Even before the Gulf struck, Yemen was suffocating

Critics of the coalition strikes against the Houthi rebels have to answer one question, says Faisal Al Yafai: what was the outlook for Yemen at one minute to midnight last Wednesday?

Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, hold up their weapons to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
Powered by automated translation

Any announcement of military action usually brings out the armchair generals and the armchair pacifists. Both have made their appearances on television networks and social media since fighter jets began bombing Houthi targets in Yemen.

Criticism of the decision to assemble an anti-Houthi coalition has ranged from the suggestion that Saudi Arabia was interfering in the affairs of its neighbour, that the military attack would embroil Egypt in another prolonged conflict (memories of its 1963 war in Yemen all over again), to the rather outlandish argument that the Houthis represent a popular revolution.

But critics of the Gulf’s military action in Yemen have to answer one question: what was the outlook for Yemen’s future at one minute to midnight last Wednesday?

It is certainly true that, at midnight when Saudi Arabia’s fighter jets began bombing raids, the trajectory of Yemen’s post-revolution transition changed. Indeed, I suspect we will look back at that moment as the beginning of a new phase of Arab intervention.

But the question the critics have to answer is on what trajectory was the transition before?

Because the political outlook on Wednesday was certainly not positive. The GCC-backed transition, imperfect though it was, at least provided a road map. It certainly provided a more consensual approach than that offered by a militia from Yemen’s north. There was, let’s be clear, no Houthi prescription for Yemen’s people, only a power grab.

Military intervention is hard. Reshaping a political landscape with explosives always creates unintended consequences – and concealed behind the politician’s phrase “unintended consequences” is a reality of broken bodies and destroyed buildings.

Yet military action is sometimes necessary to stop something worse: the slow suffocation of a country leads to an inevitable consequence. The idea that military action is always and everywhere wrong is a dangerous fallacy.

In particular, in Yemen, it ignores the fact that the Houthi takeover was, in itself, a military intervention.

It may have taken longer, it may have been framed in terms of “popular legitimacy”, but the principle was the same. A small group was seeking to undermine the political framework of the transition, and doing so without any oversight or legitimacy.

With or without the Saudi intervention, the political transition of Yemen was being altered.

Remember that the Houthis entered Sanaa by force of arms – they were not carried there by the popular will of the people. It was not the Yemeni people who installed Mohammed Al Houthi in the republican palace in Sanaa in February – it was the guns of his militia.

The dissolution of parliament, the arrest of the president, the forming of a new ruling committee – none of these were done in consultation with anyone but the Houthis themselves.

It is right to question military action, but criticising the military action as changing the direction of Yemen is rather like beginning a football match commentary at half-time. The game was already in motion.

Critics of the intervention are only looking at the situation at the moment and ignoring the context of how we got here. In particular, they are ignoring the alternative trajectory – what would have happened had the Houthi advanced been allowed to continue.

Because the Houthi’s march to Sanaa, their takeover of the capital, and then their march south through Taez towards Aden was not to enforce the popular will of the Yemeni people, it was to pressure Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi into capitulating to their demands.

How, precisely, was the “popular will” of Yemen served by bombing Mr Hadi’s home in Aden? How would Yemen’s post-revolution transition be facilitated by Mr Hadi’s assassination?

Were the Gulf states meant to sit back and watch as a militia backed by a regional rival set about dismantling the transition plan they drafted?

Because that is what the situation in Yemen looked like at one minute to midnight on Wednesday. The choice in Riyadh was to either let that scenario play out, or seek to alter it to something better.

No one can predict the progression of a war. But Yemen’s transition was being choked last week. With planning, with political will, and with a lot of luck, it may just have a chance to breathe again.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai