Reprinted from Dispatches From The Edge
While the ostensible rationale for Saudi Arabia's recent intrusion into Yemen is that the conflict is part of a bitter proxy war with Iran, the coalition that Riyadh has assembled to intervene in Yemen's civil war has more in common with 19th Century Europe than the Middle East in the 21st.
When the 22-member Arab League came together at Sharm el Sheikh on March 28 and drew up its plan to attack Houthi forces currently holding Yemen's capital, Sanaa, the meeting bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar gathering of monarchies at Vienna in 1814. The leading voice at the Egyptian resort was Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. His historical counterpart was Prince Klemens von Metternich, Austria's foreign minister, who designed the "Concert of Europe" to insure that no revolution would ever again threaten the monarchs who dominated the continent.
More than 200 years divides those gatherings, but their goals were much the same: to safeguard a small and powerful elite's dominion over a vast area.
There were not only kings represented at Sharm el Sheikh. Besides the foreign ministers for the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, and Jordan -- most of the Arab League was there, with lots of encouragement and support from Washington and London. But Saudi Arabia was running the show, footing the bills, and flying most the bombing raids against Houthi fighters and refugee camps.
The Yemen crisis is being represented as a clash between Iran and the Arab countries, and part of ongoing tension between Sunni and Shiite Islam. The League accuses Iran of overthrowing the Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, using the Shiite Houthis as their proxies. But the civil war in Yemen is a long-running conflict over access to political power and resources, not religion, or any attempt by Iran to spread its influence into a strategic section of the Arabian Peninsula. And the outcome, as long-time Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, is likely the spread of sectarian warfare throughout the region.
The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shiites, but of the Zaydi variety, not one that many Iranians would even recognize. And while the Houthis have been at war with the central government off and on since 1992, the issues are profane, not sacred.
Yemen -- about the size of France, with 25 million people -- is the poorest nation in the Middle East, with declining resources, an exploding population, and a host of players competing for a piece of the shrinking pie. Unemployment is above 40 percent and water is scarce. Oil, the country's major export, is due to run out in the next few years.
The country is also one of the most fragmented in the region, divided between the poorer north and the richer, more populous, south, and riven by a myriad of tribes and clans. Until 1990 it was not even one country, and it took a fratricidal civil war in 1994 to keep it unified. There is still a strong southern secession movement.