eventually lost the civil war in 1968. Badr and his tribesmen (including Houthis) joined the YAR in 1970.
In addition to the political divergence, religion divides Yemen’s inhabitants. The Houthi are followers of Zaydism (Zaydi Islam), a Yemeni Shia where its adherent are known as Fivers for their recognition of Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth Imam. Zaydi Muslims represent 40% of Yemen’s population (total of 23 million roughly), and the remaining majority belongs to the Shafi’i branch of Sunni Islam. Prior to Yemeni unification in 1990 (YAR and South Yemen), the northern half of majority Zaydis and the southern half majority Shaffi’is have remained as two separate regions.
Despite Western papers linking Iranian-Saudi tensions over Yemen as yet another example of a Shia-Sunni conflict, the Houthi movement is not a manifestation of an international religious conflict. Big supporters of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against then President Saleh, the Houthis are fighting for a more transparent government and there were clearly not satisfied by the new President Hadi. As a reminder, Yemen’s poverty rate reached 54.5% in 2012 (World Bank); the country is victim of water scarcity, low industrial potential. In addition, the Yemeni government is the 10th most corrupt in the world according to Transparency International. Even though the war has been active for almost 11 years now, tensions have risen drastically since summer last year (series of demonstrations in August last year in the capital Sana’a against increased fuel prices up to 90%).
Who is involved?
Even though the country is poor in resources, there are a lot of countries involved behind Yemen. This map from news network Aljazeera summarizes the current situation pretty well. Therefore, you can see that the major developed economies are involved into that conflict, putting US-backed middle countries (Saudi Arabia…) against the classic Iran/Russia/China.
What are the consequences for oil?
As of January 2014, Yemen had proved reserves of oil totalling 3 billion barrels (far from the Saudi 270bn barrels proven reserves) according to EIA. It has two primary crude streams: the light and sweet Marib stream and the medium-gravity/more sulfur-rich Masila stream. Masila Basin located in the southeast holds more than 80% of the country’s total reserves.
However, its production has decreased massively since 2001 from 450,000 barrels per day to 100,000 bbls today mainly due to the country’s aging fields and frequent attacks on its oil infrastructure (see pipeline system, 10 to 20 yearly attacks over the past ten years).
Clearly, a cut in oil production from Yemen won’t affect oil prices, however here is a reason that could potentially boost the prices. Roughly half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers on fixed maritime routes, and a couple of oil transit chokepoints are located in the Middle East close the countries currently ‘under fire’. As you can see it on the chart below, the first one is the Strait of Hormuz located in the Persian Gulf (Iran is the border there), which sees 17 million barrels of oil moved per day (EIA, 2013). The second one is Bab El-Mandab located in the Red Sea (between Yemen and Djibouti) and sees 3.8 million barrels of oil moved per day. As these chokepoints are crucial to global energy security, the blockage of one of them can lead to substantial increases in energy costs.
The ‘Chinese Octopus’
Even though the US are still the major consumers of Oil in the world (20 million barrels a day, roughly 21% of global production), China surpassed the as the world’s largest net importer of oil (6.7ml b/d vs 5.1ml b/d for the US). As you can see it in the map below, China relies heavily on imports from the Middle East and therefore must closely follow the situation there. According to EIA, the main crude oil imports for China in 2011 were split between Saudi Arabia (20%), Angola (12.3%), Iran (11%), Russia (7.8%) and Oman 7.2%). This is what I call the ‘Chinese Octopus’ and why I think that Middle East concerns clearly matter for China.
Tensions are intensifying, since Saudi Arabia launched the air campaign on March 26 to try to contain the Houthis and restore President Hadi, who has fled Aden for refuge in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). The Houthis now control the capital Sana’a and have advanced on the southern city of Aden. According to the World Heath Organisation, 550 people have been killed and 1,800 injuries since March 19. See chart below for Houthis’ progress in Yemen.
(Source: American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project)
As you can see it in the map below, another opposing group is AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) which opposes both the Houthis and President Hadi.
ISIS is also present there, though still small, and opposes the government, the Houthis and AQAP.
(Source: American Enterprise Institute)
Helen Lackner (2014), Why Yemen Matters.
Peter Salisbury (Feb 2015), Yemen and the Saudi-Iranian ‘Cold War’