In the face of the vast devastation inflicted on them by the Saudi-led war and despite myriad divisions within Yemeni society, Yemenis "commemorated" the first anniversary of the war by manifesting their solid national identity. On Saturday, 26 March 2016, two separate mass demonstrations were organized in Sana'a: The first in the morning, by the General People's Congress (GPC) headed by the autocratic former President Ali Abdullah Saleh; the second in the afternoon by the Zaidi minority Houthis.
The demonstrations against the Saudi-led war that for a year has been trying to force Yemeni political balances makes clear not only the illegitimate nature of the war, but also the strong national consciousness and pride of the Yemeni people. Saleh's many supporters held up images of the former president. Saleh himself, conscious of the failure of the Saudi military campaign, loudly chanted anti-Saudi slogans, at the same time sending a political message in various directions, as if to say: The Saudis have failed, and I am here again with my supporters, I am an undeniable political force. Saleh showed himself a skilled political/geopolitical gambler who cannot be excluded from the political process.
Likewise, the Houthis by their massive demonstration have shown themselves to be integral to Yemeni political life and not to be ignored. A minority, yes, but deeply rooted in Yemeni history and politics, whose military skill and effectiveness have been resisted Saudi aggression and even attacked the Saudi provinces of Najran and Jizzan with some degree of success. The Houthi demonstrators were probably less harshly critical of the Saudis after the announcement of a partial ceasefire, a prisoner swap, and relative calm along the Saudi border. If the Houthi criticism was somewhat milder, perhaps it was also because Kuwait is attempting to mediate between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday 27 March, there was yet another demonstration in Aden, the southern port city, where a number of supporters of the still internationally recognized Saudi-backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi gathered. According to Atlantic Council: "As Saudi Arabia asserts the laughable claim that its Hadi-allied forces control 95 percent of Yemen, only meager crowds turned out in Aden on Sunday for its own event..." Riding the wave of the Arab Spring, President al-Hadi was elected with more than 90% of the vote. When his mandated presidential term was to end, a commission headed by himself proclaimed its continuation. He was, however, unable to mediate effectively among the various Yemeni political forces in a framework of national unity to put an end to the civil war. After Houthi militia and forces loyal to the former autocratic President Saleh reached Sana'a, he retreated first to Aden, and later fled to shelter in Riyadh, where he asked the Saudis to intervene militarily.
The massive anti-war protests in Sana'a, even as coalition bombers flew overhead, pose serious questions about the degree to which the war against this poorest but most populous country of the Arabian Peninsula is illegitimate. The war on Yemen has lasted over a year already, and the devastating bombardments have brought the population to the brink of famine and starvation. With more than 6000 victims, most of them among civilians, and 2.5 million driven from their homes, the Saudi carpet bombing has debilitated the already weak infrastructures of Yemeni society. More than 80% of the populace lack basic necessities like water and medical services.
Newborn infants starve to death within a few months. The U.N. estimates that four-fifths of the population is in need of basic assistance, but the Saudi-led blockade of air, land, and sea has obstructed even humanitarian aid, with the distinct smell of war crimes. Yet, in the face of protests from international rights organizations, despite the immense human and material costs of the war and the clear impossibility of a military resolution, the Saudis continue their bombing. Saudi Arabia contends that its war, denominated Decisive Storm, aims to counter alleged Iranian interference in Yemen; al-Hadi claims the Houthis are Iranian proxies, an assertion that has faced skepticism from authoritative Western experts. Rather, the war may be considered as the product of the Saudi Kingdom moving from a conservative prudent political posture to authoritarianism based on interventionism, a process that began with the ascension to the throne of the conservative King Salman. The king appointed his ambitious son Mohammad bin Salman as Defense Minister and sum controller of all economic levers of the Kingdom, a kind of center of gravity of power. According to analysts, the old king holds frequent meetings with ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who require holy war against any aspect of modernity, command violent jihadi proselytization against other faiths, consider the internal currents of Islam such as Shia as heretical, and back the enslavement of women. This shift persists despite continuing criticism from the international community and world leaders such as US President Obama.
Meanwhile, the ambitious Defense Minister (not yet 30 years old) diverts the Kingdom's wealth, strategizing with his generals how best to conduct the war. To seize control at any cost: Even carpet-bombing that hits civilian centers, even hiring mercenaries and subsidizing certain Yemeni tribes - "allies" bought and paid for; and yet, for all that, up to now the result, according to expert observers, has been near starvation for the Yemeni people, and empowerment of terrorist groups like Daesh (ISIL, ISIS, IS) and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Indeed, large swaths of Southern Yemen have come under the control of terrorist groups who are even able to operate in Aden where the Saudis have re-installed al-Hadi.
Saudi Arabia's most powerful weapons are its Petrodollars. These weapons of cash destruction fund its world-wide chain of madrassas and mosques that promulgate Wahhabist dogma and empower, wittingly or unwittingly, ideologically similar groups (al-Qaeda and Daesh); additionally, Saudi Petrodollars could buy allies, making for a highly unstable coalition. According to experts, not one of Saudi Arabia's objectives has been realized, while in Yemen and elsewhere the Kingdom is burning its foreign reserves at an impressive pace. Meanwhile, the crowds in Sana'a are evidence the Saudi military campaign has driven the diverse Yemeni groups towards more cohesiveness, pride and national identity.
The Saudis have undertaken an unwinnable war. Yemen is the poorest but most populous country of the Arabian Peninsula, with a tribal structure. It has suffered years of civil war and now a war imposed by foreign powers. A military solution is impossible; only a diplomatic settlement could lead to a viable, enduring political balance capable of marginalizing terrorism and guaranteeing security.
In consideration of the harsh conditions in the region and competitiveness among the various regional players, such a diplomatic initiative could best emanate from the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, a debate should be opened on the implementation and rebalancing of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 to promote a dialogue on Yemen, along with direct negotiations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The self-proclaimed would-be Caliph al-Baghdadi has already declared his intention of conquering Mecca and deposing the Saudi "snake" - a clear and direct threat to the Saudi Kingdom. International institutions should push harder for negotiations among all Yemeni parties and should help Saudi Arabia extricate itself from the quagmire before being overwhelmed by increasing deficits and the expansion of Daesh and AQAP.