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Imperialism and the Saudi-led assault on Yemen

The national democratic Houthi uprising strengthens the camp of resistance in the Middle East
Commentary by staff |
February 7, 2016
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U.S. backed Saudi attack on Yemen is causing widespread destruction.
U.S. backed Saudi attack on Yemen is causing widespread destruction.

Saudi Arabia's vicious assault on the people of Yemen continues nearly one year after its initiation - and there's no obvious end in sight. In March 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition largely made up of the other reactionary monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) launched a military intervention in Yemen. Called Operation Decisive Storm, this intervention began as a response to the overthrow of Yemen's corrupt government by the popular Houthi insurgency.

To date, Operation Decisive Storm has left over 2800 Yemeni civilians - many of them children - dead, and displaced thousands. For all the carnage and brutality, though, Saudi Arabia's intervention comes from a place of weakness, not strength. And in the face of mass popular resistance and widespread international opposition, the operation has fared poorly for Saudi Arabia and its imperialist backers.

As monopoly capitalism plunges the world deeper into crisis, the U.S. and its partners like Saudi Arabia lash out in increasingly brutal ways to maintain control of the oil-rich region and these actions spark fierce resistance by the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East. The Houthi uprising in Yemen is part of this camp of resistance and the Saudi-led military intervention speaks to the eroding rule of imperialism in the region.

Yemen's revolutionary history

Yemen has a vibrant history of resistance to foreign domination. Because of its strategic location in the Gulf of Aden, Yemen drew the attention of both the British and Ottoman empires, which colonized and divided it into a north and south territory in 1904. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Britain continued to exercise control over Yemen through corrupt rulers and sultanates – not unlike the U.S.'s relationship to the Gulf monarchies today. However, in 1962, nationalist forces in the northern Yemen, inspired and supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser's anti-colonial government in Egypt, overthrew the British and Saudi-backed monarchy and proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic in its place.

This rebellion spread to southern Yemen in 1963, when communists and nationalists united to form the National Liberation Front of Yemen (NLF) and launched an armed struggle for liberation. Facing defeat, Britain granted independence to South Yemen in 1964 and withdrew from the country entirely two years later. The new NLF government immediately proclaimed itself the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1970, aligned with the Soviet Union and set itself the goal of building socialism.

For the next 20 years, Yemen remained divided – a capitalist north and a national democratic, leftist south – until the PDRY agreed to a unification proposal in 1990. For the vast majority of the Yemeni people, however, unification proved economically disastrous. Per capita income for Yemeni workers dropped 10% between 1989 and 1993. In the same period, prices for food and basic goods skyrocketed, unemployment reached 25% and nearly one in three Yemenis lived in poverty.

While the majority suffered extreme hardships from unification, the small class of wealthy in the north made dramatic gains in this period by privatizing the south's socialized industries, confiscating peasant land and stealing oil revenue from government coffers. This unified Yemeni government, led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, also aligned itself closely with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, generating popular discontent and protest. After the outbreak of a brief civil war in the south by former PDRY elements, Saleh's government heavily repressed the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) to eliminate any challenge to its rule.

The Houthi insurgency and the national democratic revolution

Shortly thereafter, Saleh's government faced another challenge to its rule – this time from the north. The Houthi insurgency began in 2004 among the rural Shi'a populations living in northern Yemen, who make up about a third of the entire country. Yemen's Shi'a communities faced extreme poverty and persecution from Saleh since before reunification. Influenced by the liberation theology of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the Houthis formed with the goal of driving out U.S. imperialism, Saudi domination and their puppet rulers.

Triggered in part by the wave of Arab uprisings in 2011, the Houthis joined with other popular forces in Yemen to drive Saleh out of power. Fearing the loss of Yemen as a neo-colony, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia installed another puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, in his place. Hadi's government continued the corrupt economic policies of Saleh and abandoned the political reforms agreed to by opposition forces. Hadi, like Saleh, also allowed the U.S. free reign to conduct drone strikes throughout the country.

The crisis in Yemen reached a boiling point in 2014, when Houthi rebels stormed the presidential palace in Sanaa, the country's capital, and placed Hadi under house arrest. Having seized state power and having begun laying the ground for an inclusive democratic republic, the Houthi government immediately came under military siege by the Saudi-led GCC coalition.

The empire strikes back

On the whole, this intervention has not gone well for Saudi Arabia. It began as an aerial bombing campaign, but the Saudi-led coalition eventually committed ground troops to directly fight Houthi forces. The coalition has experienced high casualties and it has largely failed to unseat the Houthis from country's populated urban centers.

Furthermore, these attacks on Yemen have forged a large united front of unlikely partners. In May 2015, deposed President Saleh and a large section of Yemen's national military announced an alliance with the Houthi insurgency aimed at defeating the Saudi-led coalition. Although Saleh ruled Yemen as an ally of the U.S. before popular protests forced his resignation in 2012, he has come out in support of the national democratic forces resisting foreign intervention.

Saudi Arabia faces widespread international opposition to its campaign in Yemen, largely owing to the many documented atrocities committed by coalition forces. An as-of-yet-unpublished U.N. panel report from January found evidence of “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians by coalition forces, including “bombing residential neighborhoods” and “treating the entire cities of Sa’dah and Maran as military targets.”

While not actively engaged in combat, the U.S. stands firmly behind this vicious war on Yemen. From their perspective, a Houthi-led national democratic government in Yemen would oppose U.S. drone strikes and counter Western aggression toward the camp of resistance. As Saudi Arabia's main supplier of weapons, warplanes and military equipment to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, U.S. imperialism literally makes the entire assault possible.

Crisis and resistance in the Arabian peninsula

U.S. imperialism is in a period of deep crisis, particularly in the Middle East. The occupation of Iraq ended in defeat for the U.S. and the occupation government it left to govern now leans towards Iran. Its attempts to destabilize the national democratic governments of Iran and Syria have failed. Popular democratic forces in countries like Bahrain and Yemen shook, and in some cases overthrew, long-standing puppet governments.

At the center of these victories are the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East, which comprise a camp of resistance. Anchored by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the camp of resistance includes the Syrian Arab Republic, Hezbollah and the patriotic forces of Lebanon, the Palestinian liberation organizations and other allied national democratic movements in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's attack on Yemen reflects its growing desperation and weakening ability to project influence in the region. Along with the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in toppling the Syrian government in order to strike a blow against Iran – its largest competitor for regional influence. The failure to overthrow Assad – due in part to intervention by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia – and its inability to control the anti-Assad opposition groups like Islamic State speak to the sharply declining influence of Saudi Arabia.

As an anachronistic religious monarchy built by imported migrant labor and the craven exploitation of natural resources, the House of Saud's wealth masks its vulnerability to crises in imperialism. Fearing an increase of U.S. domestic oil production, the Saudi monarchy flooded the world market with cheap oil, which further drove down falling energy prices. As a result, the country faces a widening deficit from the decline in oil revenues and eroding investor confidence by imperialist powers.

The Saudi monarchy increasingly reacts to this deepening crisis with brutal and disproportionate political repression. Opposition movements terrify the House of Saud, which promotes anti-Shi'a sectarianism to drum up support for aggression against Iran. This fear fuels increasingly drastic actions, like the execution of Shi'a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 other dissidents and prisoners, at the start of 2016.

Saudi Arabia exaggerates the level of Iranian support for the Houthi insurgency. Iranian officials have expressed solidarity with the Houthis as part of the camp of resistance. Reports indicate that they have provided weapons to the insurgents in response to the GCC's brutal onslaught. Facing the looming threat of U.S. and Israeli aggression, Iran has an obvious interest in seeing anti-imperialist movements like the Houthis come to power because it strengthens the camp of resistance.

However, the Houthi insurgency is not a proxy army of Iran like the Western media portrays. It's a popular movement with strong roots among the Yemeni people, who have had enough brutality inflicted on them by imperialist powers. And their stand in the face of unrelenting attacks deserves our support and solidarity.

inspector